Experts give the low-down on beef enterprise

Is organic right for our land? Can my breeding policy be improved? How can my overhead costs be halved? These were among the questions posed by Andrew Allan to independent consultant David Hendy and 2005 Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year Mike Powley, as he allowed them to scrutinise his beef enterprise in front of an audience of farmers last week at an event organised by EBLEX and Farmers Weekly.

Expressing their thoughts on how the business could move forward, they left Mr Allan with plenty to ponder. He was also left in a positive frame of mind after being assured that his extensive organic system was the best system to have, despite rising feed costs.

Mr Powley calculated a difference of £49,000 a year between conventional and organic beef. “Mr Allan was basically running an organic system before converting, so he may as well take advantage of the extra costs for the added value of this niche product,” said Mr Powley.

“Although Mr Allan already meets the tight specifications of Dovecote Park, his current processor, he could give himself a tighter target to aim at.

“The key is keeping it simple. The farm carries 200 South Devon cows, of which 160 are pure South Devon and 40 are South Devon x Hereford. Of the pure cows, two-thirds are put to a South Devon and one-third to a Hereford. The rest are crossed to Salers bulls.

“My suggestion would be to run two herds – a pure herd of elite South Devons to produce suckler replacements and a herd of South Devons put to Salers bulls. Salers are clean and well muscled, helping to hit the required specification.

“EBVs are an essential breeding tool proven to get profit. Mr Allan should continue to use EBVs, but should be looking for other traits, such as maternal ability and ease of calving. Bulls should be in the top 10% of the breed for the traits mentioned. This may mean using AI or buying bulls which are in the top 10% of the breed. It is also critical that he continues fertility testing bulls, after finding his main stock bull this year was sub-fertile.”

A member of the audience asked whether Mr Allan was breeding polled South Devons, to which he replied no. Mr Powley then added: “Although breeding polls saves about £3 an animal on labour, the production figures for polled animals are less, possibly costing several hundred pounds for every cow in lost production.

“Costing out alternatives is paramount,” he said. “It’s like Mr Allan’s low capital housing, which consists of several straw yards. When we asked how many bales he was using in winter and the cost for a bale, it worked out at £44.80 a cow.

“So, although capital cost may be low, running costs may be high. We suggest Mr Allan looks into alternative bedding, such as woodchip, utilising the 1000-acre woodland on the estate.”

Also stressing the importance of home-grown produce was independent consultant David Hendy. He said producers should be looking at the whole production cycle, analysing what can be produced on farm, particularly feed.

“Rumen development and rumen management is the only thing we have real control over. Mr Allan gets plentiful protein from the rich clover swards and has sufficient forage, but can’t grow energy because of the farm’s extensity. Due to rising feed costs, it’s even more important to try to be more self-sufficient and insular.

“Mr Allan has in the past been finishing at 18 months, but for this system a lot of money would be spent on bought-in concentrates. I suggest a 24-month-old system would allow home-grown produce such as wheat and barley to be used better, reducing bought-in products.

“Using unproductive land better by planting drought-busting crops and having a specific grassland strategy can focus your attention. One thing Mr Allan needs to focus attention on is weed control. Due to the organic status, docks and ragwort must be controlled.

“Setting targets for your business is essential to focus attention. Monitoring is also needed to follow progress. Mr Allan takes a lot of records, such as animal weights and feed records, and needs to use them as a management tool to improve performance. Calculating costs such as weaned weight costs can concentrate and motivate producers to cut costs elsewhere. Use technology to do this and react to the figures you calculate.

Mr Hendy concluded by telling the audience that organic was not just about the environmental and ecological aspects, it was also about the philosophical. “The most important thing for Mr Allan is to continue to believe in organic, which will help keep him in it,” he said.