FW Awards 2009: Beef Farmer of the Year finalist – David Lawton

Turning round a struggling upland beef enterprise on an upland farm which still bears the scars of World War II tank training wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of an ideal farming career, but for David Lawton it fulfilled every farming wish he had.

Originally from Lancashire, David had been running a small hill farm in Wales with his wife Hilary when he realised the enterprrise wouldn’t be able to provide for their young family. “We couldn’t have made a life on that smallholding, so had to find something else. I began looking for a job and was fortunate to be offered a position with Newton Rigg college lecturing in hill farming.”

This move the led to his current position as farm manager at Greystoke Castle Farms, Penrith, Cumbria. “One of my first students was the owner of the estate here and he offered me the post of manager. It was too good an opportunity to turn down.”

And in taking on the role David took on the challenge of turning round the farm and business, both of which he admits were in a poor state at the time. The farm was carrying 220 cows and 2200 ewes with 10 full-time staff. “It was an unsustainable proposition, so we cut the staff back to four full-time employees and have aimed to maximise the use of top quality genetics to boost output.”

But when looking for the best genetics available, David says he’s not one to be swayed by good feeding and showmanship. “I want to know what an animal can do for me and that means looking at performance recording data. All the Charolais bulls we buy are bought because they offer us the chance to make more value of the cattle we produce. As suckled calf producers that means we want high growth rates early in life and maximum performance off milk.”

When it comes to sourcing replacement females for the 280-cow herd David relies on a local dairy farm to breed him suitable Limousin cross heifers. “We know the health status of the herd and know the quality of the bulls they’re using, too, so we can rely on the quality of the heifers to be the same every year.”

Heifers are synchronised and AI’d to Limousin sires for ease of calving and are then given two natural cycles with the bull. Any heifers not in calf are culled. Cows meanwhile are all put to Charolais sires, having three cycles to take the bull.

With the herd all calving in spring David aims to sell most of the calves in one sale at Longtown each October. “We’ve built up a good following for the calves we produce and get regular feedback from the auctioneers when the stock are sold back through the market as finised animals. This feedback is vital, it helps me ensure we’re producing what the customers want and the repeat buyers we have are testament to this. We could sell some of the best calves straight from the farm, but I’d rather not let buyers cherry pick them.”

On the health front a farm health plan has been in place for the past 13 years and this has resulted in dramatic reductions in losses of between 10 and 15%. Action is taken to prevent losses from BVD, leptospirosis and Johne’s and all calves are vaccinated against pneumonia at housing.

Looking to the future, David says the farm model is running as tight as it can on the beef side and any further improvements in performance will be hard to get from more savings from fixed costs. “However, we are striving to gain production efficiencies, with clover being stitched into some swards and low maintenance Stabiliser cattle being considered as a dam line.”

Farm facts

  • 930ha LFA/SDA grassland beef and sheep farm
  • Four full-time staff
  • 245-cow Limousin cross suckler herd
  • All progeny sold as suckled calves

What the judges liked

  • “David has taken hold of the farm and improved productivity markedly in the time he’s been there and is still looking to find ways productivity and, most importantly, profitability can be improved. He has taken steps to improve stock performance and has a tight grip on herd fertility management to ensure there are no passengers being carried in the herd.”

Three achievements

  • Made the farm profitable again
  • Tightened calving pattern to aid herd management
  •  Taken time to identify the right genetics for system


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