FW Awards 2011: Beef Farmer of the Year finalist – Ed Williams

Ed Williams, Narracombe Farm, Ilsington, Devon

From two Friesian bull calves given as a Christmas present by his parents when he was just eight years old, Ed Williams now manages 162ha (400 acres) and more than 350 head of cattle in the heart of the Dartmoor National Park.

Concluding that he did not want to follow in his parents’ footsteps as pub landlords, Ed began buying his first South Devon calves in 1988, building up from the original two to more than 100 sucklers and 253 followers.

Most cows are homebred South Devon or South Devon crosses, with a South Devon bull used mainly to breed replacement females and a British Blonde used to produce fast-growing cross-bred finishing cattle – with most animals finished by two years old and achieving high weights and grades. Heifers are also AI’d to Aberdeen Angus to ensure easy calving and more saleable offspring.

Spring-born bulls are fattened by the age of 16 months on rolled barley and dry silage, while spring-born heifers and steers are weaned just before a year old and grazed until 20-22 months before being finished on rolled barley, wholecrop and silage. And bulls sent under 16 months are clearing £259 gross margin.

But life hasn’t always been easy for this first-generation farmer who began renting Naracombe Farm more than 20 years ago. He even admits that five years ago, walking away was a realistic option, with bovine TB, rising input costs and the threat of an end to Single Farm Payments piling on the pressure.

Since then he has tackled the challenges thrown at him and now runs an efficient unit turning over more than £40,000 gross profit a year, with the decision to turn organic back in the “harder days” certainly one of his saving graces.

“The past five years during organic conversion has allowed me to trial things to see what works and what doesn’t without subsidy. It has allowed me to cut costs and, even if I don’t stay in organic when the conversion period ends next year, there are certain things I will never go back to doing,” says Ed.

He says he will never spread artificial fertiliser again, even if he was running a conventional unit, and believes if he can continue finishing all animals off quality grass and at the right time of year he can still make a profit without Single Farm Payments.

Ed’s grassland management is key to the success of his enterprise. He invested in a new slurry store four years ago which cost £18,000-20,000 using secondhand equipment. Despite not being in an NVZ, having this extra storage has allowed him to manage his manure better and the only reason Ed really brings the cows in is “so I can fill the slurry pit up with valuable fertiliser”.

Land is also soil tested every three years and P+K tested more regularly. He also runs a planned grazing system on a rotational basis, and creep grazes the calves on better grass in order to fatten them up. Clover is also crucial in the swards, with deep tap roots giving grazing late into the summer. This also produces higher protein grass for ensiling and red clover used recently has also helped build fertility on the land.

Building up herd health has also been an important aspect of the business surviving the last five years, particularly in relation to bovine TB. Ed has been trying to combat other health issues such as BVD and Johnes by joining the Herdsure scheme, to ensure cattle immune systems are at their best to deal with TB. And maybe his immunity theory is working, with two recent TB tests coming back clear, ending seven years and nine months of restrictions.

Simple techniques such as seldom weaning calves has also reduced the risk of summer mastitis, with many cows weaning the calves naturally “It costs £98 for every case of summer mastitis, so this definitely helps keep health up and costs down,” he says.

But Ed isn’t only on top of his technical management, he is also smart when it comes to marketing his cattle. At present, cattle are marketed deadweight due to TB restrictions. He is also adding value through Dartmoor Farmers, where he is director, giving a good market for native bred stock. “There are also no penalties for conformation and it gives us a foot in the door for local markets,” he says.

Average steer and heifer carcasses weigh 324kg deadweight at 26 months, with 32% grading U, 51% of cattle achieving an R and the remaining cattle receiving an O grade. Bull beef sold before 16 months old average 66% grading U and 33% an R grade. “We are always aiming for higher grades with cattle, which is why we continue to buy better bulls and base our decisions on EBV’s.”

Together with active graziers on two areas of common land on Dartmoor, he has also devised a new trial agreement based on environmental self targets and self monitoring, which they hope will replace HLS agreements in the future. “We are waiting now for a decision from the RPA, but we hope this will allow us to better manage the land.”

With more challenges ahead such as rising costs, TB and CAP reform, Ed still remains positive above the future. He has cut costs already by becoming more self sufficient and he believes the secret to surviving is ‘remaining adaptable’.

Business facts

• 106 sucklers, 253 followers

• Mainly pure South Devon and South Devon crosses

• Organic

What the judges liked

• Good grassland management

• Remains adaptive and has good working relationship with his staff

• Has more than one string to his bow by targeting different markets



2011 Farmers Weekly Awards

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