Rupert Dod, Withiel Farm, Devon
From working in Africa to flying helicopters in the USA, Rupert Dod finally settled for farming in Devon in 1996, where he initially established pedigree herds of Aberdeen Angus and South Devon cattle.
However, getting where he is today has not been easy, with BSE and TB providing challenges for this first-generation farmer. So it’s lucky Rupert “loves a challenge” adapting his system to face the hurdles head-on.
Rupert admits TB has “ruled his life” and has to some extent, driven the direction of his business. “TB has had a significant influence on our breeding system. Buying top-quality bulls that then go down with TB is financial suicide, so using top-quality AI bulls and selecting on EBVs has proved to be the best option.” Now the herd mainly consists of Aberdeen Angus, Aberdeen Angus crosses and British Blue-cross cows.
But determined not to let TB get the better of his enterprise, Rupert implemented EID-technology to assist TB testing, along with a well thought out and planned handling system consisting of a unique double yoke crush. “All finishing cattle are EID bolussed which not only means we can manage weights, but has also speeded up TB testing with one cow tested every 30 seconds. This has also taken two people out of the job,” he says.
TB restrictions also led to Rupert selling his beef through Philip Dennis Foodservice, whose customers demanded fully traceable, locally produced beef. From there the Exmoor Beef Brand was born, sourcing all cattle from within the Exmoor area. In 2010 Rupert was supplying between six and 15 cattle a week depending on demand. But with input prices rising, Rupert says he may need to scale back and explore additional alternative markets.
Carcasses weigh between 250kg-320kg, with 295kg the ideal, says Rupert. But he believes meat yield from the right cuts is more important than killing out percentages.
“We are trading with an industry that wants an eight ounce steak. The way to make money is by marketing 10-12 month old steers at 295kg weight. Meat yield in the right place is vital and we don’t want any more than 36% mince in the carcase and for homebred cattle we are killing at 59-60%,” he says.
And getting feedback from the abattoir allows Rupert to make sure he is producing a consistent product. “Having a consistent and affordable product is important to keep beef on the menu. There’s nothing better than getting feedback from your customer about your beef,” says Rupert.
However, with input costs rising, Rupert is looking at different ways to try to keep costs to a minimum. “We are making a profit at the moment. But with fixed costs standing at £250 a cow a year and variable costs going up, I need to look at ways to reduce these costs.”
He is trying to improve forage quality by incorporating red clover and lucerne in to rations. Spring born calves destined for early finishing are creep fed with a home-mixed ration from July onwards. The rest are weaned, wormed and weighed in October.
However, Rupert admits that this system is going to have to change due to the increase in protein and cereal prices, with calves previously finished on a zero forage ration of barley, oats, a protein blend and wheat straw and, just prior to finishing, crimped barley, crimped maize and straw. However, for the first time this winter, the later calves were fed a silage straw ration.
“Future feeding regimes are being carefully assessed,” says Rupert. “We are looking closely at what organic farmers are doing to see whether we can get more from the soil.” He is already targeting nitrogen use by soil testing in order to get more from his grass, while keeping fertiliser costs to a minimum.
But for future survival, Rupert believes it is important to be “realistic”. “Rising input costs mean you have to learn to adapt to different situations. You sometimes have to fight your way through, but I love the challenge,” he says.
• More than 300 cows finishing about 400 head a year
• Aberdeen Angus, Aberdeen Angus crosses and British Blue cross cows
• Marketing through Exmoor Beef brand
What the judges liked
• Overcame hard challenges including TB testing with excellently thought-out housing/handling facilities
• Use of EID technology to ease management and monitor performance
• Marketing through Exmoor beef brand
2011 Farmers Weekly Awards