Keeping it simple is key to low-labour success

Up to 1200 head of finishing cattle, a telehandler and just one man – it sounds impossible, but for Wilts-based livestock manager Ben Sollis it’s the norm.

“Keeping the system simple and having just one man is the only way to make the figures stack up,” says Mr Sollis, who manages a beef finishing unit for the Down Ampney Beef Company, near Cricklade.

In just two years the farm has gone from being a redundant dairy unit to a profitable beef enterprise finishing up to 1200 head of cattle a year, averaging net margins of £60 a head. And the key to that has been simplicity.

The opportunity came up in 2004 to lease the redundant unit and because of its locality – access to straw and reared calves from the south-west – it was decided cattle finishing would be best.

“We had to go for a system that guaranteed a return on investment and one that needed few alterations.”

One building has been converted into an induction unit, holding 220 calves.

Calves come in at 12 weeks old from dedicated rearers and spend two months there before being moved to finishing pens.

“This acts as a health monitoring unit and gives calves time to adjust to the diet.”

Poor performance here will ultimately affect net margins, so it’s vital calves have a perfect integration by remaining in the same rearing and finishing groups throughout their life, he adds.

Providing plenty of fresh bedding and keeping water troughs clean are also high on Mr Sollis’ agenda.

“Troughs are regularly emptied and once calves have been moved the whole pen is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.”

And although the unit has a low mortality of just 2.3%, on the advice of independent housing consultant John Huges, Mr Sollis says there are still adjustments to be made to prevent pneumonia.

“We’ve already removed a layer of bricks from the sides of the building, but are thinking of installing fans to further improve air flow.”

With just one man on the unit, its vital health issues are minimal.

“Most of my day is taken up by feeding and checking cattle, so stopping to inject for pneumonia is time I don’t have.”

After two months in the induction unit, calves are moved to either outside yards or loose pens inside.

The four silage clamps make for great outside yards, holding up to 80 cattle each and grain silos with feeders built underneath them, means feeding is relatively easy, he says.

“I simply have to pull a leaver to fill up troughs.”

But for this simple approach to be effective the diet must be perfect.

“We feed a pre-mixed blend of 60% cereals consisting crushed wheat and barley with the remaining 40% made up from molasses and vitamins, particularly high levels of vitamin E.”

And by using the silos Mr Sollis monitors how much each pen of cattle eat, with bulls currently averaging 2.4t every 300 days, about 8kg a day.

Machinery use is also kept to a minimum with just a telehandler and straw chopper on site.

“For my safety alone the straw chopper is ideal for bedding bulls, as it means minimum contact, but for the outside yards I simply place a bale in the pens and let cattle bed themselves.”

Both Continental cross heifers and black-and-white bulls are finished outside, but it’s the heifers that appear to suit outside conditions.

“Once the first batch of heifers has been slaughtered growth rates and carcass grades will be compared and it may be worthwhile to just have heifers in the outside yards and bulls housed indoors,” he says.

Targeting weight gains and monitoring performance is vital to the success of the enterprise, he adds.

Both outside yards and indoor pens are linked to a central handling facility whereby each pen of cattle is weighed every six weeks.

The beauty of this system is that it’s constructed in the old cubicle yard from old gates from the dairy, so was relatively cheap to put in place.

“Budget for the handling system was £10,000, so the reminder will now be spent on electronic ID.”

Although some producers would question the importance of weighing, particularly with only one member of staff on the farm, Mr Sollis says it’s this procedure that guarantees return.

“Everything is linked to my laptop so when I’m weighing cattle growth rates, feed conversion efficiency, feed cost of gain and margins are also calculated.

The aim is to average daily liveweight gains of 1.35kg, with 300 days taken to slaughter.”

The last batch of bulls averaged 267kg deadweight in the 300-day window, grading O- or O+3.

“We haven’t slaughtered a batch of heifers yet, but I’m confident they will hit a target of 260kg deadweight and grade O+ to R4L.”