Farmer Focus: Times are changing for suckler industry

As a family, we have recently decided to sell the suckler herd in favour of contract-rearing heifers for a local dairy farmer.

From our point of view, it makes financial sense as external factors outside of our control, such as the volatile market, are eroding margins on what was a profitable enterprise for our business.

See also: Suckler herd saves £100 a calf by focusing on grassland

About the author

Joe Mault
Livestock Farmer Focus writer
Joe Mault and his family run 850 commercial ewes and 60 suckler cows across 155ha (380 acres) near Corwen, north Wales. The farm produces Beltex and Charollais prime lambs and Charolais-cross store cattle and Joe also works at a local college.
Read more articles by Joe Mault

I think the small suckler herds in Wales will get closer to extinction and only the larger-scale ones will have a chance of survival because of their scale and the volume of beef they produce.

However, I can certainly see the dairy-beef enterprises still having some potential.

With optimism, we are looking forward to having the dairy heifers, but obviously this will be different to what we have been used to.

That said, prior to 2001, we used to milk our own dairy herd, so we are familiar with the requirements needed to raise dairy heifers.

Although a financially sensible decision, there is an emotional aspect to this change in our setup. After all, these aren’t our cattle now on our farm.

The suckler cows we sold were cows we had known for several years, and we had become attached to them.

For example, we had some pedigree Welsh Black cattle that were given to me as a 30th birthday present from my parents.

I do feel for the suckler cow, though, because she can raise high-quality beef. She just costs too much to maintain through the year.

In our view, there are better options available to us, and we shouldn’t be restricted by tradition or sentimental connections to the suckler herd.

Welsh government policy is to encourage cattle in the uplands to help improve biodiversity and tackle climate change.

However, the cattle in these areas will probably not be suckler cattle, but the dairy-beef type or dairy heifer rearing enterprises.

This change has been happening for several years. You only have to drive around Wales and count how many suckler herds you now see compared with 15 years ago.

You will certainly see cattle in the uplands, but not the types promoted by the Welsh government in their glossy posters. As Bob Dylan once sang: “The times they are a-changin”.