Suckler farm reveals results of cost-control plan 2 years on

A Yorkshire suckler herd is sending more animals to slaughter in specification, has lifted calf output and improved grassland production.

These three gains have been made by the Prudom family at Northfields Farm near Whitby since taking part in the AHDB Strategic Farm programme.

The Prudoms aim to increase technical performance and grow cow numbers from 200- to 260-head for the same fixed costs with half a labour unit plus family labour.

See also: Beef farm targets five herd KPIs to help cut costs

They want to farm their beef cows as productively as possible on the poorer land alongside their arable operation.

Farmers Weekly caught up with Guy Prudom and consultant Ian Cairns of Agrifood Technical Services and the 5-Agri Group to find out what has worked well and what’s next to improve on.

Northfields Farm, Whitby

  • 234 Stabiliser and Simmental/Angus-cross suckler cows
  • 160-180ha arable at Northfields Farm
  • 200ha permanent pasture at Davison Farm and High Burrows Farm
  • Arable enterprise grows wheat, barley, winter beans and clover in rotation
  • Supplying 280-360kg carcasses for Dovecote Park
  • Land is medium loam to heavier land
  • All Mulgrave Estate farms
  • Guy’s father, Peter, took on the tenancy at Northfields 60 years ago.

1. More in specification

The farm finishes homegrown progeny on a ration of 8kg of crimped homegrown grain, 14kg of silage, 10kg of wholecrop beans and minerals.

The Prudoms previously struggled to hit processor specification and were penalised for overfat cattle.

Cattle were being kept at grass too long, which meant that they were being finished in the spring at 22-27 months old, when the national glut of cattle typically depresses prices.

Selling at this time meant processors weren’t taking them on time and cattle were backing up, getting overfat and overweight.

However, a few changes have propelled the farm from number 40 in Dovecote’s list of suppliers to one of the top five farms hitting specification, getting 70% away in specification, of which 12% hitting bonuses within their group.

  • Cattle are on a stricter 90- to 100-day finishing period after being on a silage grower ration or out at grass until 480-500kg liveweight.
  • Monthly weighing is now combined with a physical check of fat cover along the top line. Cattle are finished at 640kg liveweight.
  • Herd fertility improvements have helped produce more uniform batches of calves. Conception rates have lifted from 85% to 92%, while 7-14 days have been cut off the bulling period from 11-12 weeks to 10 last year.

2. Improved calf vitality and output

Calf vigour and mortality were flagged as an area of improvement to lift the number of calves weaned, which has moved closer to the 90% target.

This has been addressed by feeding a quality protein source alongside the silage, straw and mineral ration the farm has always fed in the last month of gestation.

The Prudoms treat far fewer calves in the first month of life. Pneumonia, naval ill and joint ill treatments have dropped from 15% to 2%.

Most cows are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) from a Keenan, starting with 8kg of straw and 14kg of silage freshweight from housing in November to early February.

At their third unit, the cows are fed silage behind an electric fence at the clamp face, so protein is supplied in liquid form. This is the first year this has been attempted and calf vigour is much improved.

Protein is increased for one month before calving starts in early February, starting at 0.25kg of a hi-pro soya meal and increased to 1kg a head a day. Straw is decreased proportionately to 4kg and silage is built up to appetite at around 20kg a head a day.

Mr Prudom says the diet is helping cows stay fit, calve easily, produce plenty of good-quality colostrum and also have better conception rates.

He believes this is partly because the rumen bugs are fed a good protein source, which leads to improved rumen function.

KPIs that the Prudoms would like to improve

Herd KPI 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 Target
Cost of production p/kg of beef produced 331 342 371 250
Calves born % 87 83 93 95
Cow efficiency (weaned calf eight as % of dam at 200 days) 44 43 40 50
Calves weaned % 83 75 86 90
Carcasses in specification  50% heifers, 75% steers 79% 92% overall 80% overall

3. Growing and using more grass

Back in 2018, the Prudoms’ key aim was to grow more grass by rotating cattle on smaller paddocks to shorten the winter and cut feed costs.

A pilot paddock-grazing system was trialled in 2018 with a bulling group of 50 cows and another mob was paddock-grazed in 2019.

Previously, the cattle were grazed in bulling groups but on longer weekly or fortnightly shifts. A lot of the fields were 8ha (20 acres) which were divided into four 2ha (5 acre) paddocks.

More than £6,000 was spent on fencing and troughs for two 50- to 55-cow bulling groups of cattle, a cost of about £120/ha (£50-£55/acre).

Cattle are on two-to-three day shifts on 11 paddocks, with big bale silage taken on paddocks as grass growth edges away.

This has increased grass growth by 3t dry matter (DM)/ha/year at the same fertiliser rates and has extended the grazing season by four weeks at each end.

Another 24ha is going to be put into paddocks this year. This is already in 2ha (5 acre) fields, but water infrastructure will be the biggest issue.

“I’ve nearly doubled my grass growth; I was at 6-7t DM/ha and now we’re growing 12t DM easily in some fields.”

Improvements: higher costs and lower weaning weights

Target not hit Reasons why Actions
Cost of production
(all costs for producing a weaned calf, including machinery, labour and rent)

• Buying 21 Stabiliser bulling heifers at £1,364 a head

• Estate has increased the rent

• Fencing and water trough costs higher

• Output still not maximised as herd is still growing

• Calves weaned % improving but still not at target

• Further females will be retained to hit the 260-cow-plus target to increase herd output across the same fixed cost base

• Growing more tonnes of DM/ha and lengthening the grazing season will save more on wintering costs as the herd reaches capacity and increase calf growth and quality

Cow efficiency dropped below 40%
(affected by mature cow size and the 200-day weaning weights of calves, which has not increased significantly at 287kg)

• Cow weights are still too high – cull cows are still over 800kg due to Simmental genetics

• Calf growth rates have been hit by a coccidiosis problem this year, knocking daily gains from 1.11kg to 1.09kg

• Smaller Stabiliser genetics will moderate cow size nearer 720-730kg and hopefully 700kg.

• Paddock grazing will increase pasture quality and support calf growth

• A decoquinate bucket was put out a month earlier this year to prevent and treat coccidiosis in calves

Calves weaned %
(number of calves weaned as a percentage of dams bulled)

• Number of calves weaned is still 4% short of target

• Last year, the farm lost six calves in-between four weeks old and weaning

• Protein in calving ration and easy calving genetics will help

• Actions on coccidiosis will help minimise losses at grass

• Keep up with pneumonia vaccinations and herd health scheme

*The suckler enterprise is benchmarked on cost (by AHDB Farmbench) by selling weaned calves into the growing/finishing enterprise.