Pick suckler breed with care

CAREFUL SELECTION of breed choice to produce a quality suckled calf will have to be the way forward for beef producers on the moors if a sustainable profit is to be made post-CAP reform.

One producer who has concentrated on breed choice to do just that is Dave Powell, who manages Chargot Estate for Marshall Farms on Exmoor.

Initially, he thought sheep would be the more profitable route post-CAP reform for the 385ha (950-acre) estate, but having geared management around quality calf production, he has decided to continue with just that.

His 220-cow herd consisting of Blonde, Limousin and Angus crosses are put to a Belgian Blue bull for spring calving. Heifers are kept and put to an Angus bull for the first year and a Charolais bull from then on.

Having a beef-bred cow will also help once the over 30-months scheme ends. “Instead of depreciation on our cows, they will be worth something. Having high quality cows will ensure better prices as well as more consistent quality calves.”

Calving pattern must also remain tight to provide consistent batches of calves, says Mr Powell. “We calve between March and early May. Anything calving later will be sold with a calf at foot.”

Creep feeding begins in June to maximise growth potential. “We start feeding early so calves become acclimatised to concentrate. When supplements are started later on they tend to gorge themselves and often scour,” he says.

Stores are sold at about six months old, normally through Cutcombe Market. “The last batch saw the best prices of £540 realised at 265kg.”

But with the removal of subsidies, he predicts suckled calf prices will have to average more than 400 to produce a profitable return. To help boost prices further, some calves are sold off the farm for showing.

Selecting cows of breeds to suit the premium market is something Philip Heard from Meldon Farm, Dartmoor, also believes is essential. Having lost a herd of Galloways to foot-and-mouth, he has since restocked with Limousin and Welsh Black cross cows.

His 300-cow herd is now bred to Charolais or Limousin bulls, with spring and autumn calving groups.

“DEFRA and English Nature are keen to keep suckler cows grazing on the hills, so we opted for a breed that could cope with rough grazing.”

calf sales

Most calves are sold during September and November, with spring calves leaving the farm at six months old and autumn calves at 12 months. “Although I am happy to sell privately off the farm, I am still keen to keep livestock markets going.” Calves are regularly sold though Tavistock and Hatherleigh markets.

Recent prices have been more than Mr Heard had budgeted for, with spring calves averaging £235 and £410 for heifers and steers, respectively, and £390 and £485 for autumn heifers and steers.

But a higher price is important to make a profit without relying on SFP, says Mr Heard. “For that to happen we must see a rise in beef price which must come back down the chain to suckled calf producers.”

Keeping costs to a minimum is also a concern. “Cows and calves are kept in slatted sheds, and autumn calving cows are housed in cubicles, helping keep straw costs low. We are also in the process of constructing woodchip corrals to save on bedding costs.”

He is optimistic there will be a future for suckled calves in the south west, but quality will have to dominate. “Breed choice will have to be carefully considered to produce a calf for the premium end of the market.”

Providing the south west can entice buyers from further afield, he is convinced there will be calves reared. “It’s all about making a name for yourself and offering a consistent product.”

But Philip Cornelius, who farms 174ha (430 acres) at Trewinnow Farm on Bodmin with his two sons feels more nervous for the future of suckled calf production in the south west.

“Without a form of compensation to encourage producers to keep suckler cows, many will change their farming enterprise,” he reckons.

Mr Cornelius has been running Hereford and Angus cross cows, but has recently opted for a more Continental input using Limousin and Simmental cross cows. “We were seeing too much Holstein influence and calves were not the standard they should be.”

But he agrees quality will be the way forward for producers to survive. “Something we have purposely tried to achieve with the change of cow and bull breed.”

His spring-calving cows are put to a Blonde bull to produce a long, lean, good-quartered calf with the autumn group calving to a Charolais. “The Charolais tends to cope with winter housing and concrete better than the Blonde,” he says.

But removal of subsidies may see the family change to a full spring-calving herd. “This will help us reduce concentrate, housing and labour costs. But it could mean increased replacement costs.”

However, not every producer can adapt to change, so Mr Cornelius feels there must be an incentive – equivalent to about £150 a cow – to keep suckler cows on the uplands. “Taking a heifer through from her own conception to producing a calf and bringing a return can take as long as three years. Although government policy can change overnight, we as producers can’t.”