Finishing cattle to a tight processing specification is no easy task, particularly when that system predominantly involves Aberdeen Angus cross heifers.
Combine that breed choice with a finishing age of no later than 18 months, a strict carcass weight of 265kg and a strong emphasis on forage-based diets and you really do have a tight system on your hands. But for Paul and Kirsty Westaway it is a reality and one that has been successfully established in just nine months.
On moving to Garmage Farm, Dymock, north Gloucester last July it was decided that alongside Mr Westaway’s full-time job working for Genus Breeding, the couple would establish Melview Farming – a beef finishing enterprise, run initially as a Blade South West pilot project. “We’re young and determined to farm profitably without relying on subsidy, so doing it on a medium scale alongside a full time job seemed a natural decision,” explains Mr Westaway.
The 100-acre farm is an ex-dairy county council holding which was in desperate need of attention when they arrived, but had buildings with the potential to rear beef calves from 12 weeks of age.
“We’ve been fortunate to have had some great financial backing from Gloucester County Council in erecting new buildings.”
So in just nine months the Westaways have transformed cattle housing, reseeded land to provide the right leys for quality forage and worked hard to establish a strong relationship with their nutritionist and processor.
Currently, the Westaways rear 125 head of cattle through Blade SW for Tesco‘s traditionally reared brand.
“Kirsty does most of the work on the farm, so the system has to be easily manageable and the Angus heifers fit well with our system and young family,” explains Mr Westaway.
Working to this strict rearing protocol also means health problems are minimised during the rearing phase, such as pneumonia. “Because calves arrive from dedicated rearers with a record of their vaccination and drug treatments, we know exactly what else is needed through out the period. Following this regime alongside proper ventilation and feeding methods, means we haven’t had a case of pneumonia so far.
“For this brand Tesco works on a six-month grazing and six-month concentrate diet as a rough rule of thumb, but we combine that with a high maize silage diet to improve growth rates and maximise meat quality and flavour,” he explains. Coupled with that is the belief that unless you have an unlimited supply of by-products, finishing beef cattle on intensive concentrate diets has a job to stack up financially.
And the ration itself is simple, he adds. “Soil type, grass and silage is analysed with readings sent to our nutritionist, Chris Bartram of Southern Valley Feeds, who calculates the exact protein requirement of the diet in relation to stage of the grazing season.”
The whole system is costed right down to water and electricity use. “Before you can begin to discuss forward price contracts with a processor, you have to know your exact costs of production. We work to a diet of 1.03t a lifetime. Costs include concentrate at £148 a head, maize silage at £18 a head, grass silage at £17.16 a head and then bedding at £9 a head assuming cattle are housed for 180 days.”
On top of that costs are included for water, vet and med, rent and limited fertiliser use (see panel). “Margin before labour is £141.31 based on a forward price contract of £2.25/kg – given for January 2008 production – for a carcass of up to 280kg, which once costs have come out leaves a net income of £594.44.”
However, if the forward price was to drop to £2/kg, the overall margin would reduce to about £70 a head and, when you consider labour cost of about £50 a head, that doesn’t leave much room for margin. “Based on our January 2008 price of £2.25/kg, we will be leaving a considerable margin, but there are more gains to be had in terms of improved calf quality and consistency,” he believes.
“Currently we’re taking Angus cross heifer calves from one dairy farm, but these calves are all from mixed bulls. I’d like Blade to push their calf producers harder to produce all calves from sires with good breeding values. This would also aid their need to produce a consistent meat product for the supermarket shelves.
“There is much to be gained from better use of genetics, but the problem is getting the calf producer to consider this, after all he won’t be the one taking advantage of the financial gains. But if we’re to push for a more consistent product which the UK supply chain is demanding then we have to start at the beginning.”