Put your business hat on to boost beef production

Identifying a niche market, keeping a close eye on overheads and focusing on being profitable without a reliance on subsidies are the key objectives in a new farmer’s beef enterprise.

And for London businessman Alex Smith, this focus has been instrumental in the set-up and development of his 261ha beef unit at Park and East Moor Farms, Wykeham, Scarborough.

Trading under the name of Overdale Farms, the enterprise, which carries 40 pedigree Longhorn cows and 80 commercial Beef Shorthorn cross continental cows, is managed by Michael Cleasby.

The farm is a key supplier to the Ginger Pig specialist chain of rare-breed butchers, which Mr Smith is a shareholder in, as well as a supplier of Beef Shorthorn cross continental beef to the Morrisons supermarket chain as part of its native breeds scheme, which offers a 20p/kg premium.

“To start from scratch without any equity would be very difficult, but I was in a privileged position to have the money to invest. And even though I was the investor, I still had my own business plan,” explains Mr Smith.

“We took on the farm in November 2005, and then had to spend a year just sorting it out with infrastructure and boreholes. We spent a lot of money on it, and have worked on the basis that if you put in the right infrastructure and the right animals, then you should be able to make money from it.

Tips for efficiency
  • Manage your calving pattern to optimise use of labour

  • Consider the use of a straw chopper for bedding

  • Buy the best cattle you can and concentrate on their health and fertility rates

  • Pick something you can sell for a premium price if you are a smaller farmer

  • Don’t buy any machinery you don’t need

  • Keep everything clean and disinfected to avoid the spread of disease

  • Only buy in animals with high health status

  • Work closely with your vet to develop a health plan

  • Record everything and have protocols in place as a form of “disaster recovery”

“But before we started, it was important we had a proper market for the meat; we did the Longhorns because we knew we could sell them at retail for the Ginger Pig, and then we brought in the Beef Shorthorn cross as a complementary English breed to the Longhorns.”

He describes the enterprise as a “halfway house between rare breed and commercial” in order to spread the risk and avoid too much exposure to the rare breeds market.

Farming without subsidies

Despite being a recipient of the single farm payment through the entry level scheme, Mr Smith gets no historical level payments and says farmers need to learn to survive in an environment without subsidies.

He says: “Subsidies haven’t subsidised farmers, they’ve subsidised consumers, and it’s going to take a revolution for this to change. That’s why for me, I didn’t go into commercial stock and we produce something specialist, for which we can command a better price.”

The science of the system is to keep the costs sensible and drive to have a high health status herd through close collaboration with the vet, and ensuring the cows have good housing and a well-produced ration, he adds.

“This approach has paid dividends in terms of fertility and that comes down to your profit. It’s all about being efficient, managing your costs extremely carefully and doing things properly. If a job needs to be done, you need to spend the right amount of money doing it properly; if you scrounge and save, the quality of your cattle will go down,” he says.

Management system

The management system at Overdale Farms is focused on being as efficient as possible through the use of home-grown forages and creating a workload designed for a one-man band.

Farm manager Michael Cleasby says the system is based around two different calving groups – spring and autumn calvers. All the Longhorn cows and half of the Beef Shorthorn cross cows are calved from February until April, while the remaining cows are calved in October.

“We used to be all spring-calving and we kept the heifers separate from the autumn herd, but now most of the autumn-calving herd are heifers and second calvers. This has made the calving easier for a one-man band, and it gives us more time to sell fat cattle throughout the year,” he says.

All cows are brought in to winter housing in the middle of December and fed a grass silage diet without any concentrates; they are then turned back out in the middle of April to be grazed off grass.

Calves born in October are given calf creep from one month old and are turned out at the same time as their mothers. They are then weaned in the middle of August and grazed on all winter. Anything that fails to get in-calf is sent away.

Mr Cleasby explains: “The heifers are about 18-20 months old when the bull goes with them, and they are given six weeks to get in-calf. We keep them longer than some people, but we are trying to get a big cow at the beginning so that if something goes wrong we have got a good cull cow to sell.”

All progeny is finished on the farm with the view of getting heifers to 320kg deadweight and bullocks to 380kg deadweight, at grade R4.

Mr Cleasby says: “We want uniformity and for the calves to be the same size so we can batch them up together. We like them to come off their mothers bigger – that’s why they get the creep feed.”

All heifers are blood tested every year for Johne’s, BVD, leptosporosis and other diseases. In addition, record-keeping is done in line with Red Tractor assurance regulations and, according to Mr Smith, this acts as a form of “disaster recovery”.

He says: “I think it’s important to have protocols in place – that comes from basic business practices – and it takes it out of being a cottage industry, dependent on the whims of the practical farmer, into a proper business.

“If we needed someone to come to the farm at the last minute to help out, everything about the animals would be written down in a book. It’s about documenting so we have a procedures manual showing how the place is operated.”

Gemma Mackenzie on G+

See more