Suckler breeding policy change for beef producer

Less hassle, increased profitability and reduced input are just some of the reasons Simon Bainbridge of Donkin Rigg Farm, Northumberland, changed the breeding policy of his 150-cow commercial suckler herd.

Mr Bainbridge, who farms in partnership with his parents and wife, made the switch from continental cattle to the Hereford and Aberdeen Angus cross – the Black Baldie – across his 640ha upland severely disadvantaged area and moorland farm, and hasn’t looked back since.

“We needed to develop a system that suited the farm, so we changed to organic and tried to create a system that was all grass- and forage-based,” he says.

Visiting herds around England and Scotland opened Mr Bainbridge’s eyes to the benefits of the Hereford breed and how it could be commercially viable for his farm.

“We wanted a smaller cow that costs less and is efficient. The Hereford was ideal, as it puts fat on easily, which aids fertility, and costs us less going through the winter. They’re also easy to manage.”

The use of the Hereford bull over Aberdeen Angus females meant Mr Bainbridge could breed the ideal suckler cow that would withstand the harsh climate typical of Donkin Rigg, but also allowed him to maximise the main resource on the farm – grass.

Thanks to the breeds’ ability to thrive on a forage-based diet, Mr Bainbridge now grows 1,400t of pasture silage and 800t of red clover silage, which has greatly reduce his feed costs.

“Our dry cow ration consists of silage and straw and our grower ration, which is fed to in-calf heifers and weaned cattle, is a mix of silage, oats and straw.

“The cattle keep their condition well, which allows us to prioritise grass for our heifers, but also means we can finish fat cattle before their second winter.”

Reducing feed costs

By reducing feed costs and finishing off grass, Mr Bainbridge has managed to develop a holistic approach to feeding cattle without the need for expensive bought-in feeds. This has seen his costs decrease and profit margin increase.

Using the Hereford has directly affected the farm’s cashflow and profitability, as it’s eliminated any need to creep feed calves, but has also meant cattle can be finished much quicker, typically at 18 months old.

However, while keeping costs down is a priority, having a saleable end product that provides a good return is imperative to the business, something Mr Bainbridge has no qualms about.

“The cattle finish well, consistently grading out at an R4L, which is what we want. I also expect to be selling some heifers, either maiden or with calves at foot, for breeding, as the farm is a member of the Premium Health Cattle Scheme, which will add value.”

Aside from the breed’s ability to finish off grass and fill a variety of markets, the ability to calve at two years old with no problems is something Mr Bainbridge praises it for.

Calving ease

“Heifers need to weigh at least 370kg and have a pelvic area of 142cm squared, this way we don’t get any calving problems.”

Aside from ease of calving, Mr Bainbridge looks to EBV figures to satisfy his other needs and to make sure he produces exactly what he and his market wants.

Thanks to great breed progress made in recent years – mainly down to the society’s Breedplan Recording System – EBVs have been readily available, so bulls can be selected on figures rather than looks alone.

“We look for maternal figures in our bulls so they breed the correct female. We also look at fat values, as fat keeps them going through the winter and aids fertility,” he adds.

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