Some beef farmers have not changed their businesses a jot since the political reform of the sector. Others have, or are, modifying them a bit, while a few are making seismic, revolutionary transformations, John Owen, who farms 110 Autumn and Spring calving suckler cows, and finishes the progeny at Monachty Bach farm, Pennant Aberaeron, Ceredigion is one of the latter. His system is changing in its entirety.
Conventional beef production is giving way to organic. His damline breed is changing, the criteria upon which his terminal sire is chosen, too. His feeding is also radically different. Almost everything that can be changed is being changed. Staying the same, though, will be his buyer – Dovecote Park, for Waitrose. Next July marks the official technical start point for the reformed business – it’s the time when the 470-acre lowland farm completes its organic conversion.
But the foundation stones for the change were laid three or four years ago, when John decided the political changes in the sector necessitated a major business rethink. “The old subsidy scheme suited cattle that could be kept for as long as 24 months. With the new system we need cattle with higher growth rates and better conformation so they finish well before that,” he says. “Housing finishing cattle for a second winter is no longer economic.” Change in genetics Keeping an Aberdeen Angus as the terminal sire was not only an obvious choice but a contractual obligation on the Waitrose scheme. But the choice of the damline was flexible, and he felt a change in female genetics was in order. “I didn’t have the genetics in the herd to perform as I need them to do in the new world,” he adds. After months off researching different breeds he opted for the French dual purpose Salers breed, largely because of its milkiness and easy calving abilities.
Salers have the widest pelvic girdle of any beef animal, in fact. So far he has calved 50, and he hasn’t assisted one yet. “Contrary to some reports I have found Salers to be extremely docile.” Their fertility is also excellent – all of the Autumn sucklers calved within nine weeks, which Mr Owen was delighted with. His preferred sire trait that governed the choice of his new bull also goes against convention. Out is the traditional focus on the back end, and in come a policy of breeding for loin length. Grading system change “A lot of emphasis is put on the back end of the animal. But that is not where the best meat comes from. The best meat comes from the loins, so I was looking for a bull which would produce finished cattle with longer backs. I think the grading system will change to put more emphasis on this. I hope it does!” In July 2006 he purchased the 15 month old Aberdeen Angus bull Summerhill Bomber Lad from the well-known Nightingale herd of Pershore, utilising a 40% Welsh Beef Improvement Scheme grant.
The bull is in the top 1% on EBV’s for terminal sire index and also for eye muscle depth, in the top 5% for 400 and 600 day weights for the breed and is one of the top two bulls in the UK for retail beef yield EBV. His other bull is a Salers bull Morwenstow Ullysus.”I am hoping to exploit hybrid vigour by crisscrossing Aberdeen Angus with Salers as they are very complementary to each other. ”Only two bulls are run on the farm, with the split in terms of the number of Autumn and Spring calving ensuring they are not overworked. “If I was wholly Spring calving I’d need another bull,” he says, “ and that would add to my costs”. Growth rate of the resulting calves are excellent, he says. Although Waitrose will take carcasses between 260 and 400kg the target is to aim for 300kg and have 600kg animals at 18 months old. This should be comfortably achieved.
Options open However whether all of the progeny go to Waitrose remains to be seen. Mr Owen is keeping his options open. “There is a good market for 18-month organic stores as well. The bull gives me the option as there will be plenty of growth potential in the animals still if I choose to sell them for stores, ”he adds. Investing in additional facilities may also be an option if taking them onto a heavier weight was going to be more profitable. All of the cattle will be fed a homegrown diet, plus bought in minerals to his own specification. That’s because Dovecote doesn’t accept intensively fed animals and they have to be fed on forage based rations. Mr Owen’s diet consists of red clover silage, wholecrop barley, grass silage and crimped barley, plus minerals. Providing the nutritional and general beef business advice is Revolutionary Thinking Chris Walkland reports on changing times at Monachty Bach farm.