No place for romance if a system is unprofitable
June 2015

Chris Pring from Lower Ford Farm, Cullompton is aiming to triple his farm's beef productivity through Blade Farming's finishing system.

 

Productive farm land being such a precious resource, it can be argued that today's occupants owe it to their fellow UK citizens, now and into the future, to make use of it as productively and sustainably as possible.

Chris PringIn this context, Chris Pring at Lower Ford Farm near Cullompton is right on the money when he says that the family business's beef suckler cows "use too many acres for the return they generate."

In old money, at least an acre of decent lowland is needed to support one suckler cow and her offspring, producing at best one finished beef animal per cow per year. In contrast, Chris is in the process of at least tripling the farm's beef productivity via a switch in policy to finishing dairy-beef cross calves and Holstein bulls.
 

Moving into finishing

The farm's 215 hectares are currently devoted to a 400 ewe flock, 100 cow suckler herd, 60 hectares of arable cropping and a farm contracting enterprise. The change in beef policy will see the herd reduced to 60 over the near future, though Chris Pring adds, "we are seriously thinking about phasing the cows out altogether."

The move to finishing dairy-beef calves began five years ago when Chris read about Blade Farming in a Mole Valley Farmers newsletter. "There was a time before we established the suckler herd when we bought calves in the market to rear ourselves," he explains. "However, scours and pneumonia took their toll not only on profitability but also our enjoyment of calf rearing. So reading about Blade and its specialist rearers taking care of the high risk first three to four months of life made immediate good sense."

So in mid-2010, the first batch of 40 Angus-cross calves was commissioned, arriving at three to four months of age and 120kg live-weight. Since then, the number of Blade cattle on the farm at any one time has risen steadily. At the time of writing (April 2015), there are 160 Angus-cross steers, 25 Holstein bulls and 80 continental-cross heifers on Blade Farming's Mitchells & Butlers programme.
 

How the Blade finishing scheme works

Richard Jones talks about Aberdeen Angus and Friesian cattle at Lower Ford Farm as part of the Blade Farming finishing contracts.

On arrival from the Blade calf rearing unit, the calves' dietary transition is handled very carefully. To begin with, they get exactly the same concentrate and ad lib straw, before moving gradually onto a silage-based diet.

To earn the Blade Angus premium of +40p/kg carcase weight over the AHDB quoted weekly price for steers and heifers in England and Wales for an R4L grade, those calves must also have a six month grazing period. At Lower Ford Farm, they continue to get 1.5-2.0kg/day of rearing nuts depending of grass availability, enough to maintain growth rates in the target zone of 0.85-1.0kg/day without reducing grass intakes or its efficiency of utilisation.

Then from about 15 months of age and 440kg live-weight through to slaughter at 18 months and 550kg, Angus steers are stepped up to 1.2kg/day live-weight gain. The Pring finishing diet is a 50:50 mix of maize and grass silages with 4.0-5.0kg/head of rolled barley depending on silage quality. The end result needs to be a minimum 250kg carcase weight, classified R or O+, to qualify for premium. Also for Holstein bulls, there is premium Blade contract, offering +20p/kg over the ABP weekly base price.
 

And the future?

Looking ahead, a new cattle crush with weighing platform and a handling yard are being installed, whereupon monthly weighing will become the routine. "Currently, picking finished animals by eye works OK, but lacks precision," Chris says. "Clearly, we will have a much better grip all along by weighing cattle every month and adjusting feed levels accordingly.
"Like many others, we used to think that taking cattle to higher weights for an increased sale price made more money. But for us, that's not the case. Earlier sale, lower inputs and a smaller carcase that is more suitable to customers is the way forward. There is no place for romance if a system is unprofitable."

To complete the changing picture at Lower Ford Farm for the time being, the sheep flock is being increased to 600 ewes in parallel with expansion of dairy-beef finishing, in pursuit of sustainably higher productivity.

Chris Pring is upbeat about the future of UK beef production

"The emerging middle class across Asia and the Far East wants to eat more beef," he says. "If this creates demand for products from USA, Brazil and other major beef producing regions, that will in turn open up opportunities for premium UK beef."

Right now, cattle on the Mitchells & Butlers scheme are a good example of this, according to Blade Farming managing director Richard Phelps. "Our franchise finishers like the Pring family are producing premium beef cuts for Mitchells & Butlers restaurants under their upmarket Miller & Carter and Browns restaurant identities."

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