Beef producer Paul Humphreys has high expectations of the stock he produces at Blixes Farm, near Chelmsford, Essex, and knows exactly the end-product he wants his butchery to create.
Paul Humphreys sends his finished animals through his own abattoir and on to his acclaimed farm shops: one for wholesale and one for retail.
He says consistency and flexibility are central tenets of the business.
Consistency by ensuring every joint or cut of meat the customer buys is just as good as the one before, and the flexibility to maintain a variable throughput of stock in response to fluctuations in demand.
Mr Humphreys achieves this balancing act through a combination of carefully sourcing his chosen breed of cattle and feeding his stock for optimal health.
Quantities of each ingredient in their finishing ration are subtly adjusted as demand dictates, so pushing their growth rates up or down.
At the same time, a keen focus on efficiency and profitability across the 291-hectare (720-acre) farm means the management of stock is streamlined to use minimal labour, while much of the ration is grown at home.
The cycle starts with the purchase of Holstein cross British Blue stock which have come from the same single dairy farm for many years, and initially go to a calf rearer in the Colchester area.
Mr Humphreys says: “From there, they come to us in batches when they are three to four months old, which is less trouble than buying them from here, there and everywhere.
“This way, we get the same breed from the same place and reared in the same way, hopefully giving us a consistent product from the very start.” Moving on to his own system, calves are put on a mix of high fibre sugar beet shreds mixed with homegrown rolled barley and molasses, plus about 200kg in the tonne of the ForFarmers protein concentrate, CattleMix 30 plus Levucell Titan.
“If they went straight on to barley alone it would be too powerful and they would eat too much and get barley poisoning,” he says, alluding to the ruminal acidosis they would risk on a high starch diet of rolled barley alone.
But by feeding the barley with the sugar beet and the protein balancer, he says the stock never experience acidosis and get off to a flying start.
Mr Humphreys says having the live yeast, Levucell, in the ration keeps everything in balance in the rumen, ‘a bit like eating yoghurt or feeding an AD plant’.
He says: “They get more out of the food you feed them when you feed the Levucell.
They definitely do well on it. They have no acidosis and stay very healthy.”
Julian Mills, his account manager from ForFarmers, explains the principle of feeding the rumen-specific yeast to the cereal-fed animals.
He says: “Levucell works in many ways, including by scavenging oxygen and regulating rumen pH, both of which have a positive effect on rumen health and improve feed conversion efficiency.
“This is a particularly important benefit in high starch diets, such as those including barley, wheat or maize, where yeast helps create the ideal environment for the rumen’s anaerobic microflora to do their work.” Stock remains on this ration, which analyses at 18 per cent crude protein and is fed with ad lib straw until they are about 10 months of age.
At this point they are moved into different housing and switch to a wholecrop and grass silage-based total mixed ration (TMR).
Included in each nine-tonne mix are 7,303kg wholecrop and silage (50:50), 455kg barley straw, 913kg rolled barley, 274kg molasses and 55kg of a ForFarmers mineral.
Independent nutritionist Rob Mintern says he will adjust the proportion of these ingredients at Mr Humphreys’ request, in anticipation of future changes in demand.
Mr Mintern says: “The higher protein and metabolisable energy [ME] of the first ration achieves skeletal and tissue growth and is converted very efficiently in the younger animal.
"The protein declines and remains static at 14 per cent when [stock] move on to the total mixed ration"
“The protein declines and remains static at 14 per cent when they move on to the TMR.
But I will vary the ME of the TMR within a range of 10.7-12.2MJ/ kg DM, depending on the speed of finishing required by Mr Humphreys.” By retaining Levucell in the mineral mix within the TMR, he says rumen health is maintained, but a further benefit comes from optimal fibre digestion.
Mr Mintern says: “As well as its role with high starch diets, the yeast also works on forage digestion, helping break down lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose, so making more of the feed’s energy available to the animal.
“Without it, we would not utilise as much of the forage, so would have to include more concentrates.” Mr Humphreys says his choice of breed is also important for this system.
He says: “The British Blues will keep on growing without getting too fat, producing the carcase weight we need of 400-450kg at anything from 24-26 months.” Firmly believing a larger animal is the most profitable he can produce, he says nothing on the carcase is wasted through the farm’s two complementary shops.
The traditional shop takes mostly prime cuts which are sold to retail customers, but meat for the wholesale business is generally destined for an African-oriented market, where demand is more for offal and fore-end meat.
With six to eight head killed on-site each week for the farm’s two shops, a further 80-90 head per week are destined for independent butchers within a radius of about 90 miles.
And with 400-600 head on the farm at any one time, extra stock bought-in periodically to satisfy demand, and a large trade for sheep also running alongside, the business keeps a fleet of eight lorries in service for UK and EU trade.
But the jewel in the crown has to be the retail shop, which has received widespread press acclaim, including as a local food hero in the Great Food Club’s magazine.
A final link in the chain is seen in the shop’s recently established bakery department, where baker Nigel Broom takes pride in producing the bread using yeast from Lallemand, the very same parent company which manufactures Levucell on behalf of ForFarmers.