A focus on improving efficiencies and attention to detail has seen one commercial beef system introduce Norwegian Red crosses into its breeding programme.
Constantly striving to improve efficiencies and fertility has seen no let up for beef and arable farmer Mike Powley, who farms in partnership with his father, Tom.
Mike explained the introduction of Norwegian Red genetics and change in direction for the farm’s breeding policy, alongside an internally-led design project to build the new farmstead, Oak House Farm, at a recent British Cattle Breeders Club-organised farm walk.
Oak House, outside York, North Yorkshire, will now serve as the base for the business, which had previously been split across three sites, covering 140 hectares (350 acres) in total.
The pair’s 100-head suckler herd is based on a nucleus of top quality South Devon females which, until recently, were all AI’d to sexed semen from high index Limousin sires to produce a first-cross suckler cow to breed from.
Hybrid vigour from the first cross, Mike explained, boosted performance and produced a slightly smaller but shapier female to breed from, but with some of the traits they considered desirable from the South Devon, which included its docility, milkiness and easy calving ability.
But keen to bring more fertility into the herd, bring down cow size and improve on time consuming management traits, Norwegian Reds are being trialled in place of the Limousin.
Mike and Tom made the decision to introduce the breed’s genetics into the herd’s breeding programme three years ago, which, with no stock bulls kept on-farm, sees them working closely with Genus to utilise high index sires based on maternal traits, such as ease of calving and milk figures.
Mike said: “The Norwegian Reds have phenomenal fertility and, as monitor farm figures have shown, some pure-bred herds have been achieving 95 per cent plus conception rates.
“Last year we achieved 74 per cent conception rates over a nine-week serving period without synchronising cows, with all cows in-calf in eight weeks.
“In isolation the Norwegian Reds achieved 86 per cent conception rates to conventional semen.
“We have never had figures like this, and if we can get the whole herd to this point we are looking at a six-week calving period which will be busy, but good from a management perspective for the rest of the year.”
Mike and Tom added that improving on management traits, such as the amount of time spent trimming feet or dealing with problems like big teats at calving were also factors that appealed when they selected the Norwegian Red.
Mike said: “The breed has been shown to have good udder attachment, teats, and feet.
“Although people say that about 30 per cent of a herd take up 70 per cent of your time, the reality for us is probably that 10 per cent, so eight or nine cows, take up 90 per cent of our time which we want to improve on.
“We want ‘ghost cows’ to appear out of the herd twice per year, at serving and calving, and blend in the rest of the time.”
Mike explained these cross-bred cows were AI’d to terminal sires, mainly British Blue alongside some to an Australian Charolais to produce a finishing animal.
Aberdeen-Angus semen was used on the heifers, which are calved at two years old, to produce a slightly smaller calf.
Mike added: “Our only concern is whether the new cross cows, which are not quite as shapely as the South Devon cross Limousin, will impact on the finished offspring grade, and we are experimenting now with whether the British Blue terminal sires will sort that out.”
Calving takes place indoors from March 10 for nine weeks, with cows and calves turned out shortly after onto a rotational grazing platform through summer.
Calves are weaned at housing, aiming for a weight of 380kg for heifers and 400kg for bulls.
Replacement and finishing heifers are run together and over-wintered on red clover silage, with bulls kept entire and put on a finishing ration based on home-grown barley, bean and red clover, with a target daily deadweight gain of 1kg per day. Intake is roughly a 50:50 on a freshweight basis.
Finished animals are sold in the following December following another summer at pasture, mainly through ABP on an Asda contract, although a handful of heifers may be sold for breeding and some animals are slaughtered locally for the farms own beef boxes.
Explaining their decision to use a British Blue sire, Mike said: “It gives us confirmation and has allowed us to improve out killing out percentage. Our bulls average 63 per cent, compared to the national average of about 55 per cent.
Mike said: “About 50 per cent of our bulls last year were E grades, and having these as opposed to an R grade can be worth between £260 and £300 per animal year on year."
Recent investment has seen new buildings designed with herd expansion in mind, with the plan now to up herd numbers to 130 cows.
A lot of focus has been put on building a light, well-ventilated cow centred environment which is straight-forward to work in and which could be managed as a one-man operation with ease.
Mike explained that although financial pressure was concerning, beef farming was a long-term commitment with ups and downs.
He said: “We were too inefficient with three farmsteads, which was compromising animals performance in unsuitable old buildings.
“The new buildings enabled us to reduce labour costs in being able to keep more cattle per man, manage them better, improve their health and performance, and keep costs as low as possible.”
Mike Powley will be speaking at the British Cattle Breeders Club annual conference on January 20-22, 2020, in Telford.