A successful combination of direct drilling for cover crops alongside an award-winning pedigree Limouin enterprise has facilitated innovative land management opportunities. Wendy Short visits County Durham to find out more.
The phrase ‘up corn and down horn’ has not applied in recent times, with prices for both arable crops and beef cattle decidedly lacklustre.
But a strict division of labour between brothers Karl and Richard Suddes, at South Farm, County Durham, ensures the smooth day-to-day running of the two enterprises and has encouraged the pair to take on a 160-hectare (400-acre) share-farming arrangement this spring.
The pair manage their 323ha (800-acre) farm in the village of Cornsay in partnership with their parents, Rob and Janis. While Karl’s main interest is the 120-cow pedigree Cornsay Limousin herd, Richard looks after the arable rotation, which has used a direct drilling system exclusively for the past several years.
Like many other dairy farming families whose stock were culled during the foot-and-mouth crisis, the Suddes chose not to return to milk production. A Limousin bull had always been used on the dairy cows and this was the breed selected for the establishment of a pedigree suckler herd in 2002.
Karl says: “At the time there was a shortage of quality cattle in the UK due to the cull and therefore I travelled to France to source Limousins in their native France.
“I came home with 60 in-calf heifers and a similar number of maiden heifers, from which I established the Cornsay foundation herd.”
He took over the herd on his return to the farm from university and has since become chairman of the North East Limousin Breeders Club, as well as being a member of Limousin Society’s Council of Management.
Cattle performance is regarded as highly important and progress is recorded through the society’s own scheme. Herd health is also paramount and the herd is registered with the SAC premium health scheme.
Karl has since been back to France several times to source new bloodlines and has even taken French lessons in his spare time.
“French auction marts are really no different from our own and it is a fairly straightforward procedure to buy cattle over there,” he says. “I like to source new bloodlines and have something which is a bit different.
“Cows must score highly for ease of calving in 120 females. We cannot afford to spend too much time on assisted births and caesareans are a rare occurrence in our herd.
“Good temperament is also vital and we won’t tolerate anything which can’t be trusted. But spending time with cattle and handling them quietly goes a long way towards making them easy to manage; it is not just about their breeding.”
Karl is qualified to carry out DIY artificial insemination (AI) and uses monitoring equipment to improve the accuracy of heat detection. The system, he reports, works well in winter, but is not as reliable in spring, due to the cattle’s increased rate of activity. Therefore the system is sometimes used in conjunction with synchronisation.
AI bulls are selected on their breeding values and are used alongside the team of stock bulls, which this year includes three of French origin and Maraiscote Junior, purchased at the Borderway Mart in Carlisle.
The best female calves are retained in the herd and others which make the grade are usually marketed through the society sales at Carlisle.
“The quality of cattle presented at society sales is very high, but we usually have a few females which we feel will make the grade,” says Karl, who studied agriculture at the Royal Agricultural College.
“It is even more difficult to produce a good breeding bull. The highest price we have achieved to date is 6,100gns, which was paid for Cornsay Fabulous in 2012.
“We also took 5,500gns for Cornsay Indiana last year, which was very pleasing. The sale of breeding cattle increases our average income figure and fully justifies our investment in a pedigree herd.”
While there is little time for showing, Karl took a cow and calf and a heifer to Northumberland Show and the Great Yorkshire Show this year and was delighted to win a blue ribbon at both events for the cow and calf. And the calf itself was placed fourth in the junior class at the Great Yorkshire, despite being several months younger than its competitors.
The herd is split equally into spring- and autumn-calving groups and bull calves are left entire, with any calves which do not make the grade for breeding finished and sold at 12-16 months through Darlington Auction Mart during a sale period which runs from the New Year until late spring.
In recent weeks, a market-topping 252p/kg was achieved for a heifer, with 212p/kg for one of the bulls.
Home-grown feed is used extensively and calf starter pellets are limited to calves from three to five months old, after which they move to a home-mixed grower ration, while the cows receive only silage and minerals in their straw-bedded winter accommodation. Weaning takes place at nine to 10 months, after which the calves are split into breeding and finishing groups.
“We are always looking to make cost savings,” says Karl. “But they have to be balanced against investments in good breeding stock which will perform to maximum potential.
“Our herd is still in its infancy in breeding terms, although it is improving year-on-year. Cattle breeding is a lifetime’s work and there will never be a point at which I look at the cows and find there is no room for improvement.”
Most of the decisions on the 202ha (500 acres) of arable cropping, which includes wheat, oilseed rape and legumes, fall to Richard and he is highly focused on maintaining and improving the soil, which ranges from a light, free-draining material to a heavy clay.
The best way to achieve this goal, in Richard’s opinion, is to use direct drilling, which has been practised over the whole farm since 2009.
Richard says: “It was quite a culture change, but we have not looked back since we abandoned the plough and, in fact, we don’t even own one any more. Direct drilling is not an easy option and you have to stick with it to get the desired results.
“Lessons were learned in the early days and we initially used a drill which caused too much disturbance in the soil and created a slump effect.
“We now work with a drill which simultaneously applies fertiliser or one which has discs for cutting through trash.”
Karl believes there can be no half measures with direct drilling and attention to detail is essential.
“If you give in and resort to the plough, you will undo all your previous soil improvement. There have been years when results have been disappointing, but that also applies on farms which continue to use a traditional system.
“The difference is our soil structure is getting better and as a result will in time become more and more resilient, especially after prolonged periods of heavy rainfall.”
Richard confirms establishment costs have reduced, since the new system was adopted. He is working towards a rotation containing only first wheats, a goal which he hopes to achieve within the next couple of years.
“Our original rotation was traditional with barley, oilseed rape and two wheats. This was not effective at controlling giant brome, which was one of our problems; luckily we don’t have any black-grass.
“The current rotation is aimed at controlling weeds and is a work in progress; our main aim is to reduce herbicide usage.
“The benefits of direct drilling on the lighter land became evident fairly rapidly, but the heavier land is taking longer to adjust. The secret is to drill higher seed rates early, in fact as soon as possible after the crop is taken off.
“Another key element is to chop the cereal straw on the poorer fields, to give the soil protection against downpours and increase organic matter in the soil. We also apply gypsum, as soils in this region tend to be high in magnesium.”
Grass is not included in the rotation, but cover crops have played a role since 2013, despite Richard having some reservations.
“Spring beans offer a good cover crop; we let them grow until early August, then spray them off with glyphosate and apply farmyard manure, before drilling oilseed rape.
"The beans create good tilth and drainage, contribute nitrogen and help to control weeds, so it has been an overall success. The following crop thrived without the use of slug pellets.
“We only have a short weather window in autumn, with the combine coming out of the field and the drill going in almost immediately, so the advantages of cover crops are limited at that time of year. We tend to sow cover crops on fields which need attention to improve the soil or on wet areas of fields; they work better for us when drilled in spring.
“Winter beans have been very useful; we intended to use them as an over-winter cover crop, as they can be sown later into wet conditions and grow well through winter.
"However, they looked so well in spring we decided to crop them; they produced decent yields and are now a permanent part of our rotation.”
Always seeking to move forward with the farm business, Karl and Richard successfully tendered for a share farming agreement on 161ha (400 acres) of arable land with a local farmer. The arrangement began this April and is based on a profit-share arrangement.
“We will be using the same direct drilling and conservation agriculture techniques and attention to detail on this land as we have on our own,” says Richard.
“Although the land is only eight miles away, its situation means it is earlier than our home farm, which sits at 850 feet above sea-level. So it fits in perfectly with our workload and helps us to spread out fixed costs.
”Obviously, the amount of hours we work have increased, but we would not rule out taking on more land, if the right opportunity came up. Until then, we will persevere with the direct drilling, as it is really starting to pay off.”