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Breed selection is key for upland beef production

Getting the right breed to optimise production from upland pastures is James Small’s aim on the Mendip Hills. Laura Bowyer reports.

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James Small bases his beef system on getting the highest level of efficiency as cheaply as possible, and to get this profitability he needs a hardy breed.


Mr Small started keeping Longhorns when he returned to the family farm after finishing school in the early 1990s. He says the breed was well-suited to Warren Farm and tourists enjoyed seeing them grazing the sides of Cheddar Gorge.


But, he found there was a lack of demand for his animals when it came to selling offspring. Mr Small says: “We decided to breed out the Longhorns from the herd, so we put the Whitebred Shorthorn bull to them as it is a thrifty, maternal upland breed. We did try using a Limousin sire, but we were not getting the cow we wanted.


When foot-and-mouth hit in 2000 and livestock sales went private only, Mr Small made the move to Whitebred Shorthorns and bought a bull from breeder G. Bell and Co, Dumfriesshire. When Longhorns were being kept, heifers were synchronised and artificial insemination (AI) used, but it was decided a bull could be bought with the money they were spending on AI.


Mr Small says: “The Shorthorn is a slow-growing cow and we will be calving at three years, rather than two, which some people aim for. I prefer my animals to be more mature at calving, needing little assistance.”

Farm facts

  • 223 hectares (550 acres) owned ground
  • 243ha (600 acres) of rented grazing rights on a Site of Specific Scientific Interest
  • Altitude of 250 metres (850 feet)
  • 120 calving females
  • Limestone hills

NFU involvement

  • County delegate for NFU council
  • Somerset delegate for the South West livestock board
  • Delegate for national livestock

What is red water disease?

Red water is a tick-borne disease which causes kidney failure. Its name refers to the blood which the animal will consequently urinate.

The South West has heavy bracken cover, providing an ideal environment for ticks, making the problem a particular issue in this part of the country.

Mr Small says: “There have been a series of environmental rulings which have come into place in recent times, directly affecting tick populations.

“Organophosphate dip killed ticks, as did bracken burning – but both are now condemned.”

Investment

Aberdeen-Angus are now being crossed to Shorthorns. Mr Small has been buying Angus bulls from Mark Pilcher’s Gear herd, Cornwall, and he says bulls are a big investment for the farm. Mr Small says: “I have always farmed with the mentality of buying the best quality stock you can afford.”


Farming upland pastures often presents obstacles, but the South West also has to deal with the local tick population, which can cause the deadly red water disease. As such, Mr Small buys bulls from Mr Pilcher for their disease immunity, along with their quality. He puts one bull to 40 cows, so the farm has three bulls – Gear Navaho, Fossey and Flint, all Aberdeen-Angus – to serve the 120 calving females.


The farm was buying-in replacement cows, however Mr Small is working to control his breeding programme. This is partly because animals younger than nine months do not develop clinical disease following infection by ticks, but become immune.


He says: “Ideally, we want a 10-week calving window, starting in March and finishing in May. We are chasing strong maternal genetics, not breeding for terminal sires.


“We are creating a blue-grey type animal by crossing the Shorthorn cow with an Angus bull, and we will then put them back to the Shorthorn when they start to get too Angus-like.


Mr Small hopes he is increasing the saleability of his beef through his breeding.


“The Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society has done a tremendous job in marketing the breed’s beef. Farmers and buyers want to buy the breed in the market, especially if they are from a named sire, and the public now believe it is of superior eating quality.

 

“Using Angus genetics, I hope the saleability of my product will increase,” he says. “They are also faster growing than Shorthorns.”

Traits

But Mr Small is still breeding for maternal traits. He says: “I am not looking for a big cow. They must be light on their feet and able to efficiently use rough forage.”


Livestock auctions are at the heart of the Smalls’ business, selling weaned suckled calves, or busk calves as they are called regionally, through the ring at eight months old.


Moving forward, Mr Small wants to EID tag his animals and invest in weigh cells for his crush so cattle can be weighed when they go in for winter and back out for summer. He is aiming for calves to be 75 per cent of their mother’s weight when they are weighed, with the desired cow about 500kg.


He says: “If a cow does not get into calf, she goes – we have a one-strike policy here. Similarly if something has a bad temperament we get rid of it. Life is too short to keep dangerous stock.”


The farm relies heavily on forage for feed and grass silage is made both clamped and baled.


He says: “We do not feed concentrates, partly due to the cost, but also because we are in a TB hotspot and do not want to feed anything which will encourage badgers to get close to cattle.”


The farm has had a long standing agreement with a neighbour who has been keeping pigs on 20 hectares (50 acres) at a time for weaner production. Included in the rotation, pigs would stay on the same ground for two years and then get moved on, with the ground consequently reseeded.


But with the current state of the British pig industry, his neighbour has made the tough choice to end this rental agreement as he can no longer make the pig business profitable.


Not only has this hit the pig producer’s business, but Mr Small has also lost a valuable part of his ground’s rotation.


In partnership with the Somerset Wildlife Trust and the Farm Wildlife Advisory Group, Mr Small has trialled herb and legume leys, including rye-grass, clover, sorrel, chicory and plantain. He says these have allowed him to enter the Entry Level Stewardship scheme, and he makes silage from them.


“We are now doing 70 acres and taking two cuts off it, previously only cutting once a year. When we reseed, we take soil samples and invest in improving our ground at the same time. We spread lime and a lot of phosphate. The ground here is acidic, although it is on top of limestone.”


The farm is also home to 1,400 pure Beulah ewes, which are lambed in May. These are put to Texels, Suffolks, Charollais, Charollais cross Texel, Bluefaced Leicesters, or Beulah rams.


About 200 ewe lambs are bought-in each year, mainly from around the Builth Wells area through an agent. Mr Small’s uncle, John Small, takes care of the sheep side of the business.


Lambing only takes 20 days, beginning on May 1, with John checking ewes five to six times a day. Ewes lamb outside and are kept in mobs of 250-300. Lambing percentage is usually about 120 per cent.


“We did use a snacker to feed outside but it only encouraged ewes to leave their lambs, so we stopped,” says Mr Small.


The farm does not start selling lambs until Christmas and aims for them all to go before Easter, some being finished while the rest are sold as stores.


Mr Small says: “We sell all our stock through the ring, we do not support deadweight sales. The foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2000 gave us a taste of what would happen if there were no options other than on-the-hook sales and I did not like it.


“Processors are geared to the retail sector. We need to be supplying something they want, but in a transparent market.


“But we should get more information, such as kill sheets, fed back up the supply chain. If we were able to pull all the data sets together, we could have a searchable database for buyers and sellers to look up animals’ details. We need a co-ordinated, joined-up approach to delivering farmer benefits.”


Six years ago, Mr Small and his wife, Kate, decided to diversify. Now they run a second business, as part of the Feather Down Farm Group, a franchised network of glamping sites on working farms. The group has 30 farms in the UK, although there are many more on the continent, particularly in Holland.


Warren Farm is now home to five canvas tents, each featuring a log burner and measuring five by nine metres (16ft 5in by 29ft 6in), plus two log cabins. The site has a peak capacity of 42 guests.


This operation is handled completely separately, renting land from the farm.

Contract

Tents, cabins and equipment are supplied by the company and, as part of their contract, James and Kate must put on a farm-tour each week for their guests, which they carry out using a tractor and trailer.


Each week the couple hosts an evening of entertainment for guests, using a bread oven on the site to put on a pizza party.


Two people are employed to assist with cleaning and change-over of the cabins and tents, ready for the next week of guests. The campsite has an 18m by 9m (59ft by 29ft 6in) shed for communal use, as well as a farm shop with honesty box. The shop gives Mr Small a chance to sell some beef and lamb direct.


Mr Small says: “I like welcoming people to our farm as then I can play my part in educating the general public about our industry.”

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