A Welsh beef producer is making huge strides in his journey of creating a more sustainable farm as Farmers Guardian reports.
Flip the calendar back 20 years and the beef industry can be found in a time where genetic direction played heavily off the dairy industry.
In those days, single trait selection trends for milk production on the dairy side and a ‘bigger is better’ motto on the beef side were increasingly pushing poorer fertility and calving issues into Crugeran Farm’s then 200-head of Holstein cross Limousin cows.
According to Harri Parri, the fourth generation on the family farm near Pwllheli, Wales, it became clear something drastic was going to have to change if the suckler herd was going to pay its own way.
Mr Parri says: “This was back in 1996. My father, Richard, was managing the herd and during this time there was a great deal of British beef genetic influence coming from the dairy industry. He was becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction it was going. We noticed gradually, year by year, the replacement heifers we were buying-in were poorer quality than our mature cows – something had to change.”
The family decided to take Crugeran Farm back to square one and completely overhaul their beef system. The plan was simple: find more efficient genetics with a focus on maternal traits and create a cohesive health and nutrition programme for a synergistic result to lower inputs and increase outputs for a greater profit margin – in essence more sustainable beef.
Working with the Stabiliser Cattle Company and using AI, embryo transfer and natural service, the Parri’s became one of the first UK beef units to introduce Stabiliser genetics from the United States into their herd to bring down cow size and increase fertility while reducing finishing times.
Nearly two decades of following a disciplined breeding programme based on estimated breeding values and science to breed easy care, moderate cows, the dairy and Limousin influence is almost completely bred out of the herd.
Mr Parri, who is now in his 10th year of managing the herd since his return from working in New Zealand on a beef and sheep farm in 2007, highlights the importance of marginal gains through a ‘you can’t improve if you don’t measure’ mindset.
According to him, along with a reduction in calving difficulties to less than 5 per cent, which in turn reduced calf mortality, and increased conception rates by 14 per cent, the stronger focus on animal health has increased calves reared from 74.5 per cent to 93 per cent of cows put to bull.
Aside from more live calves on the ground, the most progress has been made in the reduction of cow dry matter intake.
According to his records, the original Holstein cross Limousin herd maintained a 2.5 body condition score (BCS) through to weaning, wintering six months indoors to post-calving while consuming 2,000kg dry matter of ad-lib silage.
However, his current cows are consuming 1,000kg of silage. At weaning, cows will average 3.75 BCS and drop to a 2.75 BCS, while wintering on two months of rough grazing and four months of indoor feeding of 7kg/DM/head. A month prior to calving the ration is bumped up to 10kg/DM/head and cows are either turned out or given ad-lib silage post-calving.
“In the last 15 years the output of the herd has gone up but, more importantly, input has come down. For us, the main benefit has been in reduced cost of keeping cows,” explains Mr Parri. “They are expensive things to keep considering they only produce one calf a year at best.”
Age to finish also decreased, dropping from 15 months of age and 365kg deadweight to 13 months and two weeks of age at 366kg deadweight.
“Obviously the genetics of the continental breeds we kept back in the 90s has changed but we can only measure our gains from where we started,” says Mr Parri.
“Days to slaughter has come down and we are back up to the same carcase weight as pre-Stabilisers but the daily intake of the bulls is less and it keeps coming down marginally each year. The reduction in these two has more influence on our margins than the increase in carcase weight”
Perhaps one of the most essential components of Crugeran Farm’s journey to becoming more sustainable has been the adaptation of management to work with the environment. The farm is spread over three units: an upland farm near the Caernarfon coastline and two lowland units in the heart of Llyn Peninsula.
Dual spring and summer calving seasons and a flock of 320 Lleyn and 550 Lleyn cross New Zealand Sufflok sheep are designed to take advantage of grass at the peak of its nutritional content during different times of the year.
“The majority of the upland farm is less productive and not suited for young and breeding stock, but perfect for carrying dry stock. This area works well with the herd split into two calving blocks and allows us to focus the most productive land for cows rearing calves and bulling, and the dry cows are managed on rough grazing,” says Mr Parri.
“Because of this, and the grass growth curve of the Llyn Peninsula, we are able to carry 30 to 40 more cows on the farm than if we only had a spring-calving herd. Due to the mild climate of the peninsula we can grow grass over-winter and that is where the sheep flock comes in to utilise the winter and early spring grass for rearing and finishing lambs.”
Muck from cow sheds is spread on the lowland farms, says Mr Parri, where spring barley, oats, root crops and high sugar grass leys are grown. The Crugeran Farm unit also houses a 50kW wind turbine and a bore hole to supply the farm with power and water.
“Growing our own feedstuff allows the business to be as self-sufficient as possible, with only 65 tonnes of protein bought in to balance the bull beef ration and the ewes over lambing,” he adds.
“And the high nutritional value of the high sugar grass leys sown into healthy soil full of organic matter from the muck has helped us consistently hit a 95 per cent or higher conception rate in the cows and for our early lambing flock to finish off grass alone at an average of 14 weeks old.”
THE NEED TO PUSH ON
For Mr Parri, the drive to push the family farm to its long-term potential has increased in the last few years as he and his wife, Elin, have welcomed the fifth generation of Parris to the farm with their two young children. Not only does he want to give his children opportunities in production agriculture, but the ability to efficiently feed a growing population.
“We cannot sit back now and say, ‘we have arrived, this is the best it is going to get’. There are always improvements to be made,” he says.
“We have to focus on sustainable intensification of farming to not only increase production now, but to ensure the same opportunity is available to future generations to come.”