Matching cattle to the farm system is key to Philip and Robert Sloman’s success.
Rebecca Jordan reports...
As margins are squeezed in the beef industry, producers up and down the country are trying to analyse their enterprises to ensure every cost is justified and each sale reaches its full potential.
Philip Sloman and his father Robert are no different at Roscarrock on the Cornish coast near Port Isaac.
Here they finish 500 cattle a year on a grazing-based system. Both are unsure what the future holds, but are committed to staying in this business and making the most of any opportunities appearing in the future.
They know this will not be possible unless they stay true to two basic principles at the core of their business.
Robert explains: “We know we must manage our business to fit in with the type of farm we have.
“Years ago I read articles and applied practices which were successful elsewhere, but in hindsight, would never succeed here. Sowing winter corn was an example. Spring corn is so much more successful as the salty wind burns off winter corn. I soon learned that the hard way.”
The other crux to their survival is that their business is only as good as the cattle they buy-in.
Philip says: “South Devon cross Limousin cattle do well in our system. I also like Charolais crosses.
“The theory behind the enterprise is to buy-in stores worth the money in terms of pence per kilo at about 500kg at 18 months of age and finish them at a minimum 720kg liveweight at R+3 grades. The aim is to average about 1.5kg liveweight gain a day until near finished when this will increase.
“Grass is never cheaper than when growing in the field, so we aim for good weight gain in the prime grass-growing season. With this in mind, we buy 300 cattle in autumn then 200 in spring.
“We turn out 400 in spring and aim to finish 15 a week through summer, finishing about 100 heavier ones indoors overwinter.
“And we work on the theory that if it gets dry and grass stops growing, then we can shed stock rather than spend money feeding them.”
Since Philip came back from college there have been significant savings.
He says: “We are lucky as Dad is here, so I can go off to market. Therefore, there is no longer a buying fee of £10/head. I now transport the cattle from market and to the abattoir, which has resulted in haulage costs dropping from £30/head to £5/head, giving an overall saving of £35/head.
“The hidden value is we get the cattle we want and are in control of what we buy. I was lucky Colin Sobey, a livestock agent, taught me so much about how to buy cattle, such as which farms were the best to buy off, which to avoid, which cattle were best suited to our farm, where to buy at certain times of the year.”
Philip spends many days at Hallworthy, Holsworthy, Exeter and Sedgemoor markets. Although he has an eye for good stock, it was, initially difficult to establish his position as a buyer in the market.
He says: “It was not easy to start with but I love it. The regular established buyers made sure I earned my position around the ring. I had to learn which cattle they would not stop bidding for and those for which they might give me a run for the money.
“It is important everyone, from the suckler men to the finishers, get a slice of the cake so we can all keep trading. Low prices do not do any section of the beef industry any favours.”
It is a well-known fact farmers are price takers, not makers. So, to protect themselves, the Slomans cannot afford to sell finished stock for less than 315p-350p/kg deadweight.
Loyalty also plays a part and, in the 30 years Robert has been sending cattle to St Merryn, now owned by Kepak, the family has built up a well established relationship with the buyer.
The Slomans invested in the years when finished cattle prices were better. Grain stores were built, sheds put up and last year, with the aid of a 50 per cent Rural Development Programme for England Countryside Productivity Small Grant Scheme, a handling system was installed.
Robert says: “We invested when times were good. We had to in order to meet Red Tractor standards and to ensure we could keep ticking over.”
The most recent investment has highlighted how marginal gains in a business can make a huge difference.
Philip says: “It is extraordinary how much weight cattle gain in the last three weeks of finishing. By weighing regularly at this stage we are able to get cattle to the maximum weight possible.
“I reckon we have achieved as much as an extra £50/head by maximising this marginal gain. If we had installed this handling system years ago we would have made much more money.”
At Roscarrock, all bought-in stock is weighed as it arrives on-farm. The disparity in weights at the same ages and breeds is sometimes startling when pence per kilo weigh-in is analysed.
Philip says: “This is why it is so important to buy-in the right stock, so you start the business on the best footing.”
While in the crush, all stock is injected against worms, lice and fluke. A three-digit management tag is put in as well as a monthly colour-coded tag, so it is easy to see out in the field the month any animal becomes over age (30 months).
This information, along with buying-in price, market and farmer source, is held on the farm computer system.
Youngest stock is turned away in large groups on ground nearest the coast. There are three-and-a-half miles of coastline at Roscarrock, so most of this group’s grazing is rough coastal ground and permanent pasture.
These cattle receive 2-3kg/day of rolled home-grown barley and 18 per cent protein blend.
They are weighed every couple of months so heavier stock is shed off into smaller groups, which are grazed increasingly closer to the farm buildings as they gain weight. Those weighing 600kg liveweight or more are put on 4kg/day of the same ration.
The heaviest groups are weighed weekly, with those achieving 720kg liveweight on a Thursday sold the following Tuesday.
Philip says: “I am keen to see some adjustments in the classification tables in abattoirs. Historically, there was an issue if cattle graded over 4H for fat. However, for decades, breed societies have encouraged members to select for lean stock and we are now having trouble getting the flesh on finished cattle. It will take time for breeders to adjust their breeding to achieve the market’s requirements.”
Grass quality is key at Roscarrock. The 40 hectares (100 acres) of fourto five-year-old leys are cut for clamp silage between May 20 and May 25.
The timing is a compromise between yield and quality. Any second cut is round baled. This ground receives 370kg/ha (150kg/acre) of a base compound 0:24:24 on Valentine’s Day. An additional 110 units of 27:7 compound of nitrogen and sulphur is split a third in the first application and the remainder later as sulphur increases grass protein and maximises the crop’s uptake of nitrogen.
Permanent pasture receives 370kg/ha (150kg/acre) of compound 20:8:11 as well as 7 per cent sulphur in a split dose. Rates vary according to Higher Level Stewardship and Entry Level Stewardship agreements.
Cattle are housed for just 100 days to mid-March. Arable ground is prioritised for the dung, with any surplus spread after first cut on grass leys.
Contractors are used for hedge trimming, silaging and rolling feed barley. Otherwise, all work is done in-house with the help of two part-time staff.
The beef and arable enterprises are organised in such a way there is time for all the family to be hands-on when the farm is booked as a location by TV or film crew. They are also the first port of call for holiday cottage bookings and on-site weddings arrangements.
All these enterprises are part of the whole farm business.
Robert says: “Thirty years ago we converted some barns into holiday lets and made use of the chance to diversify.
The farm will always be managed for future generations. If it is to flourish we must respect it. We do not overgraze, treat the farm hard or, on the other hand, let grass get away from us.
“Over the years I have come to understand how the land works and can see it is better in this coastal climate to keep a cover of grass here. It is not the sort of ground which requires sheep to keep the sward right. We are lucky, this is a forgiving farm and we try hard not to abuse that.”