Driving economies of scale and innovation within a mixed farming enterprise are the key objectives for the Howard Farms business. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
A century of farming using a traditional rotation including sheep and pigs was abandoned at Little Morton Farm, Retford, Nottinghamshire, in the late 1970s when the emphasis on gross margins led to a focus on high value crops such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes.
However, soon after the sheep and pigs disappeared, it became apparent soils at Little Morton Farm had suffered under the new regime. Yields began to fall and disease problems increased. So in 2003, Max Howard, who is one of eight family members involved in the Howard Farms business, purchased his first Aberdeen-Angus cow and it proved to be the start of a new approach.
Turn the clock forward to 2013 and livestock were becoming integral to farming operations for Howard Farms. Temporary grass, legume crops and mixed species herbal leys were introduced to build organic matter, improve soil structure and biology and provide a break crop.
Max’s son, Joe, took over the livestock enterprise in 2016 and he has embraced the mixed farming approach, which involves the growing of Chantenay carrots, which is a trademark product for Howard Farms.
He also believes maintaining the family partnership has been a key factor in the success of the business. “My Dad had the option of setting up on his own back in the 80s but chose to keep the partnership together. This has enabled the business to secure economies of scale coupled with the intricate benefits of combining livestock with vegetables and arable across the farms.”
It is clear Joe shares his father’s passion for mixed farming, pointing out he is ‘very conscious of not going against everything Dad was doing’.
Finishing cattle from forage is central to the farm’s strategy, not least because animals are destined for Waitrose’s Aberdeen-Angus scheme.
Joe says: “I have never fed any concentrate to our cattle, they are finished entirely from forage. There is no total mixed ration, rather the different forage crops we grow here including lucerne and the herbal leys are fed together.
“We are achieving liveweight gains averaging 0.75kg per day on this forage system and we typically reach the target slaughter weight of between 550kg and 600kg at about 24 months.”
The suckler herd all calve outside in March at Little Morton Farm and after calving move onto summer grazing, some on owned land, and also on rented land in Nottinghamshire. The cattle are then outwintered back at Little Morton Farm. This year has been very testing as the appalling weather has taken its toll and Joe admits it has led him to question whether it is the right thing to do.
A recent addition to the operation is the Angus dairy crosses which are brought down from Howard Farms’ own dairy unit in Dundee. The new spring block calving dairy enterprise has allowed Joe to increase cattle numbers finished at a second unit – Hodsock Lodge Farm.
“We initially planned to start up a dairy on a nearby estate but it fell through, so then we decided we should look to buy some land. We found a holding in Dundee which we purchased in October 2014 and we started milking in January 2015.
“We use AI to sire our replacements but then after nine weeks those cows which are not in-calf are put to a pedigree Angus bull and all his calves come down to the unit here. The first batch of 200 dairy crosses are all nearly two years old so we are starting to send them in to slaughter,” he says.
Joe admits to being surprised at how well the dairy crosses have performed in the finishing unit, achieving marginally higher daily liveweight gains when compared to the pure Angus animals. He believes this may be due to the effect of hybrid vigour, and says most of them resemble their Angus sires more closely than the Friesian dam.
Joe is not entirely wedded to the Angus, and a Shorthorn bull has been used for three years and his calves are now approaching slaughter weight.
“The Shorthorns have been growing on very well, possibly better than the Angus and they will hopefully go to Morrisons. Last year I bought 30 stabiliser heifers to see how they perform and I am buying-in another 40 this year. I want to see if they are as good as everyone says they are,” Joe adds.
Irrespective of the breeding, everything is grazed and the grazing platform is made up of a mixture of permanent grassland and temporary leys which form part of the arable rotation.
Joe says: “I spent time on a farm in New Zealand after I finished school and this introduced me to the concept of rotational grazing. We have doubled the tonnage of grass we grow here since we started grazing rotationally. We still set stock on some of the conservation grazing but everywhere else we are moving every few days.
“We find rotational grazing also helps to control weed growth because the grass romps away when the cows are removed and easily outcompetes the weeds.”
Reducing chemical inputs is pivotal to Joe’s strategy and although he has no desire to become organic, he admits to ‘farming with nature’.
Joe estimates the livestock and grass within the rotation benefits cereal yields by up to half a tonne per hectare because of improved soil functioning. The rotation across the farms works around the high value crops, particularly the Chantenay carrots.
“We would like to grow the carrots on a one-in-12 year rotation so we rent in extra carrot land to achieve this. We typically grow a four-year herbal grass ley then alternate between cereals and break crops such as oilseed rape, sugar beet, potatoes and carrots. We struggle to grow any second cereals on our light land,” Joe adds.
“We rarely know which fields we will be silaging at the start of the season because it will depend which ones we graze and when. Lucerne is the only crop we are guaranteed to silage and given the choice we avoid mowing the stewardship grassland as we are limited to how much we can replenish the nutrients,” he explains.
Joe has recently become one of AHDB’s Strategic Farms, part of its farm excellence initiative, and he views this as an opportunity to try new things and see what works best.
“I want to improve our financial performance to obtain access to new technology and to make better use of data by weighing and measuring more.”
Joe has identified a ‘gap’ around weaning where he believes the calves are going ‘backwards’, so he is planning a different approach next year.
“I plan to stagger the weaning because we have 320 cows calving at the same time and this year we weaned them all together and it was a disaster. We will wean according to body condition score next year, so the calves on the thinnest cows will be weaned before Christmas and the rest gradually after Christmas.
“We are currently achieving 48 per cent of the dam weight at weaning and we hope to improve this figure,” Joe says.
It is difficult not to be impressed by Joe’s determination to achieve continuous improvements across every aspect of the farm’s performance. He is clear about his aim to expand but this, he says, is not just about size.
“There is no such thing as a cost which is fixed as every cost is a result of a management decision and is therefore controllable. If I can spread my livestock overheads over more animals, we will have a chance of making it stack up. It breaks even at the moment but we really need more animals to utilise the grass here.”
He acknowledges the role his staff team have played in the success of the business.
“The fundamental corner stone to our business is our staff. I am truly blessed with the calibre of our team which make all of this possible. My job is easy as they do all the hard work.
“Ultimately, I want to be able to safeguard our farming future and I think we will do this by achieving a lower cost of production and scale is a big part of that.”