North East farmer Martin Lowcock adapted his business to ensure his challenges do not compromise efficiency. Wendy Short reports.
Farm businesses have to adapt to the volatile marketplace and Martin Lowcock has taken on this challenge with enthusiasm.
In recent years, he has found an alternative source of bedding for his suckler herd during winter, with the profitability of his arable enterprises under constant review. Maltby Grange Farm, Middlesbrough, has traditionally supported a herd of springcalving commercial Simmentals although a pair ofHereford bulls has been added to the 100-cow herd and their progeny are just coming through.
Martin says: “The Hereford is more suited to out-wintering than some of the continentals. It is a quiet breed and fits in well, as I have a zero-tolerance approach to aggressive cattle. It is also a good converter of forage.”
The two Hereford bulls are out-wintered on a free-draining field with an area of hard standing for feeding.
“This has made life easier because it is always difficult to find somewhere to keep bulls separate when they’re not required.
“They have adequate shelter and gotthrough the bad weather in good condition, so I will probably do the same next year.”
Despite the farm producing its own straw, cows are housed on woodchip.
The farm’s proximity to the large population of Middlesbrough has allowed Martin to exploit this opportunity.
“I am surrounded by small businesses linked to forestry and horticulture and they have to pay for the disposal of green waste.
I thought woodchip could be put to good use as straw has become so expensive.
“Woodchip is ideal for the cattle, but it would require further drying to make it suitable for use in biomass boilers. All I had to do was apply for a waste exemption licence, which was granted without any fuss.
“Suppliers deliver the material whenever it suits themandwoodchip is topped up once a week, keeping cows clean and dry.
Discarded material is left for about 12 months so it fully rots down. “It is spread on the arable fields, where it has produced a marked improvement in soil structure.
But it is not applied on grassland as it tends to smother the sward.” Having made sure the cattle remain clean and comfortable in their winter accommodation, Martin likes to keep a close watch on pregnant females, calving heifers inJanuary ahead ofthe cows.
“I like to give the heifers my undivided attention, so it helps to run them as a solitary batch,” he says.
“They have plenty of bedding and are penned off as soon as they calve until I feel confident they have bonded. It can save both time and money in the long-term if this stage is managed carefully.”
The rest of the cows calve in late March and are also penned up with their calves.
“In the past there have been a few cases of retained cleansings, but these disappeared since they have been given iodine in bolus form.”
Last year, heifers which were not required as replacements were sold for breeding at Northallerton mart, with steers marketed as forward stores weighing about 420-450kg through the same outlet.
The small sacrifice in growth rates for steers, compared with bulls, is compensated by their easier management and appeal to a broader market, saysMartin. Cows are fed a simple winter ration of silage, straw and minerals, which is also buffer fed from September.
The poor profitabilityof cereals for two consecutive years has prompted a change in policy.
“This year I will be making wholecrop out of spring barley for the first time because, in recent years, the straw has had to be chopped and ploughed in. I have tried spraying it with glyphosate but it has been too green to bale.
“I’m hoping whole-cropping will improve barley utilisation so I will sow eight hectares for this to replace crimped wheatin the growing calf ration.”
Martin believes buyers place more emphasis on herd health status since the foot-and-mouth outbreak. “Many of the producers who buy my breeding cattle have concerns over transmissible diseases and, therefore, I keep a closed herd, apart from buyingin bulls, which are quarantined.
“All replacement heifers are tested for Johne’s on a regular basis, as well as being vaccinated against BVD.”
Martin’s vigilance in reducing the risk of cattle disease transmission has taken him on a personal quest and his role as NFU North Riding and Durham county chairmanhasbeenuseful.
“I am trying to encourage cattle producers to avoid buying cattle from TB-infected areas. The marts also have a role to play because information about the provenance of auction cattle is not always communicated as clearly as I would like.
“It should be made available to potential buyers, before they commit to buying.” Historically, the farm has grown oilseed rape but this has been taken out of the rotation.
“I was struggling to control slugs in OSR and returns were diminishing.It has been replaced with a ley of either grass, lucerne or red clover, which is grazed by cows or made into silage in one year out of every four.
“Forage leys work well for cattle and I haven’t had to use slug pellets for the lastfive years. The silage it produces typically contains 15 per cent protein, so it has reduced my dependence on bought-in concentrates.
“Grass is a highly flexible crop; it can be grazed or made into silage, hay or haylage.
“It also helps control blackgrass, which has not been a problem to date but infestation does need to be monitored.”
Gross margins for autumn cerealshave alsocomeunder scrutiny. The land has the potential for producingautumnwheatyieldsof 10t/ha (4t/acre), but it is not inconceivable the cropwill be taken out ofthe rotationat some point.
“Input costs have risen so sharply I have started to question whether autumn wheat is worth growing,” he says.
“The price of crop protection chemicals should be linked to wheat prices and, at present,the two are way out of alignment.”
However, one crop which has earned its rightful place in the rotation is spring beans.It usually returns a reasonable profit, attracting a £20-£30/tonne premium, if they make the grade for human consumption.
They require little attention apart from a liberal application of farmyard manure and protection from chocolate spot.
Crops which fail to meet specification are fed to cattle. Martin is all too aware soil health is pivotalto the success of his farm business.
A flat-lift subsoiler is used atthree-year intervals on grass rotations and has proved an invaluable tool for drainage and alleviating compaction. This is usually carried out in mid-summer, when grass quality has started to decline.
“Compaction can occur for a number of reasons – not just from machinery travel and poaching by cattle, but also from heavy rain,” Martin says.
“The flat-lift must only be operated when soil is dry to achieve the shatter-effect as it allows the fibrous plant roots to reach nutrients, which would otherwise be inaccessible.
“It is often said farming comes full circle and now is the time to go back to basics, particularly when it comes to looking after soil which is fundamental to our businesses.
“Reverting to more traditional systems may help us survive and I am not afraid to make further changes, should the need arise.”
Older people in the Middlesbrough region still associate the Lowcock name with the lemonade Martin’s father, John, used to produce.
However the factory and brand were eventually sold and Martin has been running Maltby Grange since the late 1980s.
When he took over, the farm had just gone out of dairying and the main enterprise was bed and breakfast pigs. Beef production started when Martin bought a black and white store bull and this led to the establishment of the suckler herd.
Butcher After he began breeding his own cattle, Martin attended a butchery course and opened a small, on-site butcher shop.
It quickly became popular with locals and a herd of Saddleback pigs soon followed. Store lambs were bought-in and finished and, at its peak, the enterprise employed two fulltime butchers.
However the butcher shop closed in 2012, largely because Martin’s son, Tom, now 19, was more interested in the farming side of the business.
Martin and his wife, Beverley, also have a daughter, Kate, now aged 17.