"No cows are breathing in air other cows have breathed out, which is why we can stock with all ages." - Neil Rowe
It is impossible not to be inspired by Neil Rowe’s management of the new beef business at Manor Farm, Marcham, Oxfordshire.
It is clear he is always striving to go one step better, make life a little easier for his cows, and pass on his knowledge to those around him.
A former adviser to the Compton research farm, Berkshire, Neil helped to develop robotic milkers and installed them on Manor Farm’s dairy unit when it converted to organic in the 1990s. He also undertook a Nuffield Scholarship on voluntary milking systems, gathering best practice from around the world and disseminating it to British farmers.
Having such a technical dairy background, it is hardly surprising when the farm switched away from milking cows to breeding beef cattle, Neil transferred his experience into developing the best beef unit he could.
The handling system, designed by Temple Grandin, means groups can be moved and cleaned safely.
He says: “I had met Temple Grandin and wanted to design a shed with cows in mind, as well as minimise labour requirements.”
The 35-metre (114ft 10in) by 55m (180ft 5in) shed features a central passageway and open sides with tomb-style feeding troughs under a cantilevered overhang.
Neil says: “We can fill them with 24 hours’ worth of feed in one go, with a chain system which pulls feed forward so cows can always reach it.”
The high locking barrier prevents calves from escaping, ensures feed falls back into the trough and stops larger cows from bullying youngsters.
“We keep all cows, calves and finishers in the same shed and have very even condition scores because they all eat when they want to.”
The feed yokes have been designed and installed in an attempt to prevent potential calf escapes.
Neil Rowe's building design and system calms the cattle and has lowered disease rates on-farm.
Each pen measures 14m (45ft 11in) by 6m (19ft 8in) to match the straw bedding machine, which shreds and throws straw rather than chopping and blowing it.
“There is no dust or stones and you can do each pen in one pass – it takes 15 minutes to bed up 350 cattle.”
Pens have solid sides just taller than 1m (3ft 3in) high to prevent draughts, but the rest of the shed is open for maximum light and ventilation.
Neil says: “Cows like to look out of buildings and see other groups – it is amazing how calm the system makes them and how low the levels of disease are. We basically tried to recreate a field environment within a building.”
Large helicopter fans draw air in through the open ridge and out of the sides, changing the air in the whole building every three minutes.
“No cows are breathing in air other cows have breathed out, which is why we can stock it with all ages and, in doing so, reduce labour requirement by about 50 per cent.”
Built on top of old dairy footings, the shed cost £170,000 in 2009, including labour, fixtures and fittings.
Calves have access into a large creep area where they can be shut in so cows can be handled individually and all pens have gates onto the central handling passage so groups can be moved and cleaned out safely.
“At one end, we have a curved race into a squeeze crush, where you can draft them into two pens or back to their own pen. At the other end is an automatic brush system to clean them before slaughter, with a loading ramp for stress-free loading.”
All water troughs tip over and are cleaned once a week and 70 per cent of water is harvested from the shed roof.
Neil says: “The computer injects minerals and trace elements to the water every hour, based on cattle weights and numbers, which is 95 per cent efficient compared with about 60 per cent when fed in other forms.”
The ventilation system changes air volume every three minutes.
Rainwater is collected from the roof, stored in a tank and provides 70 per cent of water used by cattle in the building and fields.
Daylight is extended to 16 hours with eight hours of infrared light.
Getting lighting levels right is key to cow health and fertility, and the computer system ensures 16 hours of light at 180-280 Lux, followed by eight hours of darkness.
This boosts levels of oestrogen, progesterone and growth hormones. Dark red lights ensure cows and stockman can see in the dark without turning on the main lights.
“I have a student to help out at busy times, but on a normal day I will have finished all the beef work by 10am, do consultancy work all day, then check stock on my way home.
“The aim is to manage 350 cattle with an average of two hours’ labour a day, including calving.”
Although the farm previously finished organic Aberdeen-Angus cattle for Dovecote Park, the new beef unit sparked a change of breed as well.
“I would come across the Stabiliser breed when I was in America and decided if we were ever to make money out of beef, we had to be as efficient as possible.
“Stabilisers are based on figures and science and this convinced us it was the way to go.”
The farm now has a multiplier contract with the breed society, so most females are sold for breeding, with about 80 steers, bulls and a few females finished each year for the farm shop and Dawn Meats.
“It is a lot more profitable selling for breeding, so this year I have used sexed semen on heifers to maximise numbers.”
The breed is best managed according to society guidelines, so Neil created a management calendar to set out daily tasks for the year ahead.
“We have already got our TB test booked for March 2016.”
After discovering the Stabiliser breed in America, Neil introduced some cattle to Manor Farm.
Already in a high health scheme and Johne’s accredited, Neil will also pregnancy diagnose and vaccinate for BVD, IBR and Leptospirosis at the same time to minimise labour and stress.
Cows are split into two groups, with 100 calving in autumn and 50 in spring, to spread cashflow and make best use of bulls.
“We only put bulls in for 60 days, so have a tight calving period, and when we wean calves, there is no more than 60kg variance.”
This year, 95 per cent of cows were pregnant in 60 days, with at least 60 per cent calving in the first 21 days of the calving period.
The autumn herd starts calving outside from September 12 and is housed in November.
“We have cow tracks to the shed so can feed inside if we are short of forage.”
Neil divides cows into four pens of up to 30 cows, according to which stock bull they are going to. In January, he introduces forage-based creep feed and cows are turned out on March 18.
He manages his pasture like a dairy farmer, moving cows every seven days and cutting any leys which get too far ahead.
He says: “We redrilled the pasture with high sugar, highly digestible grass, along with legumes and broadleaved plants, to improve intakes and pasture quality throughout the year.”
He uses no nitrogen fertiliser and calves average growth rates of 1.2kg a day between turnout and weaning, on grass alone.
From June 21, he condition scores cows every week, and if calves are growing well will wean them as late as possible.
Neil says: “In 2012, when the grass was poor, we weaned straight away, but last year the first calf was born 12 days after weaning. It is a really good way to maximise growth rates while managing cows’ condition and ensuring new calves are not too big.”
Last year, bull calves gained 48kg in the 30 days after the start of weaning, compared to a national average weight loss in the same period, and they averaged 420kg at weaning.
“We do not have to vaccinate for pneumonia and antibiotic treatments are virtually nil.”
The search is still on for this year’s Beef Innovator of the Year. We are looking for a beef farmer who is not afraid to embrace sound advice and research, coupled with their own experience, to successfully innovate within their business.
Our beef innovator award will recognise farmers who are making the most of the opportunities presented to them, whether this is altering their production system, changing direction completely or identifying a new market.
Neil, who was runner-up in two award categories in 2012 and 2013, decided to give it another go.
He says: “It has opened up more consultancy opportunities for me and I have done a lot of public speaking at the Royal Agricultural Society of England’s high-tech workshops since then.
“Looking to the future, we may look to add value to our beef sales. We are producing at 50 per cent of the average UK carbon footprint with virtually no antibiotics, so there could be a premium there.
“I am also looking into using thermal imaging cameras – potentially on drones – to identify cold cattle which may be getting unwell or performing poorly.”