As Edward Hawkins selects and prepares his South Devon cattle for the 2017 Beef Expo at Stoneleigh, he will be considering their performance just as closely as he assesses their looks. Ann Hardy reports.
It will be no surprise to see Edward Hawkins and some of his South Devon cattle exhibiting in the performance championships at the NBA Beef Expo, Stoneleigh.
Performance recording runs through Mr Hawkins’ veins and his enthusiasm for measuring, recording and improving his cattle is at the heart of all he does on his Somerset farm.
Farming in Trull, just outside Taunton, he describes how every week, the plate meter comes out to help plan the herd’s grazing; every month, youngstock are weighed to check they are meeting their 200-, 400- and 600-day targets; and once-a-year, Cutsey Farm has a visit from a Breedplan technician, where ultrasound scanning for eye muscle area, fat depth, intramuscular fat and calculation of retail beef yield form an integral part of the system.
“If you do not measure it, what hope is there of improving,” says Mr Hawkins, who believes the beef industry should take its lead from dairy farming, where performance recording has become second nature.
However, he regrets that within the beef industry there are not more producers performance recording, and says he would particularly like to see more take part in ultrasound scanning for carcase quality traits.
Believing higher participation would improve reliability of genetic indexes and propel the breed forward, he says: “People sometimes feel they do not have the time to weigh cattle, but even if only for worming, it helps to know exact weights to get exactly the right dose. I think it is time well spent.”
But the real value, Mr Hawkins says, is in knowing an animal’s estimated breeding values (EBVs) which will form a significant part of the competition, just as they do in sire and dam selection on Cutsey Farm.
Casting his eye over a uniform group of bulling heifers with little to choose between them on visual assessment, he says: “We will decide which of these heifers to use to breed replacements when we know their latest EBVs.”
Mr Hawkins says: “EBVs are a great tool and they are 60 per cent of the battle, but appearance is also important. We are looking for locomotion and good feet and we want to see bulls we buy in working condition. In other words, what they will look like when they take off their show clothes.”
For EBVs, Mr Hawkins prioritises eye muscle area, a balance of direct and maternal calving ease, good weights at 200, 400 and 600 days, and plenty of milk.
“We are currently looking for a myostatin zero bull,” he says, referring to the most favourable variant of this muscle-regulating gene.
He says the performance of the progeny of the two natural service sires on-farm, Kestle King Leo and Cutsey Red Ensign, is almost perfectly predicted by the bulls’ EBVs.
“Ensign’s calf weight EBV is -1, whereas Leo’s is +5.6. And if you look at heifer calves born on-farm this year, they average 41kg and 45kg, respectively, which is exactly what the EBVs are telling you.”
Equipped with an iPad and a full set of the herd’s performance data, Mr Hawkins has customised the Breedplan results to make them more meaningful and give an instant visual picture of genetic strengths and weaknesses of each animal on-farm.
He says: “It is easy to be number-blind in farming and this traffic light system helps overcome that. If the EBV trait falls in the lowest percentile, it is coloured red, showing there is much room for improvement; the middle values are amber to green and when they get to the top they are blue, then yellow for the very best performers.”
The system developed by Mr Hawkins has made a significant contribution to the herd’s genetic progress, as too have the AI sires Brettles SAS Red Ensign, Hawkley Poll Inquest and Woodhayes Homer 5.
Among its many accomplishments, the herd has won the Wessex region herd competition in 2014 and was the second most improved herd for EBVs in Eblex’s national competition in the same year.
“A lot of this was accredited to Kestle King Leo,” says Mr Hawkins, praising Roger Rundle, the stockbull’s Cornwall-based breeder.
This year, bulls have been kept entire and will be finished on-farm at about 16 months and sold in the soon-to-open butchery in nearby Sheppy’s Farm Shop. However, in previous years, they have been castrated and sold as stores. Heifers are either retained as replacements or sold for breeding.
Growth rates are precisely measured and last month’s average of 1.7kg/day for bulls ranged from 2.4kg/day for the best, down to 1.3kg/day for slower growing animals.
The finishing ration on which they achieve this performance is ad-lib grass silage with 5kg/head/day of rolled barley and 0.6kg of a rumen bypass rape-based protein.
However, as calves, Mr Hawkins has found South Devons do better without creep feed.
He says: “We used to creep feed, but we found calves would spend a lot of time in the feeder and less on their mothers. The mothers’ milk would dry up and calves would eat more and more cake, yet growth rates were the same.”
Today, Mr Hawkins says spring-born calves remain on grass until weaning in December, by which time they are mostly close to their target of half their mothers’ weight. With dam weights averaging 750kg, this accomplishment on grass and milk alone is impressive.
High quality grass plays a central role in reaching these targets and today the herd is paddock-grazed in 0.96-hectare (two-acre) blocks, with a close watch kept on maintaining opening covers at about 3,000kg DM/ha (1,214kg DM/acre), grazing residuals to 1,500kg DM/ha (607kg DM/acre) and conserving any surplus by monitoring the grass wedge.
Mr Hawkins says: “For the future, we want to look more towards kg of meat produced/ha.”
Other aspirations are to continue to monitor closely, to increase the herd’s EBV to bring the average into the top 25 per cent and to continue to build on genetic and performance improvements.
Remarking he always aims to learn from other farmers in both dairy and beef, as well as from his own results, Mr Hawkins says: “This improvement will not be achieved by doing one thing 100 per cent better, but by doing 100 things 1 per cent better.”
At Beef Expo, all Mr Hawkins hopes to achieve is to do the breed proud: “For me, it is all about the South Devon – it is such a good breed.”