Applying many of the principles learned from starting his working life on a dairy farm has enabled Ian Willison to develop a range of markets and secure premium prices for his beef animals.
Mr Willison admits he ‘knew nothing’ when he first started with a small suckler herd, after selling his dairy herd when British Coal took over half the farm, near Shirebrook, to tip spoil from neighbouring Warsop colliery.
Once tipping had finished, the land was restored to grassland and taken back by the farm.
Mr Willison says: “I missed the cows so I started with 10 black and white cross Hereford in-calf heifers just before the BSE crisis. At the start, I chose the parameters I wanted to work towards then experimented until I found what I wanted.
“Management of the herd was strongly influenced by what was learned from the dairy herd. We opted for autumn calving, using artificial insemination rather than keeping stock bulls, and bred our own replacements.”
The farm sits on the magnesium limestone ridge which runs parallel to the M1 and so soils are thin. This, coupled with limitations of restored land, meant Mr Willison recognised it was important to fit his system to the farm.
He says: “We are always very busy in spring, so autumn calving suits us better. We are on light soil, so if we have a dry summer, grass can be tight in July and August. It suits us to have dry cows and heifers around during the time when we are short of grazing.”
After a few years, Mr Willison looked at breed choice in more detail and bought his first Simmental cows.
He says: “It is important to have flexibility within the system to be able to respond to market trends and prices. Simmentals do well in an extensive and intensive system and they are very good converters of grass.
“It is possible to cross the Simmental to a variety of other breeds successfully to produce what the market wants.”
Mr Willison operates a strict selection procedure to ensure cows meet stringent thresholds he maintains.
“Cows on this farm have to calve every 12 months. Cows which do not get back in-calf within this interval have to go. Early on, it was always Simmental cows which got back in-calf, so each year we calved more of them.”
Making the system work for him and his farm, rather than allowing circumstance to dictate what he does, is central to Mr Willison’s principles.
“We try to tailor everything to what the farm can do best. If we let the calving period slip, we have calves arriving at a time when the farm cannot support them well and it becomes expensive.”
Genetics play a big part in Mr Willison’s strategy and the use of artificial insemination (AI) enables him to fine tune breeding decisions.
He says: “Genetics do not count for everything, but they help us improve the herd and AI means we do not have to spend a fortune to get the best genetics.”
Recognising the importance of the female line is central to this policy, says Mr Willison.
“A bull only has 50 per cent of the influence, so if I can produce cows which do the best job for me, it reduces risk in breeding decisions because until I use a bull, I do not know how he will perform.”
This is in contrast to industry focus, which Mr Willison says has ‘put maternal genetics on the back burner’.
He says: “I believe it is vital to have a maternal female because we are looking for a female calf we can sell for breeding and a bull calf we can finish at 14 months at U grade.”
The result is a commercial herd of cows which is mainly three-quarters Simmental and one-quarter British Blue. Mr Willison runs a small pedigree Simmental herd because he ‘likes the breeding side’ and wants to retain an entirely closed herd.
Estimated breeding values are essential to Mr Willison’s decision making. He says: “Genetic gain is so small it cannot be achieved without recording. As a general rule, I find bulls will do what it says on the packet.”
Producing easy-calving females is top of Mr Willison’s priorities and he has implemented a rigorous selection procedure to achieve this.
“We are looking for cows which can deliver big calves without any problems. If a cow slips a calf or she is barren she goes, unless it is clear there is no genetic link. By adhering to this policy, we now have very few calving problems and have a 12-week calving period.”
This is more than just a convenience as it dictates turnout time and means heifers are the right age to sell in spring at 18 months old.
Mr Willison says: “We serve heifers at 22 to 24 months old which gives us an average cow size of 640kg. Heifers calve a month before the rest of the herd to give them longer to recover before we serve them in autumn.
“I monitor their condition carefully when they are freshly-calved as I think this is the time they need to be looked after, so I will give silage or creep if they need it.”
Female and male calves are separated immediately after they are born. Mr Willison feeds bull calves some creep, whereas he finds heifer calves need little if any concentrate and will thrive on forage alone.
“We wean heifers at 10 months old in June, whereas bull calves are weaned in April at eight months old. Bull calves are kept entire and finished indoors intensively over summer.”
Bulls are fed an ad lib maize and grass silage ration with some concentrate and are sold fat in late autumn. Mr Willison will choose up to three bulls to retain for one season as sweeper bulls. These are then sold for breeding the following spring.
The pedigree and commercial herds are managed as one. Mr Willison makes no secret his main customer is the commercial producer rather than the pedigree breeder looking for a show animal.
Joining a herd health scheme was one investment which has paid significant dividends.
He says: “When we first began advertising our cattle, it became clear health scheme-assured cattle suitable as embryo transfer recipients are in short supply and there is a big demand for them from pedigree breeders.”
Implementing conditions required by the herd health scheme has resulted in a healthier herd and disease incidence has reduced dramatically.
“Over the last two years, we have only lost one animal from those born alive. We no longer vaccinate for anything, but we are Level 1 Johne’s, IBR and BVD accredited.
“We very rarely treat for scours or pneumonia, because although the calves still occasionally suffer from these infections, they seem to recover fairly easily because their immune systems are functioning effectively.”
Minimising costs and maximising returns has come as a result of concentrating on margin rather than production, Mr Willison says. Keeping his options open has minimised exposure to risk which has proven to be pivotal to the success of the herd.
He says: “Having a market for our females which is not directly linked to slaughter price is good because it makes us resilient to the volatile market we are dealing with.
“We are rare as a lowland suckler herd and our cows will respond to a higher level of input. We will continue to look at increasing the quality of both our pedigree and commercial cattle, with a focus on breeding for maternal traits to enable us to command a premium price for our animals.”
81 hectares (200 acres), all tenanted
Ian Willison farms with his wife Lorraine and no staff
Contractors are used for maize harvesting and clamping and for silage and hay making
Over three-quarters of the farm is grass; half permanent and half temporary; 8ha (20 acres) of maize grown
A large livery business operates from the farm, together with a small caravan storage facility
The commercial herd comprises 70 Simmental and British Blue cross cows plus followers, plus 10 cows in the Williamwood pedigree herd
Williamwood Farm has been chosen by the British Simmental Society as one of its first monitor farms. It was selected because it has a commercial and a pedigree herd and provides an opportunity to view the relative performance of cross-bred Simmental progeny.
A principal aim of recording is to investigate whether estimated breeding values (EBVs) for pedigree animals are transferred to cross-bred cattle and to assess the influence of hybrid vigour on key parameters, such as liveweight gain.
Mr Willison records a series of data on cows and calves:
Calves are weighed at birth and weighed again every 100 days
A score for calving ease is given for each calving; this ranges from one if no assistance is required, to five if serious problems requiring veterinary assistance are encountered
Cows are weighed at first service then are condition scored at regular intervals throughout pregnancy
Data is now available for the first progeny group out of commercial cows from a selection of bulls with significantly contrasting EBVs.
As this project develops, the society plans to carry out feed efficiency trials on the male progeny.