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Small investment in calving aid helps Shropshire farmer

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The decision to invest in new technology can often be tricky, but beef farmer Anthony Heath believes his recent purchase in a calving sensor system has saved labour and given him piece of mind. Louise Hartley reports.

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Anthony, Alex and Richard Heath manage 66,000 laying hens and 100 beef sucklers
Anthony, Alex and Richard Heath manage 66,000 laying hens and 100 beef sucklers
Calving sensor

A recent purchase in a small piece of technology has greatly impressed farmer Anthony Heath, who runs a mixed system of laying hens and beef near Market Drayton.

 

Farming with his wife Sarah and two sons Alex and Richard, Anthony manages 66,000 laying hens and a 100-head suckler herd.

 

Calving mainly all-year-round and managing both sides of the business can be time consuming. After a trip to Lamma last year, Anthony came home with two calving sensors, something which he feels has been a ‘brilliant’ investment.

Intro to device

The device fastens to the cow’s tail via a ratchet strap. It detects contractions through the spine of the animals and sends an alert via text message when the cow is two and one hour off calving.

 

Repeated texts are sent every hour until the device is taken off the cow. Two phone numbers are programmed on to the device and both receive alerts.

Calving sensor

The Heaths previously installed a camera into the calving pens, but the signal from the shed and house was weak.

 

At the time, they paid £200 for the first sensor and less for the second, and are confident it has been a worthwhile investment.

 

Anthony says: “As long as the sensor is put onto the correct cow, it is fantastic. What else can you get for that sort of money?

 

Drawback

 

“The only drawback is it does not have a calling function, so only alerts you via text message. The device must have phone signal to work and needs recharging every month.

 

“It also needs taking off the cow every three or four days for five to six hours to allow blood circulation to the end of the tail.”

 

There are several calving sensor systems on the market, all ranging in price, but Alex says this one works for them.

 

“It is relatively cheap, easy to use and is not invasive for the cow as it clips onto the tail.”

Anthony says: “The farmhouse is about one-mile from the beef sheds, meaning we have previously spent a lot of time going back and forward when we thought cows were going to calve. It has taken a lot of worry out of night time, when we know an animal is getting nearer to calving. We are able to use our time much better.”

 

It is also very accurate, says 18-year-old Richard.

 

“The sensor has sometimes sent an alert for a cow which, on visual assessment, does not look to be calving, but within one hour, it has.”

Check out the video here...

Cost

The Heaths previously installed a camera into the calving pens, but the signal from the shed to the house was weak.

 

They paid £200 for the first sensor and less for the second, and are confident it has been a worthwhile investment.

 

Anthony says: “As long as the sensor is put onto the correct cow, it is fantastic. What else can you get for that sort of money?

 

“The only drawback is it does not have a calling function, so only alerts you via text message. The device must have phone signal to work and needs recharging every month.

 

“It also needs taking off the cow every three or four days for five to six hours to allow blood circulation to the end of the tail.”

 

There are several calving sensor systems on the market, all ranging in price, but Alex says the Moocall works for them.

 

“It is relatively cheap, easy to use and is not invasive for the cow as it clips onto the tail.”

Laying hens

The beef and egg enterprises at Eaton House work well together as cows graze the same land as the free-range hens, keeping the grass at a manageable length for the hens.

 

Some 45 hectares (111 acres) of grassland surround the chicken sheds, with much of the land reclaimed from an old airfield. The old tracks have been dug up and covered over with top soil, so the quality in some places is not good.

Limousins and Simmentals

The beef herd comprises Limousins and Simmentals, with pedigree and cross-bred bulls and females sold privately and at local auction marts.

 

The family started off with Simmentals, with Anthony believing they thrived well off grass and were a quieter breed, which was important as his two sons were only young at the time.

 

Twenty-year-old Alex prefers the Limousin.

 

He says: “They are more muscular, have good carcase quality and there is strong demand for females.”

 

Complement 

 

But the two breeds complement each other well on the farm as there is divided demand for both Simmental and Limousin bulls in the area.

 

Anthony says: “Simmental bulls sell well at Market Drayton and Cheshire, where there are more dairy herds preferring Simmental-cross calves, whereas Limousins sell well at Welshpool and Newark.”

 

Breeding bulls are sold between 18 and 24 months and the Heath’s hope to sell between 10 and 15 bulls this year.

 

Over the last few years, herd numbers have increased, meaning the Heaths have been more selective in what they keep for replacements and sell for breeding.

Bulls

The current Limousin stock bull is five-year-old Wilodge Fantastic, bought privately from Matthew Jones, Shropshire, as a three-year-old.

 

Its full sister Wilodge Diamate, owned by Christine Williams, Shropshire, was reserve female champion at the Great Yorkshire Show and reserve inter-breed champion at Bath and West Show in the past. 

 

“He is a promising bull and we will be taking his sons to the pedigree sales at Carlisle and Newark this year,” says Anthony.

 

The Heaths are mindful of making the best margin from each bull and say keeping bulls on to sell for stock work is not always the most profitable.

 

Alex says: “If we feel a bull is not fit for breeding, it is sent to Market Drayton auction at 14 months old for killing.

 

“The big buyers such as ABP and Dumbia tend not to take bulls older than 16 months, so this is another reason why we quickly decide which route the bull will go down.”

 

Anthony adds: “More people are keeping bulls to sell for stock work, meaning there are more around of a lesser quality.”

 

Indoor

Bulls are produced to be ‘fit to work’ at Eaton House.

 

“Many bulls these days are fed up for sale condition, and might look big and flashy in the ring, but it is how they perform when out with the cows which matters,” says Alex, who believes although EBVs have a place, they are not currently accurate enough, compared to genotyping in the dairy industry.

 

The female side is equally important. Numbers have been built up to a good point so surplus heifers can be sold and demand is strong. A recent batch of females with calves at foot averaged 2,500gns at Newark.

 

"Simmental females are in demand for embryo transfer recipients and Limousins are in demand for breeding replacements," says Anthony.

feeding

Alex is part of the Aberdeen-Angus Youth Development Programme, open to anyone interested in cattle. He has his own small but growing herd of pedigree Peplow Limousins and is focusing his attention on breeding calves for the show potential market.

 

He says: "Up until now I have been breeding pedigree cows to pedigree bulls, but plan to change the breeding strategy slightly this year and use some British Blue semen to breed show potential calves.

 

“Selling good calves at 10 months of age can generate as much profit as an 18-month-old bull.”

 

Richard prefers the Simmental breed, with his own Ternvalley prefix and plans to cross his cows with the Limousin this year to sell cross-bred heifers, as this is where the demand is.

 

Showing

 

The Heaths enjoy showing at many of the local county shows, usually exhibiting more Simmentals than Limousins. Last year they took reserve inter-breed at Oswestry with their Simmental cow Popes Whispers Coco.

 

It was purchased from Jimmy and Vikki Wood, from Longridge, Lancashire, at the Leading Ladies sale, Carlisle, several years ago.

 

It is being flushed this year, with only the best cows acting as brood cows for the two herds.

 

One of their best Limousins is Glenrock Caprice, bought at the Glenrock dispersal for 4,600gns with a calf at foot and is in-calf to Fantastic. It is full sister to Glenrock Ventura, which was sold for 24,000gns in 2006 and has bred sons to 32,000gns.

 

Eaton House facts

  • 69 hectares (170 acres), including 24ha (60 acres) of maize and barley
  • Invested in free-range hen enterprise in 2005, putting up three sheds for 66,000 hens
  • Eggs are sold nationwide and to J.A. and O. Griffiths and Son, Oakland Farm Eggs 
  • 35 pedigree Simmental females under the Eaton prefix
  • 20 pedigree Limousin females under the Ternvalley prefix
  • 100-head in total, with mainly all-year-round calving
  • Winner of the 2014 north west Midlands and north Wales Limousin Cattle Breeders Club herds competition, for the small herd section
  • During winter, cows are fed home-grown maize and straw, with added urea to raise protein levels and corn ration fed in a TMR
  • During summer cows graze on grass and are buffer fed maize through troughs, the feed trailer or brought in to feed and perform management work, aided by self-locking yokes
  • Stock-feed potatoes are also given if the price is right
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