At a recent Innovation for Agriculture event at Walcot Farm, Lydbury North, Shropshire, James Evans explained to visitors how his outlook on beef production has changed. Laura Bowyer reports.
When James Evans came home to the family farm from Harper Adams University, he continued managing the beef unit as before with his father John Evans.
Often putting high quality store cattle through the market ring and gaining a few rosettes on the way, on the outside the business looked in good shape. In reality it was not a cost-effective enterprise.
Mr Evans said: “The only form of benchmarking when we were running our conventional commercial herd was what was going through the sale ring.
“But behind closed doors, we were losing up to 20 per cent of our calves each year due to problems at calving and fertility issues.”
After visiting John Geldard’s farm of Stabiliser cattle, Lleyn sheep and poultry in Cumbria, Mr Evans returned home inspired. In 2007, the farm established its herd of Stabilisers.
He said: “Our problem was the cow, not the terminal sire. We were not getting a consistent breeding female. We were buying-in Holstein cross Limousins from dairy herds. The dairy industry has not got the best reputation for fertility, and we were buying-in their problems.
“Stabilisers are a composite breed, originating from America, made up of red Angus, Gelbveigh – a German breed, Simmental and Hereford. The animals are often red in the UK, but 70 per cent of US Stabilisers are black.
“The beauty of the Stabiliser breed is every animal is inspected for quality and sold on a fixed price. We split our cows into two groups, one autumn-calving and the other spring. The benefit of the autumn herd is using AI. AI’ing sucklers in the summer at grass is not ideal. Putting the bull in is much simpler.”
Mr Evans tried AI in the summer by synchronising the heifers, but had mixed results.
He said: “On the Stabiliser system, breeding heifers have to be 400kg at 14 months. These are all then priced at £1,400. The farm hopes 90 per cent of the heifers not kept as replacements are sold for breeding.
“Animals’ weights are recorded at birth, at weaning [200 days] and at 400 days. This amount of measuring is necessary for us to monitor performance.
“Our biggest thing here is producing suckler cows and we cannot lose sight of that. We have been producing some good bulls but always ensuring they are not heavy at birth.
“We want these low calf weights for ease of calving. I have had to pull two or three calves this year because they were about 5kg heavier than wanted. We are aiming for a calf about 35-40kg, and anything heavier than 45kg will not be kept for breeding as there is a correlation between a calf’s birthweight and its future calf’s weight.
“Cows need to be highly fertile, feminine and good mothers.
Research shows if you look for extremes such as growth or muscling, cow fertility can be affected.
“Furthermore, the Stabiliser breed’s gestation period is shorter than many other breeds at 278-282 days long. Some continental breeds are two weeks longer.
“The concentration on gestation period is resulting in low birthweights among the breed.
Because they are born earlier they are lighter at birth.”
Mr Evans has been using sexed semen as there is such a high demand for Stabiliser heifers. He believes the breed is a long way off market saturation and demand will continue into the future.
He said: “If everyone moves to breeding Stabilisers and the price comes down, at least we will have very good fertility here. A good herd takes years to build up.
“Calving heifers at two years old is key to our profitability. If cows calve then, their progeny over 10 years will equal 62 calves. But if you leave the cow to calf at three years, this progeny will only produce 26 calves due to multiplication of numbers.
“We now keep our cows and heifers in a fit condition. In our old system, cows were lean. We were burdened with big calves and difficult calvings and this was affecting our profitability. Some people are keen on manipulating body condition throughout the year, but we take the approach of keeping females in good condition year-round.
“Once cows calve down we see many starting to bull again after three weeks. This is key to breeding success. Fit cows will come back in-calf more quickly.”
Calves at Walcot Farm are up and sucking in minutes and Mr Evans believes the sooner they get the colostrum in them, the better.
Mr Evans said: “With limited labour I could not calve everything by myself. If I had to intervene and get all calves sucking, we would have to employ more staff. I only check the cows twice-a-day when we are calving. I could invest in technology to alert me when a cow was calving, but I would rather not know.”
Mr Evans has been using collars to detect animals on-heat. The collar detects activity and rumination, resting and eating times and produces an hourly pictorial graph.
He said: “With the use of the collars, we are now identifying cows which would have been missed before. We are not a dairy herd. We do not spend as much time with the cows to always spot signs of bulling.”
The collar detects reference heats which are important to notice in the voluntary waiting period. The reference heat shows they are starting their cycle and are ready for service.
As a result, 90-95 per cent conception rates have been achieved, with 55 per cent of sexed semen resulting in a conception. The herd’s genetic base was improved from 90-95 per cent of the sexed semen being born female.
Bulls are sold on a set pricing system based on their estimated breeding values (EBVs). They are either £3,000, £4,000 or £5,000 depending on their figures. All bulls bred from embryos are sold at £5,000.
Mr Evans said: “We need to be choosing bulls which will produce good females, even though these are often not the bulls which we would have chosen as terminal sires, we need to use and trust EBVs. The beauty of selling at home is we are not competing against other animals in the ring on looks alone.
“Bulls are kept on a high forage diet, so when they go out to grass to serve they do not lose condition. Stabilisers have the highest percentage of cows recorded than any other breed. Stabiliser bulls must be semen tested, which is different to the cattle showing world.”
Last year Mr Evans put all cows to sexed semen. “Fifty per cent of cows held the semen and the other half were swept up by the bull.
“We have got 70-80 per cent of the herd calving to the first service. We only serve for 25 days to AI, keeping the calving window tight and we sweep up with bulls for a further six weeks. Ideally we want to get caving down to six weeks.”
The farm has noticed better conception rates with younger animals and maiden heifers performing the best.
Mr Evans said: “We cull 10 per cent of cows each year based on what make the lowest weaning weights, whereas before we were culling purely for aesthetics and feet.”
The Evans family also runs 1,000 Lleyns which are put to a Primera ram. Lleyn sheep and Stabiliser cattle are a common combination.
Mr Evans said: “Both breeds are all about kilogrammes of meat per hectare, not the end product going through the market. Livestock is generally judged on conformation and not profit or kilogramme of meat per hectare, which for me are better indications of performance.”