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Beef Special: Networking provides knowledge for novel management methods

Becoming one of AHDB’s strategic farms has provided focus for Ian Norbury which has paid dividends for his business.


Hannah Noble Reports.

Pedigree Aberdeen-Angus cows are run alongside the herd's commercial cows.
Pedigree Aberdeen-Angus cows are run alongside the herd's commercial cows.

For beef farmer, Ian Norbury, time spent off farm, and time spent networking and being involved in different projects has been invaluable in making him question the decisions he makes.


Mr Norbury, who farms at the 98 hectare (242 acre) Dairy Farm in Mobberly, Cheshire, explains he has met a lot of new people through his involvement in the AHDB strategic farms programme, with many offering their own experiences; good and bad.


“I was not very happy with how the business was going and was looking into different options, AHDB were advertising for forward thinking farmers and I applied.


“Being part of the programme has helped me loads, it has really focussed me on driving the business forward and giving it some direction. It also makes me justify a lot of the things I do, which was probably one of my biggest drawbacks.”


He says being involved in the project has added value to the business and increased his confidence: “If someone asked me if I would do it again, it would be a definite yes.”


He has also used Twitter as a way of contacting people who have already implemented management techniques such as out-wintering, and says if you ask people they will usually be more than happy to help.


The farm, which comprises arable and grazing land, is run by Mr Norbury, in partnership with his parents, Geoff and Pauline, but they have taken a step back in recent years.He is also helped out by Jack Ancell, a 16-year-old from the village who has been helping out since he was 10-years-old, and spends any spare moment he can on the farm.


“I have been brought up with farming in a specific way, almost having tunnel vision, and that is where Jack helps, he is like a breath of fresh air.”


“The cows I inherited from when Dad was running the farm were mainly Simmental crosses, at about 700kg mature weight with some weighing in at over a tonne, the aim now is to breed an animal weighing 600 to 650kg.”


Last year Mr Norbury calved 71 cows, this year there will be 112 to calve, 45 of which will be heifers, and 17 of these are Stabilisers which were bought in and the rest are home-bred Aberdeen-Angus’.


Mr Norbury also has 35 pedigree Aberdeen-Angus cows which make up the Mobberley herd of and are run together with the commercial cows.


All the Aberdeen-Angus bulls are kept entire and sold through online livestock sales which has proved extremely successful

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Ian Norbury
Ian Norbury

Contacting James Evans, a beef farmer with Stabiliser Cattle Farming, Shropshire, on Twitter (@stabiliserjames) helped with Mr Norbury’s venture into out-weaning.


His advice was to bring all animals into a yard and split the cows from the calves, then take the calves back to the field and bring the cows into a paddock next to them, with just the electric fence between them. Mr Norbury says: “You then move them away a day at a time further and further apart, it has worked brilliantly.


“I have been able to push the calves on as they were able have access to the better grass with the cows on rougher grazing.


“As the calves are lighter it also meant I could keep them out longer, they did more damage to the fields when the cows were still out with the calves later in the season.”

Mr Norbury would normally wean calves at the point of housing for the winter, around the end of November, but with the new system weaning took place at the start of November.


“With weighing animals, this was a big eye opener, the calves did not take a knock at all, and some of the big calves put on even more weight than when they were with the cows. It is great, I cannot see me going back.”


He says the key to outdoor weaning is the use of mains electricity, and the fence has to be good so they respect it.


“The aim is to finish the steers on the best grass, and get them gone to ABP between July and August when the price is at its peak and I do not have to bring them inside again. The earliest I have sent some is between 15 and 16 months and the oldest were 21-months-old,” he says.

Ian Norbury hopes to increase his herd to 150 cows.
Ian Norbury hopes to increase his herd to 150 cows.

Last year Mr Norbury experimented with out-wintering the cows on kale for the first time, cows went onto the kale in December and came off at the start of February, at least four weeks before calving. Alongside the kale, the cows were also fed 50 per cent haylage.


The main aim of growing kale was to reduce work load and enable the herd to grow. Another reason was to decrease body condition on some of the over-fit cows, but due to a lack of cold weather this winter, Mr Norbury says most of the cows will have maintained their body condition.


“Another year may be different, but this year they have done no damage to the field at all and we have not had to back fence them.”


Mr Norbury has a good relationship with his vets, Wright and Morten, Macclesfield, and has recently chosen to blood test cows to monitor their mineral profile. This meant he has not had to use mineral buckets, which in the past had been costing up to £22/head. He now boluses when required and this cost roughly £6 per head.


“We also do faecal egg counts and I have barely had to worm any of the cows, just the weanlings to ensure they are clean when they go out.”

Farm Facts

  • The aim is to start serving heifers at 13 months with a target weight at service of 380 to 420kg.
  • All animals on the farm are BVD tagged and tested and have been for a number of years.
  • Electronic identification (EID) tags are used on all animal.
  • The pedigree Aberdeen-Angus are DNA tested.

All heifers and bulls which are being retained to join the herd are BVD and leptospirosis vaccinated, they are also vaccinated against pneumonia, which Mr Norbury says has been money well spent as they have struggled with it in the past.


“Last breeding season I used four Aberdeen-Angus bulls, I have a big bull for use on the larger-framed cows and three smaller, more traditional bulls.”


Mr Norbury uses EBVs as a way of identifying bulls to use on the herd and sources all animals privately to allow for pre-movement health testing.


“Ideally I would not buy in, but to get numbers up as quick as I want to I need to buy in, it is about being sensible and limiting risks,” says Mr Norbury.


Mr Norbury uses EID tags in conjunction with weigh cells and stick reader which are on loan as part of the strategic farm programme.


“I record all the animal’s lifetime history, including dam and sire, daily liveweight gain since the last time it was weighed and overall lifetime gain. EID is the way forward, it is quick and easy and it eliminates mistakes.”


Since joining the strategic farms programme and working with James Hadwin, JH Agri Consultancy, who was assigned to Mr Norbury through AHDB, they have been focussing on decreasing the calving period, which is currently 17 weeks, with the aim to be as close to 12 weeks as possible going forwards.


The bulls are put to the cows at the end of May and are pulled out at the end of September.


“We are trying to tighten the calving pattern, in the last three years we have gone from 33 per cent calving in the first three weeks to 55 per cent, and we are aiming for 65 per cent this year. Following scanning, it looks like we are on target.


“They scanned really well this year, out of 115, 112 were in-calf.”


Mr Norbury’s aim is to increase the herd to 150 cows, but TB is a big issue and he worries having too many animals on the farm is a greater risk.


He says: “In an ideal world I would like to market everything for breeding, so sell heifers as suckler replacements, and pedigree Aberdeen-Angus bulls, so I can set my own price, then if I get what I want that is good and if not they can go into the kill market. It just gives me more options.”

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