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Beef special: Suckler switch is harnessing technology

Thanks to recent investments in technology, North Wales beef producer Paul Williams has been able to save himself two hours-a-day while tripling cow numbers.

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Beef special: Suckler switch is harnessing technology

But the most significant recent farm management change, following a detailed financial appraisal of the family farm’s sheep and beef enterprises, was the decision to get out of sheep altogether.

 

Mr Williams farms 129 hectares (320 acres) near Nebo, mostly inside in the Snowdonia National Park, with his wife Dwynwen and three young children.

 

He says: “I am a fifth-generation farmer here at Cae Haidd and would like to develop a sustainable business for the sixth generation when my wife and I want to retire.

 

"With land on the main holding ranging from 750-1,200ft above sea level and receiving 2.7 metres of rain a year, which is the biggest challenge, sheep have been a big part of the farm since our ancestors started out.

 

“But for some years now, our suckler cow enterprise was performing much better than our two sheep flocks in terms of income per livestock unit. This, coupled with the Brexit vote and the uncertain market going forward for lamb, convinced us last year it was time to sell the sheep and concentrate on beef production.”

 

In a move which certainly raised eyebrows among his hill farming neighbours, the last of the sheep left Cae Haidd last September.

 

In their place have come more cattle and two-week-old calves, with the Williams family developing a ‘beef from the dairy herd’ enterprise alongside an expanding suckler herd, which has increased from 40 to 60 cows.


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“We are now buying 120 calves a year from four dairy farms: one in Shropshire, two on the Lleyn peninsula and one within three miles of Cae Haidd. The calves arrive when they are about 14 days old and are housed in our old sheep shed in batches of 40. The shed is cleaned out and rested for two months between each batch.

 

“It took us a while to identify the right dairy farms because I am passionate about the genetic growth potential and health status of the beef calves I buy.”

 

Calves are weighed and given an intra-nasal pneumonia vaccine on arrival. They are then introduced to a Forster Technik computerised milk feeding machine.

 

Time-consuming

 

“We were bucket-feeding, but this was becoming too time-consuming. We therefore started looking for the right automatic machine for our setup and took advice from Darran Ward at Volac. It is working really well and, being a data geek, I really like the feedback we get from the machine on how the calves are doing.”

 

The machine mixes and dispenses whey-based milk formula and monitors individual calf intakes. It also notifies Mr Williams with a text message if one of the calves is not feeding as it should.

 

“This is invaluable, as it means we can detect any calves which are off colour at an early stage. It also means we can focus more on the other stock and the wider business, rather than spending time on feeding.”

 

Calves are also weighed at weaning at 56 days old. Mr Williams then processes the data recorded and analyses the performance of the calves from the different dairy units.

“We are developing a great relationship with our calf suppliers and they welcome the feedback on how the calves have performed. I am more than happy to share cost and gross margin details and if performance is particularly good, I can even offer to pay more for the calves. This is highly motivational for all parties.”

 

Mr Williams sells the calves he rears to beef finishing units as 14- to 16-month-old stores, grazing the cattle on a rotational system in summer.

 

“I am a big advocate of benchmarking to identify ways of being as efficient as possible. For example, we have been part of the Farm Business Survey since 1999. You can think you are doing a good job, but unless you can quantify how you are doing and compare your business performance against other farms, you are really working in the dark.

 

“Because we know how our business stacks up, we can do more of what works well and is profitable and concentrate on improving the rest. We also run our own costing system and, in any month, we have a clear picture of how we are doing financially.”

 

Returns

 

And Mr Williams is not shy of investing in a variety of areas to deliver future returns – be they for long-term financial return or time-saving benefits. For example, in addition to the new computerised calf feeder, an investment in a new slatted cattle shed with automatic scrapers allowed him to reduce bedding time significantly.

 

“Previously it was taking us twoand- a-half hours to feed and bed 30 cattle and now we are taking just 30 minutes to do the same for up to 100 cattle,” he says.

 

Mr Williams has also invested in technology for the suckler herd. The use of heat detection collars has helped him tighten calving index from 420 to 370 days. And artificial insemination conception rates have risen to 74 per cent of cows in-calf after first service and 96 per cent in-calf after the second.

 

Costs are kept under tight control too. A 15kW wind turbine, located just outside the national park, powers the farm and produces excess electricity to feed back to the grid.

 

The farm benefits from its own spring water supply and the house is heated by a ground-source pump. The same technology will also heat what Mr Williams sees as phase three of his long-term business plan, which is the conversion of redundant farm buildings into holiday lets.

 

“Diversification is important. My wife already runs a growing marquee hire business from home and the development of farm holiday accommodation will allow us to add another income stream and spread business risk further still,” Mr Williams says.

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