When brothers Mark and Richard Hoskin switched from dairy to beef cows, they were adament they would not just ‘hope’ for the best price. Rachel Lovell finds out more about their multiple approaches to farming the best they can.
A family farming partnership in Dorset and Cornwall has taken beef to the extreme.
Totalling 1,100 cattle in four enterprises which capitalise on home-grown feed, they have created a model and replicated it on two holdings with huge success.
Brothers Mark and Richard found their farming feet growing up on a tenancy farm on the Caerhays estate, on the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall.
Their parents John and Hilary made Duchy of Cornwall’s Maiden Castle Farm, Dorset, the new family farm in 1987, but it was not until 2005 when their beef story really began.
The family originally ran a milking herd of 200 Holsteins, typically producing 7,500 litres and selling through Milk Link. But in the mid-2000s, new nitrate vulnerable zone regulations, coupled with a 16ppl milk price and ageing equipment, forced a rethink.
Mark says: “We needed to invest in the unit, but when we laid everything out on paper, we just could not justify it.”
The family had always prided themselves on their ability to produce high quality grass and home-grown crops, and they knew their skills would be put to best use by switching to a beef herd.
Mark says: “We had always had beef cattle alongside the dairy herd anyway, so it made sense to really focus on this and expand it.”
Mark had moved to Cornwall seven years earlier, when he married his Cornwall-born wife Sharon and bought 40 hectares (100 acres) of land near St Austell.
He had gone straight into beef production, so there was already plenty of experience to draw on.
He says: “By taking on two tenancies either side of the land, we were able to make it a viable unit.”
Today both farms are run as a partnership between Mark, Richard, John and Hilary.
There are two main arms to the beef enterprise, contract calf fattening and store cattle fattening, both of which put the Hoskins’ south west cereal and grass to best use.
They also produce sheep and grow extensive cereal crops to feed livestock. The model is replicated at both farm locations, Maiden Castle Farm, near Dorchester, Dorset, and Higher Tregorrick Farm, near St Austell, Cornwall.
The Blade Faming calves contract sees batches of 30 weaned dairy bull calves aged 12-15 weeks arrive in a regular cycle in strict age blocks, which are then fattened until 12-16 months old, or 290kg.
They are fed a ration of rolled home-grown barley, protein blend, minerals and limestone flour to control bloat.
The contract provides a model which gives a guaranteed premium provided the set targets are met, with the bulls sold via Blade Farming to ABP, which counts McDonald’s among its biggest clients.
Alongside calves, the Hoskins rear up to 800 store cattle annually, which are bought at various markets through an agent all-year-round.
Richard says: “They vary in age from 16 months to two years, with some going straight into finishing and some out to grass, depending on the time of year.”
Those at grass are supplemented with 1-1.5kg of rolled barley, while the home-grown finishing ration consists of ad-lib maize silage, 2kg rolled beans, 5kg rolled barley and 3kg crimped wheat, achieving a liveweight gain of 1.5kg/day.
A herd of South Devons was established about five years ago, as an addition to the beef portfolio in Dorset.
Richard says: “Our grandfather used to have South Devons, and we knew they were quiet, so we thought it was worth giving them a go.”
Since that time, they have introduced a Stabiliser bull for producing replacements which have a lower birthweight but grow faster.
Richard says: “It is early days yet, so we will have to wait and see how it works out.”
Most of the animals go to ABP Langport, while 50 a year go to Brace of Butchers, based in Poundbury, near Dorchester, via S.J. Normans and Sons abattoir, Bridport.
More recently, Richard has taken on an Angus beef contract, with the herd standing at 120-head.
Despite the family moving into rearing more traditional beef breeds, John is still quick to come to the defence of beef from those dairy bulls.
He believes once hung for three weeks, as is the case with traditional beef breeds, the meat can be just as good.
Through careful husbandry and feed management, the family has honed the craft of finishing these animals so well that John describes cattle to look like ‘peas in a pod’ by the time they go to slaughter.
The Hoskins are very active in both the farming and local community, with John a member of the AHDB Beef and Lamb Steering Group (plus having also served on the board), and both farms provide land for allotments to the residents of St Austell and Dorchester.
Renting out land in this way provides a modest return, and given there was a huge allotment waiting list with both councils, the Hoskins met a real need without affecting their bottom line.
It is clear by sticking with what the family know – finishing cattle on as much home-grown feed as possible and carefully selecting low-risk production models – they give both farms the best chance of success, as Mark explains.
“I reckon it is by not just hoping and waiting for the best price at market, but it is about owning our own destiny, looking at things such as the Blade Farming contract, keeping an eye on costs at all times, being open to ideas and working with other farmers and being willing to try new things but being willing to close the door if it does not work.
“There are no huge margins on what we do, but as long as it leaves us with a little bit at the end of the day it is all good.”
Richard says: “We looked for a way to take volatility out of what we do. No-one knows what beef or lamb prices will be next year or in the future, so you need to be able to plan.
“This is why we believe in farming for a range of contracts, to give us some kind of certainty and the freedom to plan our business.”
It is difficult to say what the future of the farm is, as like everyone else, the Hoskins are waiting to hear what is going to happen post-Brexit and there are big challenges which must be faced before then.
Mark says: “If the market opens up elsewhere with not too many high tariffs, I think the future is bright for British beef.
“But it is up to us to help with finding the pathway forwards. It is no good for farmers to sit back and be quiet, we have to put forward what we hope will be the future, otherwise we cannot complain with the decisions made.”
Maiden Castle Farm
Higher Tregorrick Farm facts