Welsh Winter Fair Preview

Making a suckler herd pay dividends

THE supreme beef championship judging is for many the highlight of the Royal Welsh Winter Fair - but are the cattle paying their way?

Barry Alston visits an award-winning hill farm making money from suckled calves.

Hill farmers up and down the country have cut suckler cow numbers and still cannot make them pay - but not so for Alun and Wendy Jacob.

The rented ground they farm has increased from 280ha to 400ha (700 to 1,000 acres) and cow numbers are being pushed up from 200 to 300 - and still they are making a profit.

So, despite farming in some of the most challenging conditions in South Wales, what makes them different?

Quite simply, attention to management, concentrating on superior genetics, maintaining a high health status and maximising use of organised marketing to customers who return time after time for quality stores.

Calves sold straight off their dams at six months old are averaging 350kg from a 1.5kg daily liveweight gain and are consistently finishing within the top 10 per cent of market prices.

A key element of that, they say, is the right choice of crossing bull, and for them this means using only high EBV performance-recorded bulls on their closed herd of Angus and Simmental- Angus cows, bred to survive in the far from kind terrain.

A team of Charolais bulls, specifically selected from within the breed’s top 10 per cent for EBV performance, is leaving calves well within the 350kg target weight at weaning, compared with only 300kg for calves sired by a bull with breed average EBV ratings.

That extra 50kg per calf, when multiplied up over the 180 calves leaving the farm annually in recent years, amounts to around nine tonnes of additional beef.

With cow numbers rising by a further 100, the financial returns will be greater, especially with input costs spread over 300 cows.

Their recipe for success led to them being named as the first winners of the Welsh Suckler Herd of the Year Award.

Outwintering

What makes the Jacobs’ approach more impressive is that, despite the vast open grazings surrounding the main Twlly-y-Gwyddil holding high in the hills above Swansea, the 120 spring-calving cows are outwintered and never housed.

They calve in April and the calves sold in autumn at the Brecon and Radnor Suckled Calf Rearers’ Association sales in Sennybridge. Calves from the August and September autumn-calving cows are sold the following April.

According to Scottish Agricultural College beef specialist Ian Pritchard, who judged the herd competition, the Jacobs were ‘exceptional’ examples of good practice with a focus on making their suckler herd successful.

“They have adopted an enthusiastic family approach that is committed to high quality suckler production. The attention to detail is all too evident,” he says.

“They are now spreading costs by expanding the herd with home-bred heifers and increasing output values by using Charolais bulls selected for high EBVs for performance and with easy calving traits.

“The overriding aim is to maximise output per cow, mated through the careful choice of terminal sires, with the number of live calves being significantly influenced by excellent stockmanship and management by way of attention to calving history.

“The average number of calves being reared in the beef industry is only around 86 per cent per 100 cows going to the bull, whereas it should be in the region of at least 93 per cent and above.

“In other words, 27,000 calves a year are haemorrhaging from the industry, worth well over £25 million at present day prices.

“No-one can really afford to lose a single calf with a value of £1,000 to £1,200 apiece.

“It is essential to set herd targets based around having no more than a 5 per cent barren rate, 94 per cent of cows going to the bull rearing a calf, a less than 2 per cent calf mortality rate and 65 per cent of cows and heifers calving in the first three weeks of the cycle.

Fertility

“Cow fertility can not be left to chance. A tight calving pattern is essential, yet on average in Wales only 30 per cent of cows are calving within the first three-week window, by six weeks it rises to 61 per cent and 76 per cent by nine weeks.

“That means 24 per cent are calving after 10 weeks - and it can even be up to 48 weeks.

“Improving the 85 per cent of calves reared to 94 per cent and tightening the calving pattern window means higher weaning weights and, based on 100 cows over a 10-year period, adds up to very nearly £100,000.”

Warning one in five UK bulls could be infertile, Gareth Mulligan, the Jacobs’ local vet, says bulls should be tested for fertility well before they are put to work.

“Every bull should have his feet checked or trimmed at least once a year. He may look sound, but could be harbouring a problem that will cause problems when he should be performing.

“The bull is, after all, half the herd and needs an annual MOT as part of a regular on-farm herd health programme.”

Dewi Hughes, from the Wales-based Hybu Cig Cymru meat industry development agency, says: “Quality calves, low maintenance cows, high EBV bulls, a compact calving pattern, even batches of calves, a replacement policy aimed at retaining hybrid vigour, a sound herd health programme and full awareness of costs are all essential ingredients for the Jacobs - and are paying dividends.”

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