Low input mixed farming: Beef Shorthorn complements a min-till arable system
Darnells Hall Farm Fact file
2,000 acres arable
500 acres permanent pasture and woods
130 cow commercial Beef Shorthorn suckler herd
Variable soil type: chalky to boulder clay
If you are a fan of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, then you’ll be aware of that Home Farm is introducing a no-till strategy. Adam Macey is in fact taking a leaf out of the Cherry family’s books. Brothers, John and Paul Cherry together with Paul’s son, Alexander are among a growing number of farmers focused on reducing inputs not only to cut costs but also to enhance soil health.
“Soil is our most valuable asset,” says John. “Without healthy soils, stepping up sustainable production and in turn achieving a profitable business is impossible to achieve.”
Initially the Cherrys established a min-till strategy managing their mixed farming operation without ploughing, however six years ago they went one further and introduced no-till. “Initially we thought it would shave off a few more costs,” John explains. “However we found it’s a system that cannot be implemented solely by making a single pass with a no-till seed drill. Instead, it requires a holistic ecosystems approach that takes into consideration the complete crop and livestock environment and its complex interactions with the landscape and beyond.”
Whilst there are many references on-line if you’d like to check out the Cherry’s no-till cropping strategy, The Journal went to Weston, to find out more about their livestock operation featuring a commercial Beef Shorthorn suckler herd. “We are trying to build a system for the future that is healthy, sustainable and profitable without support payments and have concluded that the trick is to have a complementary livestock enterprise,” John explains. “We’ve developed a simple regime which requires relatively little management input; we are focused on making the cows do all the work, and we’ve found that our Beef Shorthorn have proved they are able to deliver and make money.
“To sum up, they’re great natural grazers, they have that essential quiet temperament and the nice thing is they tend to look after themselves and go on to achieve above average performance. We’re achieving 95% calves reared per cows put to the bull, whilst 90% calve in spring within the first six weeks, and 100% within the first two months.
“Beef Shorthorn has also proved to have a tremendously benign temperament, which not only makes for ease of management, but also safety; the village is surrounded by frequently used public footpaths.”
The Cherry’s quest for a functional suckler cow led them to invest in Beef Shorthorn 15 years ago. “We used to buy in black Hereford crosses, however BSE put a stop to that; we moved on to Continental crosses yet they proved to be not the best mothers. We wanted to breed better replacements, so next up was introducing a Beef Shorthorn bull, we found the genetics seemed to fit and since then the herd has become progressively pure.
“For example, compared with our previous Continental cows, Beef Shorthorn make for very good mothers; they’re real fighters. They just don’t give up. Each cow will make a big effort to look after her calves and enable it to suck if necessary. We get involved in say one in 30 calvings, however the vast majority will calve on their own providing we get that body condition score right and that is enabled by our winter management regime which enables the cows to stay lean until calving commences in March.
The herd is overwintered from mid-December onwards in open air corals bedded with woodchip and straw and fed home-grown red clover rich silage. “The system is fantastically cheap and effective and the bedding is producing an annual 1,500 tonnes of invaluable FYM. Add the natural fertility which the grazing herd is leaving behind and we no longer apply N, P or K to grazing swards”
Grazing is presented in various shapes and forms at Weston - cover crops, herbal leys, a two-year ryegrass ley has proved to be vital in the farm’s rotation for weed control particularly blackgrass, the heaviest clay soils are in permanent pasture, whilst parkland makes up the remainder. “We tend to offer quantity confident our cows can turn it in to quality - milk. “We had practiced traditional set stocking and rotational grazing until four years ago when we introduced a mob grazing strategy to the permanent pasture and cover crops from May through to December, and we are still undergoing a period of trial and error.” The mob comprises over 200 head of cattle of all ages – cows with calves, in calf heifers, steers and heifers; they are moved on twice a day to fresh, back fenced, one acre blocks, each of which is grazed approximately three times during the season.
“Apart from providing an opportunity for grazing, mob grazing is all about attempting to improve the ecosystem and in turn, grass quality. When we set stocked heavy rain water used to rush off the land, whereas mob grazing has enabled a mat of grass and subsoil life to develop and the water is now absorbed. Poaching on heavier land has also been reduced. “We’re also finding that grazing fresh grass twice daily has eliminated the parasite burden, in fact four years ago we stopped worming and the herd has been incidence free ever since.”
Calves are weaned at 10 months having achieved an average 0.95kg daily live weight gain. Steers along with heifers not retained for replacement purposes, are sold through Thame market as strong stores after their second grazing season, at 18 months of age and averaging 480kg to 500kgs. “In an ideal world we would finish them on the yard, however that maybe for the future. In the meantime, this regime improves cash flow and proves to be more cost effective.”
Beef Shorthorn replacement heifers are selected according to their dam’s performance, size, and temperament. Whilst they used to calve at 2.5 years, the Cherry’s became aware that despite being reared on a pure grazed grass and winter forage diet, they were sufficiently strong to introduce to the bull from 13 to 14 months at an average 370kg. “We’re now calving at 24 months and finding these heifers readily grow on to a mature weight of 600kg to 650kg which is where we want to be.”
Developing a Beef Shorthorn supply chain is among the Cherry’s latest projects. “We would like to market all our animals direct off the farm,” Alexander explains. “We are appraising various ideas. and are fortunate to be in a very good location with a population of one million within 30 minutes drive of Weston. We have a story, we have a native breed brand and we have a high quality product.
“Beef Shorthorn with its intramuscular fat is noted for taste, and compared with cattle finished on cereals, pasture fed beef is renowned for containing healthier omega-3 fatty acids as well as being a great source of conjugated linoleic acid, a fat that reduces the risk of cancer, diabetes and a number of immune disorders.”