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Suckler cow production without subsidy is a frightening thought for most…



For Andrew Robinson who has had the insight of many farm accounts as a partner and head of agriculture at Armstrong Watson accountants, Carlisle, the main objective should be having the type of cows that suit the farm.

“Suckler cows can be profitable but far too many producers focus on the seller’s price as opposed to gross margin,” he said.

“Do what your farm will allow you to do. Don’t go spending a lot of money on the type of cattle that won’t perform on your farm.”

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Mr Robinson who is an agricultural accountant to trade but also farms 170 pure Luings in a partnership basis has bolstered his own enterprise by relying on an easy fleshing out wintered breed and introducing herbal leys with the eventual goal to turn organic.

“When we realised the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) was going we felt we had to reduce our costs so over the last four or five years we have invested a lot of money in herbal leys and direct drilling of clover to produce quality silage without fertiliser. We also have a breed of cow that suits the farm and is easy calving. And, we’ve not spent too much money on shiny metal. Machinery doesn’t make any money.”

He warned that upsizing doesn’t necessarily increase profit margins by efficiencies of scale and that diversifying doesn’t always add to the bottom line when often such new enterprises require huge amounts of investment.

For Ruari Martin, estate director of the 6500acre arable, beef, sheep and forestry estate at Castletown, Carlisle, run over two sites, utilising EID systems and analysing key performance indicators have made the biggest difference to the profit margins.

The beef system incorporates a 180-cow suckler herd and contract rearing/finishing 1200 head per year. The biggest challenge and opportunity is the 2500acre Rockcliffe salt marsh where cattle graze openly with no fences and quicksand to contend with.

Finishing cattle which include home-bred Angus cross cattle and bought in dairy cross stores are weighed every month to monitor performance for future reference and ensure they are gaining weight.

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Interestingly, while the suckler beef cattle finished at 550kg live or 317kg dead with a 57% killing out percentage and the dairy bred animals were sold at 575-600kg live to produce a 304kg carcase with 53% KO, there was more money in the cattle from the dairy herd.

“The suckler beef finished up with a £1050 margin compared to £956 for the dairy but the beef stores cost £1000 to buy compared to the dairy at £800, so there was a £64 per head gross margin in favour of the dairy animals,” said Mr Martin.

He added that out wintering had been difficult following one of the wettest winters, but that the cattle had pulled through better than expected.

“Don’t be afraid to change. There is so much tradition and peer pressure involved in farming and fear of failure. You have to get comfortable making mistakes and try something new every year because its the only way we’ll learn.

“Collaboration with other farmers is also another way to help reduce costs. We are in an area where there are a lot of dairy farms and we can grow maize for them while they provide us with dung which means we no longer have to buy phosphate or potash. The only fertiliser we buy in is nitrogen with sulphur,” said Mr Martin.

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