Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Be different, be efficient

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth visits a mixed family farm combining traditional methods with progressive thinking.

“You could say we’re farming the old-fashioned way – but it works,” says young Norfolk farmer James Runciman.

One of three brothers on a traditional mixed family farm near Fakenham, James may employ “old-fashioned” techniques – not least integrating livestock with arable crops – but he’s progressive in his approach to management and ambitious for his future.

James, 31, runs 150 beef suckler cows alongside working for Aylsham Growers, while his younger brother, Harry, looks after the arable cropping and is one of Biogas’s feedstock managers. They, and their parents, William and Mary, all went to Harper Adams, but youngest brother, Tom, is breaking the mould to study geography.

The 120ha Croxton Farm is unusual in its scale among the big estates of North Norfolk, and possibilities for expansion are limited. It’s also very different from the farm on the Cambridgeshire Fens the family left 15 years ago, where historically the pattern of land ownership is much more fragmented. But, argues James, you don’t have to be big to be successful: you have to be different and be efficient.

Grazing strategy

An extra 20ha is rented for cropping and, with only a small area of grass on the farm, 160ha water meadows along the Rivers Wensum and Stiffkey are rented for grazing. But the closed herd of 80 pedigree Angus, 10 pedigree Simmental and 60 commercial crosses spend the winter months on the arable land: rather than eating a lot of conserved forage, they overwinter on 28ha of turnips.

“We used to mess about making silage from rough fields, while the arable fields were empty,” says James. “So why not graze grass when we can, and move on to turnips and forage rape in the autumn and winter?

“The cows feed themselves and muck themselves out for a third of the cost of keeping them in sheds and making hay or silage for them. And they produce more colostrum and milk, giving their calves more vigour.

“Now, as well as providing valuable muck for the arable land and keeping feed costs down, we never have bare soil, and partridge numbers have exploded because the muck brings in insects.”

While using turnips has brought many benefits to the farm as a whole, changes in management of the water meadows, now in environmental schemes through five different landlords, have limited the farm’s ability to produce winter forage. Nature has not been able to respond quickly enough to these changes, argues James, and the result is a rank mess devoid of nutrition.

Practical approach

“These meadows exist because of the way they have been managed by farmers for hundreds of years. Now that liming, reseeding and creep feeding are not permitted, and stocking densities have to be lower, we’re just not getting the performance, and the meadows are a rushy, thistly infested mess.

“We weigh the cattle on and off the grass, and I’m not afraid to walk away from grass that doesn’t perform – I’ve left three blocks in the past three years due to poor performance.

“Livestock are the best way for young entrants to farming, but we need some more farmer-thinking from Natural England. It’s too idealistic, and farmers are being pushed out.”

The cows graze on turnips from late October until February – except during last winter’s heavy snow when they were brought in for a week – and then come in to calve. They are then AI’d before going out to grass in the spring. Come the autumn, the calves are weaned and brought inside to feed on forage and home-produced concentrates while the cows move on to the turnips again.

Monitoring performance, knowledge of costs and sharing information are essential to success, says James, who sits on the NFU’s livestock board.

“All the cows and their calves are weighed at weaning. I’m looking for how much each calf weighs relative to its mother. If a cow can’t produce a calf that’s 50 per cent of her body weight then her existence is questioned.

“I’m also gradually reducing the weight of the cows, as there are no prizes for feeding big cows and in any case they gorge all the best food. Smaller cows are better: some of our most efficient cows weigh 500kg, and every cow in the herd over 750kg has been sold.”

Breeding performance

Bull selection is also key. High performance on low inputs is the aim, with ease of calving, growth and eye muscle area – which is correlated to feed efficiency – top priorities. This year Angus bull Tofts Evergarth from a breeder in the Scottish borders was favourite, along with some straws from Australia and New Zealand. For Simmental lines, James looks to Ireland. The crossbreds are put to Limousin, Charolais, Simmental or Angus, depending on the cow, although the latter is now being favoured to target the premium for Angus beef.

Pedigree sales come by word of mouth, through print media, and via the online livestock marketplace, sellmylivestock.co.uk, set up by a friend of James from Harper Adams. Breeding bull sales are up to 10 or 12 a year, and, while all heifers are currently being kept to build up herd numbers, the aim is to increase sales of in-calf heifers and freshly calved cows, possibly introducing embryo transfer to further improve herd performance. Meanwhile beef sales are through Anglia Quality Meats.

Despite his love for his cows, James acknowledges that arable is top dog on the farm, and the cattle its parasite. But, without them, crop yields would not be what they are. Muck has really paid dividends, and has helped especially this year with retaining moisture: the maize has grown and the sugar beet has held on.

Long rotation

William and Harry run an eight-year rotation: two crops of first generation seed wheat are followed by turnips, sugar beet and then peas or maize; the cycle is then repeated, with peas or maize, whichever wasn’t grown first time around.

Every crop apart from sugar beet adds to the cows or adds value, and this year straw, treated with ammonia, will provide valuable additional feed to combat shortages created by the drought. But livestock farmers are in competition with AD plants.

“Demand for energy crops has put a floor in the market for land rent, pushing prices up, and biodigester companies can pay more because they’re getting the feed-in tariffs. I think a network of smaller AD plants, community schemes using food waste, would be more sustainable.”

James has a serious ambition to start a dairy. While Croxton Farm has the buildings, it lacks the heavier soils needed to grow grass consistently, so he’s looking for an opportunity through renting or share farming.

“In the meantime, a diverse range of enterprises are discussed around the meal table: outdoor pigs, a campsite, business lets using redundant farm buildings and a butchery among them.

“You don’t need vast tracts of land. I think there’s no more to gain from being bigger – and often the bigger the farm, the more stressed the farm workers. You can be as profitable running a smaller area but you have to ‘do different’.”

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