Thursday, December 14, 2017

Low input, high quality

October 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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Sticking with pedigree native cattle breeds is paying off for a Cambridgeshire father and daughter farming partnership. Judith Tooth reports. 

The sight of Herefords parading at the Suffolk Show sparked Les Cook’s interest in pedigree cattle at a young age.

Mr Cook learned his stockmanship skills growing up on the family farm at Over in the Cambridgeshire Fens where his parents ran a commercial herd of cross bred cattle. But pedigree cattle were what he really wanted, and he saved up for his first two Hereford heifers, bought from neighbouring farmers AG Wright and Son in 1971 when he was still a schoolboy.

British Whites soon caught his eye as well, this time at the Royal Norfolk Show: “I was absolutely struck by how attractive they are,” he says.

“Although they have never been a numerous breed they have some extremely good commercial qualities: they’re a milky beef breed and naturally polled. My first British White, from the Hevingham herd in Norfolk, was a surprise on my 21st birthday.”

It was a gradual and natural progression to pedigree cattle on the farm, and today there are 40-45 pedigree Hereford cows and 20-25 pedigree British Whites at Albany Farm. Mr Cook now farms in partnership with his daughter Sarah, who, as well as working on the home farm and freelance for other livestock farmers, is about to take over as secretary of the British White Cattle Society.

Grazing

They farm 90ha in all, with 70ha grass, most of it seasonal grazing on floodland beside the River Ouse, rented mainly from the RSPB and Cambridgeshire County Council. Under Countryside Stewardship agreements, the land can only be grazed between May and October.

Some can be cut between certain times, some not at all. Although it usually only floods in winter, some can be underwater in summer, and occasionally there is an emergency evacuation of cattle.

“As the land is so flat, it can be dry one day and flooded the next,” says Mr Cook.

“But we’re in an area of good arable land with few livestock and we have to use what grass is available. Our landlords get payments from the environmental schemes and that, and the uncertainties, have to be reflected in the rents we pay. We learn to cope with it.”

The cows calve in two blocks, from January to March, and in September and October. They overwinter indoors and another yard is under construction at Albany Farm to increase capacity.

Until a couple of years ago some stock were outwintered, but that depended on land not being flooded – and grazing management restrictions prevent that now – or sacrificing other land, which is better used as a source of early grass in the spring.

Natural lifestyle

The Herefords and British Whites run very well together, says Sarah. Their qualities of good temperament, easy calving, hardiness, good udders, feet and legs make them ideally suited to a natural lifestyle on a very low input system all year round, living on grass in summer and silage in winter. The bulk of the their winter feed also comes from these areas, but there are pockets of unfenced grassland in the 20ha of arable land at Albany Farm used for early forage production.

“It’s essential that we keep a relatively small cow of 550-650kg mature weight: bigger cows take more to keep, and a 300kg carcass at two years old off a low input system is in demand with butchers,” she says.

“And, of course, a natural feeding regime appeals to the public and therefore to butcher buyers. That’s led to a resurgence in the native breed market, which had been at a low ebb.”

Producing cattle for breeding is the mainstay of the business, but some are sold as stores, or finished on the farm and sold to local food champion David Baker of Rosegate Farm and Butchery, in the neighbouring village of Swavesey. Bull beef is no longer in demand, but trade for native steers has boomed.

This means early decisions have to made on the breeding quality of young bulls, and those not needed castrated. It’s been a sell-out year for breeding bull sales from the farm, and the next ones are only being born now.

‘Fantastic beef’

Mr Cook and Sarah have seen strong demand for British White female pedigree breeding stock in the past couple of years. While the breed is not numerous enough to supply any national marketing scheme, and, being less well known, is harder to promote, their beef is “fantastic”. Sales of stores of both breeds to graziers on Countryside Stewardship land have also been good.

They also sell for export: British White semen to the US and Colombia, Hereford bulls and females into the Netherlands, and Hereford embryos to Australia, the US and Argentina.

What made Les stick with the traditional breeds when so many other farmers moved to the bigger continental breeds? “I guess I have a bloody-minded streak! I was confident the cattle were doing a good job, even though fashion had moved away from them, and I saw no need to chase that fashion.

“But Hereford breeders had to work very hard to maintain production from the ‘70s to the 2000s, and the Angus and Shorthorn were in the same boat.

“I had a certain amount of belief that in time their qualities would be recognised again, and now the Herefords in particular have seen a boost, partly prompted by supermarket schemes promoting the Hereford and Angus breeds. The public like to hear about grass-based systems now, and there’s more of a lean towards natural production.”

Terminal sires

The Hereford breed is a broad church and you can find something to suit pretty much any system, says Mr Cook. He and Sarah run two types of Hereford: the traditional type with only English genetics, unchanged in 200 years, and the North American type, which has changed rapidly to meet demand for terminal sire production to compete with continental European breeds.

“The traditional Hereford tends to be a thicker set animal and is the main focus of our trade. These animals are really good converters of grass and customers will seek them out for their moderate size. Traditional female Herefords make up only five per cent of total pedigree registrations, but they are in demand, especially overseas, so we get international interest.

“Traditional Herefords may have some qualities we don’t yet foresee, so it’s important to conserve them. Genetics are being used a lot more and playing a big part in day to day work now.

“It’s becoming more scientific all the time but in a way that makes the challenge all the more exciting. We’re aiming for a mix of scientific input and old-fashioned stockmanship.”

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