Farm Of The Week: Developing the Lexus of the beef business

Davy Thirlwell
Davy Thirlwell
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AROUND 200 people, including many actual farmers and respectful delegations from government agencies, responded to an Open Day invitation at Wold Farm, Givendale, in the Pocklington basin.

The interest was in the farm’s central role in developing the Stabiliser breed of cattle – which might be called the Lexus of the beef business: challenging the Jags and BMWs of the breed range by claiming to have the best of all of them.

The foundation work was done in the USA. But after the BSE scare crashed beef prices, a group of Yorkshire farmers calling themselves the Beef Improvement Group got to together to look at cutting costs and finished up using – but also needing to promote – this Yankee cross based on a recipe mix of classic European models, including Red Angus, Hereford, Simmental and Gelbvieh.

The first UK copies were born in 1999, from imported embryos. Since then, the Stabiliser Cattle Company reckons it has built a British bloodstock base which has proved its stability and its value.

And that message was getting approving nods all round at Givendale on Tuesday.

Richard Fuller, founder of the Beef Improvement Group, said in his speech: “Don’t ask me how, when you chuck all these breeds together, they all come out the same, but it does work.”

He was Yorkshire farming group JSR’s manager for Wold Farm when he and they got involved in the Stabiliser movement and he and the farm have been at the heart of it ever since.

Now, with £1.2m of encouragement from the Technology Strategy Board, and help from Morrisons, Eblex, Scottish government consultants SAC and others, the farm has become home to an effort, under his supervision, to double the returns on buying Stabiliser by adding another refinement – bulls which are rated by a complicated analysis of how much it will cost to fatten their descendants.

The Stabiliser people call the measure Net Feed Efficiency (NFE), although the idea has been around under other titles. It is a figure showing whether an animal eats more or less than average to put a kilo on the butcher’s slab. The idea is that existing Food Conversion Ratio statistics hide a lot of variations because they are based on averages.

The cattle which appear to grow best may simply be eating more than their share, so their advantages come with a hidden extra cost. This also means – a useful message at Westminster – that they are generating more methane than they need to.

Measuring what goes into every beast is a daunting technical challenge. But with the help of electronic tags and non-stop weighing machines, the Stabiliser community has set out to measure exactly what calves from all of its star bulls consume as individuals in return for each ounce they put on in a day.

They say the genes for the best will pass on the talent for thriving on rations without damaging any of the other merits of the breed.

They say this has already been proven in America and the trad breeds will be even more thoroughly outstripped unless they try something similar.

And on Tuesday, everybody was there to say they appear to be on to something.

Alison Glasgow, from Signet, the government-sponsored breeding records organisation, said selection for NFE was “a hugely untapped resource”.

David Evans, head of agriculture at Morrisons, said: “This (the Givendale operation) is going to be a great catalyst in bringing the concept of feed efficiency into other producers’ businesses.”

The other breed societies were not there, or not obviously. The word is that they are interested but understandably hesitant at the prospect of a new productivity measure which could suddenly devalue a lot of historic stud names.

The point of the day was to announce results from the first three-month trial in the UK of a farm-scale system for measuring NFE. The figures came from 82 bull calves collected at Wold Farm, from all over the country, for a side-by-side trial which ran over 60 days finishing on March 22. A thousand more animals are to be assessed over five years. But the first results do appear to show a significant variation between best and worst bloodlines.

The guests saw a smart explanation of the project. The Stabiliser lobby does good marketing.

And it has a lot to market – breeding franchises, bloodstock, semen, consultancy and the Givendale brand of beef, based on local Stabiliser herds. But it has clearly gathered significant support for its claim to be right, as well as smart.

The farm is 1200 acres, rented from the Earl of Halifax’s Garrowby Estate by Driffield-based farm managers and pig-breeding specialists JSR. It is run half for grass for beef, and half for arable crops.

Its resident 220-cow breeding herd is one of 30 pedigree herds now supplying 300 UK farmers using Stabilisers for beef production. Herd manager is Davy Thirlwell, an experienced stockman who has no hesitation in saying he could never have guessed which would be the best performers on the new measure ...

“No chance. For this, you need the science as well as your eye.”

During the micro-measuring process, the cattle are fed exclusively on a mix worked out by Keenan, supplier of dietary advice and feed mixers. But Mr Fuller said it had been shown in America that animals which performed best on a test diet would do the same on any other feeds, including grass.

Eblex sees the research at Givendale as a win-win investment. If Net Feed Efficiency is all it promises, Britain needs it to compete with the USA and Brazil and Australia, which are already using it.

If it only confirms that existing performance measures already identify the best animals, competitor breeds can be spared the expense and upheaval of starting to measure it.

Ian Pritchard, an SAC medic, talked on the importance of disease control in the bringing together of distant cousins at Givendale.

He said BVD was now recognised as “probably the most important endemic cattle disease in Europe” and weeding it out came top of his list of necessary veterinary bills. He also insured against Johne’s, TB, various pneumonias and IBR where allowable.

Alison Sunstrum, for the Canadian kit manufacturer, GrowSafe Systems, said they were “geeks and nerds and cowboys” who had come together to find ways beef farmers could stay in business.

The experienced cowboys who ride North American fattening lots, where one man might supervise seven to ten thousand animals, were leaving to work in oil and gas. But the cowboys had been scientifically proven to make a lot of wrong decisions which a computer would be better at anyway – reading dietary records and body temperatures and throwing up anomalies. She spoke of a system for paint-marking cattle which needed taking out of large herds for special attention.

It was one of the hardest things they had ever taken on. But now it worked, it could be adapted to deliver medication automatically.