Study Tour Highlights – Day Two
The second day of the Study Tour started with Steve Powdrill, AHDB Beef and Lamb’s National Selection Specialist, explaining to farmers how to produce animals to meet market demands.
“The UK beef and sheep industry is a hotch-potch of breeds and cross-breeds,” he said. “And then there are entire males, females and steers, and many different ways for them to be bred, reared and finished. The weather can also play its part; BBQ sales can go up and down 9% depending on how good the summer weather is.”
He went on to say that beef and sheep farmers are essentially ‘food producers’, and they should put themselves in their consumers’ shoes. What are they looking for? Taste, flavour, a good colour, high nutrient content, a traceable product, value for money, informed packaging.
And where do farmers start to influence this? Well on the farm before the meat animal is born, said Steve. It is too late to start thinking about the customer when the animal is ready to be slaughtered.
Steve spent some time explaining the EUROP grid – which all abattoirs slaughtering more than 75 cattle a week must use to classify and pay farmers. It is not mandatory for sheep to be classified by the EUROP grid.
More than 85% of the market requires cattle carcases to grade out at R4L, and sheep carcases at R3L – a good shape that is not too fat and not too thin.
Farmers selecting animals for market must handle each one to find out if they are at the right stage. Hitting the outer reaches of the grid can lead to hefty price penalties.
“It is such a waste to let animals become too fat,” said Steve. “It costs the farmer time and money to put the fat on; then takes the butcher time and money to cut the fat off. It devalues the product.
“Single lambs can get too fat on grass and can be ready to go to market after 12 weeks. There’s no reason to wait for 12 months because that is what has always been done. Waiting isn’t farming!”
AHDB Beef and Lamb has a suite of helpful publications and tools to help farmers select beef and cattle for slaughter, including the manuals ‘Marketing prime beef cattle for Better Returns’ and ‘Marketing prime lamb for Better Returns. These can be read on the website.
There are also useful BRP virtual programmes, which explain the selection messages by using computer-generated animals, which change conformation and fat class at a click of the mouse. The programmes also take producers through different carcase cuts, yield data and other topics related to selection.
For online access to the Beef and Lamb virtual programmes, log in here and enter the password: PastureFed
Finally, AHDB runs very popular ‘Live to Dead’ days based at an abattoir. Farmers first assess some cattle and sheep according to the EUROP grid in the morning before they are slaughtered. They then compare the same carcases in the afternoon. See the events section of the beefandlamb.ahdb.org.uk website for details of Live to Dead events close to you.
After a wonderful Pasture for Life slow-cooked hogget shoulder for lunch, the tour set off to the nearby Courtfield Estate, home to Simon Cutter’s herd of Hereford cattle.
The suckler herd of 110 cows and 400 Easycare and Vendeen sheep, extensively graze 224ha (550 acres) of organic, Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) wildflower meadows, all year round. In winter, round hay bales are rolled out down south-facing hills for the cows to eat.
“We try to breed animals to suit the estate and that will produce the meat our customers are looking for,” said Simon. “We use Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) to find bulls that will give us calm, milky cows, who give birth to smallish calves, who get up on their feet quickly to find their mothers teats.
“We also like bulls that are long in the back as this produces extra sirloin steaks – high value meat that is always in demand.”
The herd calves in two groups – one in spring and one in August and September, to allow a year round supply of meat to retail. None of the livestock is fed anything but grazed grass, hay or red clover silage.
“The cattle and sheep enhance the wildflower meadows and are part of a holistic system – starting with the soil,” Simon explained. “The minerals move up through the soil into the grass plants, through the animals and into the humans that eat their meat. They receive all the natural goodness the soil and plants have to offer.”
The cattle are slaughtered at between 24 and 30 months of age. The carcases are hung for at least three weeks in the on-farm butchery, before being cut and packed to order.
Simon and his two sons, George and Jonty – who run the retail side of the business, keep in regular contact with their customers by email. As well as people coming to the butcher’s shop, they also regularly deliver orders to Food Assemblies and other buying groups in the West Midlands.
“Despite running an extensive system, the business makes a profit due to the environmental payments, extremely low costs of production with no feed bills and negligible vet and med costs to pay, and because we are selling directly to the public.
“I have been a strong supporter of the PFLA from the start and am proud to put the Pasture for Life logo on our signs and products. This sends a powerful message to consumers about how the meat has been produced.”
At the end of a fascinating two days, the group was asked what it would do differently at home, having attended this study tour. The answers included:
- Split my calving pattern into spring and autumn to give a better spread of meat to sell
- Take the plunge and give box sales a go
- Produce better herbal leys and try outwintering
- Maximise my performance off grass
- Collect more information from the abattoir
- Stop feeding cake to the weaned calves
- Become certified Pasture for Life and market the health benefits of this type of meat better
- Plant more trees for the next generations