Stuart is a beef farmer near St Austell. The animals are South Devon Cattle. I visited Stuart with Dave Webb from Eden during “The Year of Farming” in 2008 as a way of highlighting where our food comes from and what is involved in producing it.
We drove in Stuart’s land rover into a field of South Devon cattle quietly grazing.
Can you explain to us about modern South Devon breeding? “I am chairman of the South Devon Club down here. This is a heifer I bought her to show her. She won a few prizes– this is her 2nd calf. She is a more modern type. A traditional South Devon is bigger and ‘framey’.
But this one is more compact and meaty – low on the leg and long in the body – there is weight in that, she has an attractive calf. The mother is polled, it doesn’t have any horns.
Cattle without horns are all the rage these days because it saves the job of dehorning saving stress for cattle and farmers. I used straw semen from an Australian South Devon bull which was also polled. This calf is the result – but he had little horns which is very annoying, we have had to dehorn him. See his shape – he is ultra modern, he is very beefy although he is only 2 months old. See the dip in his back – where the loin stands up each side and he has a lot of meat on his buttocks – it almost looks like a double muscle. It is a false term because it is still a single muscle. Some South Devon farmers wouldn’t like that shape they stick to the traditional shape. We feel it is important to produce what the butchers want.”
What are traditionally bred South Devon cattle like?
“This is a taller one – it has got a bigger frame.”
What is the difference with the traditional one does it have more fat?
“Yes that’s right this is why we prefer the traditional one for direct selling to customers. It has got the flavour cooking qualities – the customers come back for. When it is on the plate you don’t know what flavour it was.”
How docile are South Devon cattle?
“Both cows and bulls are very docile. I bought this bull last year – I will give him a scratch” He’s so docile isn’t he? “We have been using AI (artificial insemination) a lot for the first time.”
Could you explain the economic of beef production?
“For years these have been a very expensive hobby – but this year they have come into their own. The Meat and Livestock Commission costings recon each cow costs £400-00 to keep each year – so it has to produce £400-00 to stand still. Each one has to have a live calf. They all achieve this obviously – some don’t get in calf at all. These are twelve months old – they are worth £600-00. You can’t turn a tap on or off – you are either in it or not. We have 55 cows and I buy in cattle for finishing off. I try to buy in South Devons – but they have got awful expensive lately as everyone else wants them because they are quiet to work with.”
Is there a swing away from continental breeds? “Everything is scarce at the moment so everything is in demand. I have an acquaintance who kept continental cattle and got kicked I wouldn’t expect it from these.”
What do you feed your beef cattle to ‘finish’ them for market?
“Calves are weened at 9-10 months of age on to cereals – on to barley, oats and lupins high in protein that we grow. We buy in sugar beet pellets covered in molasses and minerals.”
Grow your own cattle feed
“South Devon cattle are designed to convert grass into growth. The bulk of their winter feed will be cereals and silage. Straw from the cereal crops makes us just about self-sufficient. Lupins are combined and stored dried. Better than soybean bought in – you don’t know about the GM status of these. If you grow your own you know where it is from. Lupins are milled separately and mixed with cereals.”
“You talk about food miles – well most of our food comes from two fields that way and down to the barn down there.”
Why are we not more self-sufficient in animal feed? “I don’t know why Britain doesn’t grow more of its own plant protein, it brings in soybeans from America. Probably with the position of biofuels they are not going to grow as much over there, which will push the prices of everything up even more.”
Cost of artificial fertiliser –making best economic use of it.
“The only expense is the cost of artificial fertilisers – it is a job to wean us of these. Organic is another step that we are not contemplating as yet.”
Do you consider changing the mixture to include more nitrogen-fixing clover?
“Oh yes the field down there includes red clover – it was like a jungle when we cut it! It dies out after 2 years but it saves us buying a lot of fertiliser. We don’t use much fertiliser anyway, I was taught at college that you could put on 300 units of fertiliser a season for a really intensive dairy farm, but we only use 50 units for our beef herd. Some of my silage fields haven’t had any artificial fertiliser this year – I just had a budget that purchased x number of tonnes and I spread it where I thought it was needed. Some of the fields with manure didn’t have artificial fertiliser. We are fortunate we have a big farm – a big area to produce the grass from – it would be hard for a small farm to do this with a low fertiliser input.”
“The problem is if you put a lot of Nitrogen on you have leaf at the top and a white stem with no feed value. Greener leaves are sweeter, they have more sugars and protein and there is a better fermentation. We have been lucky with the weather this year, it has been drier, so when we cut the grass for silage it wilts easier.”
Was last year (2007) tricky because it was so rainy? “Yes next to impossible, luckily we cut some grass for silage during the Royal Cornwall Show week which turned out to be the last chance”.
How many cuts of silage do you get? “Mostly only one really” – some fields we can get a second cut we aren’t intensive like some farms.”
What other production happens on the farm? “I have got sheep, we are a traditional mixed farm with beef, sheep and arable. The idea being with three enterprises is that you have two that are half descent profit wise. For example, corn was only £55-00 a tonne – it was hardly worth doing – but we still did it. As the price was low we fed it to the cattle – we needed the straw and last year that was worth £160-00 a tonne if bought in.”
Do you re-seed the grass at all?
“Yes we have a rotation – I think you have to in Cornwall. It is not somewhere where you can do monoculture and less you are really keen. If you do that your inputs are going to be higher. Your following crops such as wheat can benefit from nitrogen-fixing crops such as lupins. The dung from the cattle goes back on the ground – it is all recycled on the farm. Grass does get spent out, so if you plough one area you reseed another to keep the right amounts of descent pasture on the farm.”
What would you say to people going to restaurants in Cornwall or going to supermarkets in terms of buying local beef?
“I would say they need to be asking where their meat comes from. It’s the only starting point really. We haven’t shouted about it because farmers are always afraid to spend the money on advertising. One person locally breaking that mold is Giles Eustace at Travaskis Farm Restaurant and Shop near Hayle in Cornwall. We have supplied him for two years, he gets a consistent product from us and we know where it has gone to. It is nice to get the feed back from his customers telling him that was the best bit of beef they had ever had. We heard back about that and that keeps us going. Quality beef with local provenance is better value for the same money as supermarket meat, if only the public thought how to go about getting it. ”
“I sell bull beef to the supermarkets, actually it makes very good money at the moment. Bull beef is an advantage because it puts on weight quicker than bullocks and can be finished quicker.”
How many generations of your family have been farming here?
‘Yes my grandfather was involved in the farm – I am the third generation here.’
Has it always been South Devon?
“Yes it would have been back then he would have milked them as well. They were a dual purpose breed – since the black and whites came in in the 60’s and 70’s the breeds had to choose what purpose they were for. ”
Changing economics – is there a need for greater economic self-sufficiency?
“It has always been a mixed farm, never a dairy farm. In the past you wouldn’t have needed many cows to make a living then – if you had ten cows back ten you were rich.”
Have the returns to farmers gone down over the years?
“Returns are down and the prices have gone up. They had recessions just like us in the 1930’s but they could shut the farm gate. Every time someone comes on your farm nowadays they want some money. Weather it is someone delivering diesel, fertiliser or coming to mend your tractor, the man reading the electric metre, all that. Back then they didn’t have a penny of that – they grew their own spuds they could get a lamb or a pig. They had chickens for eggs, they milked the cow, they survived they didn’t have television or electric, non of these expenses that are unfortunately eating us alive these days. That’s how they survived self-sufficiency and were very strict on what they spent or didn’t spend…….. What we do with our money now is to share it out between 25 people. The main movers as described do a lot of paper work to get this money and it gets push out between your suppliers and it is all gone very quickly. We don’t keep it all the people who supply us have to be paid.”
How difficult is to encouraging youngsters into farming?
“It is hard to sell to youngsters – not to mention the bureaucracy and form filling after a busy day on the farm.”
Does it make it any easier when you work as a group? “Yes probably some of the time.”
Are there any problems with farm subsidy payments?
“In that science subsidies didn’t do us any favours – long term the bank has shown me a graph. When subsidies started, spending followed that. In the early 1980’s perhaps subsidies dropped off – spending crossed over. Ever since then we have been in deficit and the market price crashed. This was especially true with BSE which was the biggest disaster for this countries agriculture ever – far worse than foot and mouth. It was very difficult at the time but then again it highlighted an argument for growing your own feed.”
What impact does the image of your landscape with your livestock grazing have on your customers? “They are maintaining the land – without animals this would be all ploughed up and planted with corn. It would be very lifeless and baron without the cattle and sheep and there wouldn’t be much to look at all. Since the foot and mouth outbreak it is surprising how few cattle and sheep you see in the fields in parts of the country affected. We went to Scotland in 2003 and you couldn’t see a sheep or anything.”
Has this land gone over to arable production? “Well there is just nothing happening in the fields, they are just barren grassland. If you think that 50,000 people have left agriculture in the last ten years – there aren’t as many farmers to keep animals.”
Does farming keep older farmers active and keep them going? “There was a piece in the paper last week that said the average age of farmers was 55. I met an 82-year-old dairy farm last week – fit as a flea. His wife milked the cows till last winter, but that wouldn’t be rare really. My father’s 75 and he does a day’s work every day, that’s what keeps him going. It keeps them going.”
Does that mean you will still be farming at an advanced age? ” I don’t really want to do that – the pace of farming life these days is tougher.”
© Andrew Ormerod 2013