Chris and Ken Pears
A Cumbrian beef and sheep farming family has met the objectives set out four years ago to improve the output from their enterprise at 1,000ft above sea level on the edge of the Lake District National Park.
When the Pears family of Fellside House, Caldbeck, signed up as a monitor farm with the RDPE North West Livestock Programme in 2009, increasing suckler cow numbers and herd efficiency as well as improving the productivity of the sheep flock were among the main objectives – but, as a priority, Ken and Mandy Pears wanted to secure the future for their son, Chris.
Fellside House is an upland 107 ha (265 acre) farm with grazing rights on Caldbeck common. The land is all Severely Disadvantaged with an average of 70 inches of rainfall a year.
Open Day: Ken explans to the group some of the changes they've made
The suckler herd now numbers 55 Limousin cross British Blue cows and there are 560 breeding ewes, comprising 230 Swaledales bred pure, 210 Swaldedales bred to the Bluefaced Leicester to produce North of England Mules and 120 Mules put to the Texel and the Suffolk ram to produce finished lambs.
“We have achieved our objectives which four years ago was part of an ongoing process for the farm. But what the monitor farm involvement has given us has been access to specialists – and the confidence to continue,” said Ken Pears.
“Our aims were not to change anything dramatically but simply to make a few ‘tweaks’ to the system – but a few ‘tweaks’ can have a big effect,” he added.
“A lot of us beef and sheep producers have been going along quite happily but not looking at our input costs such as feed and fertiliser. Now we are looking at maximising our ability to grow grass as well as improving the productivity from our cattle and sheep.
“We need to ensure that the cows don’t disappear from marginal and upland areas and I think the project has shown that a few adjustments can make a difference and, hopefully, encourage people to keep cows in the hills.” Ken Pears
The Limousin British Blue cross suckler herd has been increased from 50 to 55 to spread fixed costs and, as well as a Limousin bull, a British Blue bull is also now used on the herd.
Keeping cows in the hills
The aim is to breed more heifer replacements to improve bio-security and to tighten the calving period to maximise the number of heifers bulled at two years old to improve efficiency.
Calving for the last two years has been in a tight nine week period with the bulls going out on July 7. Because the cows are 7/8ths bred, the aim is to calve then at a condition score of 2.5 and are batched in three groups according to condition and fed on silage during winter housing.
“We hadn’t considered calving heifers at two years old, but on the advice of SAC’s Rhidian Jones, one of the first experts we talked to for the project, he convinced us that it would be achievable and of the benefits gained,” said Ken.
“We have had heifers that have calved at two years old and have grown into good, mature cows. Letting them run on to calve at three means these beefy cows can get too big for our farm – we’re looking for a cow with a mature weight of 650-675kg – and it saves on a year’s costs of keeping them and utilising their potential as soon as possible.
“We have been surprised at how well they have got back in calf – but the younger the animal, the more fertile they are. Weighing the heifers at bulling time at 14-15 months old has been critical. Heifers going to the bull are weighing around 440kg.”
Weighing and reducing feeding costs
Purchasing a cattle weighing facility with the help of a NW Livestock Programme grant in 2010 has been key to monitoring and improving the performance of the cattle, including batching the calves for more accurate feeding.
Another aim was to reduce feeding costs by condition scoring to better target feeding rates and to use more silage and straw in the rations to reduce concentrate use.
Specific advice on condition scoring and silage analysis has enabled more straw and silage to be used in cattle rations.
Steer and heifer calves are sold at Hopes Auction Company, Wigton, at three sales in March and May, at an average 13.5 months old weighing 440kg and making more than £1,000 a head.
Maximise calves sold – calving at two years old
SAC beef specialist Gavin Hill said running a beef herd to breed replacements as well as producing store cattle was asking the bull to be a “Jack of all trades”. He also said it was important to maximise the number of calves sold not just the prices achieved which meant getting fertility right.
He warned that producers looking to reduce their calving pattern should do so with extreme care over a period of years. If a higher proportion of the herd is calving down late, then taking the bulls out early will have a high number of barren cows.
Calving at two years old should prove more profitable, but the decision had to be based on breed, environment, climate and land type as well as how the suckler enterprise was managed, he said.
Finishing lambs by August
Vet Alistair Reid of Bell Vue Vets, Wigton, said the objective of improving the productivity of the sheep flock had been to finish a higher percentage of lambs by the beginning of August, maximise the use of forage and reduce lamb losses from abortion.
A vaccination programme against toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion, both of which have caused losses in successive lambings, has reduced lamb losses
Traditionally, the farm maintained a pure-bred Swaledale flock and sold Mule gimmer lambs. For the last decade, Mules have been retained and crossed with a terminal sire to produce prime lambs which Ken says has worked well.
Batches of lambs have been creep fed, enabling finishing three weeks earlier than those without creep.
A Suffolk ram was used for the first time this year and its performance is now being looked at against the Texel.
Last year’s silage quality was greatly improved following soil testing by Promar and following the resulting nutrient management programme. Tests at Fellside House showed that the land had sufficient phosphate and potash and as a result straight nitrogen was applied instead of a compound fertiliser.
This saved on fertiliser costs but also the improved forage quality saved on concentrate costs during the winter.
Promar has carried out 50 nutrient management plans as part of the North West Livestock Programme over the last year and senior consultant Andrew Suddes said these had flagged up that most had a pH lower than 5.5 due to the two wet summers and were in need of lime. Organis manure was the cheapest way to boost phosphate and potash, he said.
Under the programme, tests are still available until early autumn at £150 plus vat for 20 field tests and a nutrient management plan.
* Neighbouring farmer Gordon Watson, of Paddygill, Caldbeck has found among the benefits of attending the meetings at Fellside House, better management of his slurry on the advice of using SlurryBugs.
Mr Watson runs 28 suckler cows and 220 sheep on a former dairy unit . “It has been cost effective to use, saving on diesel to stir the slurry and prevent a crust as well as my time. It also makes the slurry more consistent when it comes to spreading it,” he said.
2010 2011 2012
Ewes at scanning 574 561 569
Lambs at scanning 859 743 856
Scanning% 150% 132% 150%
% lambs lost 23% 4% 6%
% lambs reared 115% 127% 141%
Lambs sold Aug 1 0 47 50
Conc ewes/head 17.72kg 15.56kg 12.32kg
2010 2011 2012
Cows in herd 48 51 52
Calving period 13wks 11wks 9wks
Heifers retained 3 6 2
Av calf weaning wt - 345kg 345kg
Av calf sale wt - 422kg 425kg
Av sale price £763 £809 £915