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Phepson Angus Newsletter - April 2020

Grass fed – no fuss – maximising meat from forage

Welcome to the first edition of the Phepson Angus newsletter … Thank you for joining us! The country is experiencing arguably one of the most challenging starts to a year; from flooding to pandemic disease. Currently, every 24-hour period releases new information that is having a huge impact on the entire population and all of our businesses. Uncertain times with uncertain markets but here at Phepson Angus we continue to have a positive vision for the future of the beef industry, and we hope that you can join us with that vision by the time you have reached the bottom of this newsletter.

At Phepson, we breed cattle that work for you

As the agriculture industry progresses into the 21st century, we are faced with new challenges. Price is volatile and trending downwards and there are new challenges of operating in an unprotected world market along with competition from many other sources of cheap protein. In this moment of change we also face a huge PR challenge – it has never been more important for us to communicate the genuine environmental benefits of proper stewardship of the land with cattle. Whether we like these developments or not, they are a reality. If we do not adjust to this new reality, then things will only get tougher. 

Aim for the optimum not the maximum

For a long time, the beef industry has been focussed on increasing individual animal production at the expense of almost all other traits. Increasing growth rates and weaning weights have been the targets, and over the last few decades, the industry has achieved what it set out to do. However, profitability of many beef farms continues to fall. What is going wrong?
This increase in growth rate in cattle comes with an increase in energy requirements and therefore inputs - increasing the cost of production. On a 21st century beef farm, an increase in cost of production nearly always leads to a decrease in net profit.
There is a tipping point when the extra unit of production starts to cost you money - keep production below that point and your business will be more resilient in the long term. 
The solution … switch your focus to optimum production not maximum production. Maximise your profits by minimising your inputs. Focusing on managing cheaper forage more efficiently and breeding cattle that can thrive on this cheaper forage is the key to the future profitability of the UK beef sector. The time is fast approaching when high energy rye-grass leys are going to be an expensive luxury that beef cattle systems can’t afford – but more on that in our next newsletter…

We now have only 12 PHEPSON ANGUS bulls left for sale this year (2020)

Please get in touch if you would like more information about available bulls.          

Girl Power – Focus on the female.

Go to any big breed society show and sale and you will find a consistent theme. As soon as you step inside you soon realise that this is all about the bull (in more ways than one ;-)). “This bull is top 5% growth rate”, “this one is top 1%.” “This is a marbling bull”, “this one has the best milk numbers” but worst of all is the bull that will do everything – maternal, terminal, milk and muscle – it probably has a cure for corona virus! The reality is that a lack of growth rate or individual yield per animal is not what is costing the suckler beef producer today. Your cost comes from your cows and their ability to bring a marketable calf year in year out, problem free. This is why we focus on maternal cows at Phepson Angus. 

NO SECOND CHANCES. Our cows must breed in 3 cycles without the crutches of winter housing or high energy feed or they are shipped. We recently sold 15 in calf cows and a bull to a customer looking to expand his herd. When we pregnancy tested them 14 of the 15 were due within a month of each other and the other was only one more cycle away. You hear of people calving over 3 months or more. A calf born 90 days later than your first is already behind by over 100 kilos before it even starts. It really doesn’t matter what the growth rate is when your late calves are that far behind. Tighter calving saves on labour, it saves on inputs and makes your management of cohorts much easier. That is why fertility is recognised as the number one trait for the profitability of a suckler herd and that is why it is the number one focus here at Phepson Angus. It’s the cow not the bull that drives your profitability. By only selecting bulls from cows that pass our tests we ensure they will breed cows for our customers that will work for them and their business.
 

We test our cattle in our environment so that they will work for you in your operation
 

At calving time we take into account cow temperament, udder score, foot/leg/skeletal structure, calving ease and calf vigour. Body condition is monitored throughout the year to observe how the cattle respond to the test of outwintering on a diet of 100% rough forage. Our cows fit this system. Cows that don’t fit this system are removed, leaving us with a gene pool of extremely efficient, low maintenance cattle that thrive in our environment – and yours. We have found over time that culling is getting harder and harder as we move towards our ideal cow and so from time to time we do have females to sell that we have full confidence in. 

They gain condition on spring and summer grass, calve outside with ease, provide enough, but not excessive amounts of milk to raise their calf; ensuring they have reserves to see them through the winter. Our cows are of moderate frame size but selected for large capacity making them extremely efficient forage converters. 
Carefully selected bulls are run with the cows for just 60 days in late summer. We pride ourselves on high levels of fertility in our cows; enabling us to calve in a tight block with little requirement for human intervention. 

The cows lose some condition over the winter; but are able to sustain their own maintenance requirements whilst still suckling a calf through the winter on forage alone; a credit to the performance of the genetics in this herd. This makes a profitable cow. 

It may surprise you to hear that our bulls are tested just as much as our cows. We do not have pampered bulls – pampered bulls are expensive to run. Our bulls are outwintered on a diet of 100% forage just like our cows, they never see grain, but they maintain plenty of quality. We monitor our bulls closely over their first winter after weaning – this is a crucial test for the bulls to see if they fit our system. They might wean heavy but it’s how they come through a winter with no milk that tells us about their maintenance requirements. It’s by this time of year at 20-22 months that we really know what they are made of and select those that meet our standards as sale bulls.


Our Cows

  • Fertile

  • Maternal

  • Long lived

  • Large rumen capacity – excellent forage converters 

  • Perfect udders

  • Strong feet and legs

  • Good temperament

  • PROFITABLE

Our Bulls

  • Fertile

  • Long lived

  • Moderate frame size of high quality

  • Excellent forage converters 

  • PROFITABLE

 

“After visiting Rob and seeing how he manages his grass and testing his genetics, I was very keen to purchase some of his cattle.  I didn’t need to see them, I just put an order in of what I wanted, and Rob did the rest. It’s very reassuring when you find a breeder who really knows his cattle and can be trusted to send you exactly what you want. We will be purchasing more in the future.”

~ Geraint Powell, Nuffield Scholar - after purchasing 15 in calf breeding cows and a bull ~

Red Eddard - one of Phepson's senior herd sires

Planning spring turnout – 

“Turnout” might seem an odd concept in an out-wintered herd but these terms seem to stay with you even though we’ve been out-wintering our cattle for a long time. We use the Holistic Management framework to help us make decisions about our grazing and in that framework “Turnout” is dealing with the transition from the dormant season to the growing season. We need to know how the beginning of our growing season grazing plan is going to start a long time in advance. In fact our actions in the previous growing season are going to have a big impact on spring turnout. 

For us, turnout usually occurs in the paddocks that we grazed first in our dormant season grazing rotation (some of the first areas we stockpiled in our growing season plan). These paddocks have been rested since approximately 1st December and from then have been growing at about 10-20kg DM/ha right through this mild winter – they now hold the highest covers across the various farm holdings. 

However, it is not always these paddocks that we graze 1st. We always make an assessment based on which areas are optimally recovered. This year, in the wettest winter on record, we had some areas that we couldn’t graze because they were just too wet. These have now dried and grown on and will probably now be our 1st paddocks this spring on one of the farms.

When to start?

So now we know where we will be starting but how do we know when the right time is? We are an organic farm grazing native pastures, not ryegrass leys, and this feeds into our decision making. Since we don’t use artificial fertiliser we need to work with the plant physiology not against it and this leads to one of the foundational principles of our forage management:
 
Always wait for a plant to have fully recovered before coming back to graze it again

Now there might be a good reason that we don’t follow the rule above but we have found it to pay dividends to allow grass to recover before grazing it again. The start of our growing season is no different. Just because a plant hasn’t been grazed since December does not mean it is fully recovered. Forage plants have evolved alongside herbivores and have adapted to the challenge of being grazed. These plants store energy in their roots and crown so that when they are grazed they can re-grow enough leaf to act as a solar panel to drive faster re-growth and energy production for flowering. Once grazed, if the plants are re-grazed before they have stored that energy in their roots and crown again then their re-growth will be slower and it is likely that the rotation will arrive back at the same spot to under-recovered plants once again. When it is grazed again it will slow the speed of recovery further. Andre Voisin, in his essential book “Grass Productivity”, called this downward spiral in production “untoward acceleration” because with less grass to graze the rotation accelerates on each pass. 

It’s interesting to me that working with plant physiology instead of against it, is not the “industry standard” advice. We often hear that we need to graze grass as early as possible in the growing season and that “the first pass is for the grass not the cattle”. I can’t see why someone would recommend that we deprive the forage of it’s natural energy stores. Grazing “under-recovered” grass in the spring means excess levels of indigestible non-protein nitrogen and very low levels of lignin and cellulose. This causes an imbalance in the Carbon/Nitrogen ratio in the rumen, a very loose stool in cows that seem to be constantly hungry and unsatisfied, often bellowing for another move. This low nutrient forage is often all that is available at a time when cows are Feb or March calving leading to further complications like grass staggers and milk fever. So in one way the “industry standard” advice is right – that first pass is definitely not for the cow!

Our grazing planning takes all this into account and in our County, the grass tends to be recovered by approximately the 15th– 25th April. We plan for that but also a buffer to make sure we can allow full recovery, even if we get a beast from the east in April and need to push turnout into early May.

Phepson cattle outwintering at the National Trust's Croome Estate.

Free Consultancy

We often get requests for consultancy on both grassland and cattle management in holistic management systems. While we do take on some advisory work in limited situations we do tend to try and sign-post to other advisers in the regenerative agriculture sector.  However, ALL PHEPSON ANGUS CUSTOMERS receive a FREE consultation with their purchase and for our customers we are always available on the phone. So if you are interested in saving money through your grazing systems and would like to add some proven fertility genetics to your herd then get in touch. 

The business has grown ... in land, cattle and staff. We are pleased to announce that we have taken on a contract farming agreement with the Kemerton Estate. The herd of pedigree Red Polls grazes pastures rolling from the Carrant Brook up onto the picturesque Bredon Hill. This takes us up to just over 1000 acres.

The suckler herd of Red Poll cattle graze areas of diverse grassland habitats from flood meadows to traditional orchards as part of the Kemerton Conservation Trust. We start this newsletter at an exciting stage in the development of the future of this farm, as we begin to convert it to holistic grazing. Follow the progression of this transition in future newsletters and videos on our YouTube channel.

Calving under way at the Red Poll herd on Kemerton Estate. Cows and calves grazing on Bredon Hill. 

FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA

TWITTER - @robhavard1

YOUTUBE - Rob Havard

INSTAGRAM - @PHEPSONANGUS

FACEBOOK - @PHEPSONANGUS

Sarah Dusgate joins the business as first employee at Phepson Angus                                    

Sarah has joined us as our Key Livestock Person and has made a brilliant start. Anyway - over to Sarah:

My first 6 weeks at Phepson have been brilliant! 

I’m feeling very fortunate to be in a role that allows me to keep working and have a routine during these uncertain times. Farming is being reaffirmed as a core industry to the country, and to me it’s really rewarding to work at the heart of an industry the whole population relies on.

I’m not from a farming family but there’s always been an interest there. Weekends and school holidays were spent helping out on family friends’ farms back in Wales when I was growing up. After graduating from Liverpool with a degree in Bioveterinary Science, I did a short stint of work in a laboratory but was craving a job that would enable me to spend more time outdoors again. I have worked with some great companies over the last few years and got a lot of value from visiting different farms and meeting new people … but there has always been a desire to be a farmer myself. 

2 years ago I set up my own business; Brightstock, producing media content for agriculture companies, and I have also continued to be involved with some research. I’ve loved every aspect of the work I’ve done and am extremely grateful that I can continue this on the side of my job at Phepson with clients I’ve built up. 

When I saw the job come up at Phepson, I was attracted by the holistic approach the farm took to livestock, land and people management – something a bit different from what I’d come across on other farms. Regenerative grazing was something I had a lot of interest, but limited knowledge in – which was even more of a draw to the job for me. 

It’s a really exciting time to join the business; to experience the benefits of holistic grazing on the established farm, but also be involved at the start of the transition period of the new farm over to holistic grazing. 

It is great to see the Phepson Angus herd in action and to see how much work has been put in by Rob to produce cattle that can provide a lot of value to other farm businesses. I hope I can bring some skills to the business that can help to make the opportunities that have been created happen.

Sarah joins Phepson Angus as the business takes on another farm

Things that work for us that might work for you … 

· Jot down ideas when they pop in your head. Farm staff have a ‘Trello’ App on their phone – ‘Farm Actions’ folders are used to jot down notes/do to lists/ideas whilst on the go. We go through the list as a team on a weekly basis.
 

· Keep every member of the team up to date. WhatsApp groups for each farm keep everyone in the loop of what’s going on … particularly useful around calving time. We also involve our landowners in these groups … it’s great to keep them updated with photos when new wildflowers emerge!
 

· Safety first. Due to the nature of the business we are often working on our own and travelling to different locations to check on cattle. There is a risk of somebody getting into difficulty and nobody knowing where they are. At the start of the day we share our ‘Live Location’ on WhatsApp to each other which provides a live tracker whilst we work, and we keep each other updated with when we arrive/leave a farm and where we are heading to next.
 

As ever, we’re all ears. If you use any apps or have tips that we could benefit from to make our operation more efficient and safer, we would love to hear from you, and share it in future newsletters for other readers.  

In our next edition – 

•    How we choose our bulls

•    The power of native pasture and the true cost of a grass ley

•    New video series coming - transitioning a new farm to regenerative agriculture

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Phepson Angus · Phepson Farm · Droitwich, WR9 7JZ · United Kingdom

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