When it comes to rearing beef Jack Stilwell has gone a step further than most. As well as rearing his animals to ever-increasing high standards, Jack, who runs Green Lanes Farming Ltd, is working with other farmers to create a volume of cattle that are an attractive prospect to processors and retailers – and most importantly provides better returns for all involved.
Jack returned to the family farm on the Hampshire/West Sussex border in 2014 and started rearing small numbers of male Holstein calves sourced from local dairy farms. Since then, the business has scaled up dramatically to the current point where the core in-hand farm business is rearing 2,000 calves per year in-house, as well as another 3,000 via affiliated farm partners.
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Both ends of the supply chain are managed by Jack, from calf procurement right through to arranging finishing contracts and negotiations with abattoirs. Calves are collected between 14-21 days old from farms that he has built up relationships with, from as far away as Cornwall and up into the Midlands.
“Performance is key right from the outset,” explains Jack. “We need a calf to have had the best possible start by the time it gets to us, as this really influences whether it kills out on time further down the line. Therefore, we incentivise farmers to invest time and effort in ensuring each calf receives adequate colostrum and high standards of hygiene (clean buckets, teats, dipped navel etc.).
“Really, it’s just ensuring they work to the same standards that they would were they rearing their own black and white heifers. With the numbers coming through our system and the data we have on performance; we can very quickly identify those farmers who aren’t doing the job properly. In turn, as well as paying a fair price, we offer a service where we ‘take everything’ - no one wants you picking and choosing animals because they are the wrong colour.”
Jack’s sister, Harriet, is in charge of calf rearing and all calves are put on a 42-day milk plan using ForFarmers VITAMILK Classic milk powder at 0.9kg/day milk powder in 6 litres water (150g/l mixing rate) from a Foerster-Technik automatic calf feeder. They are also offered ForFarmers 17% Calf Complete nuts ad-lib from two weeks.
Calves are gradually weaned from six litres to two litres over a fortnight, building up ad lib concentrate intakes so that they are eating 2kg concentrate/day by weaning. “We’re looking for an average of 1.1kg DLWG throughout the milk phase and with this milk powder and cake, performance is currently up by an average of 0.3kg/day,” remarks Jack.
Jack works with ForFarmers’ youngstock specialist Emily Hayes, who explains; “Jack’s philosophy throughout the rearing phase is to mitigate any stress points, such as weaning, moving units or changing diets, to avoid any growth checks. We never do more than one change at any one time and everything is done gradually where possible. For example, when transitioning to the ForFarmers bespoke beef blend we use, we mix it together for three weeks with the calf cake, gradually reducing the cake and the increasing blend."
Vaccination and ventilation are two other areas that Jack feels are crucial to success. All calves are vaccinated for BVD, Lepto and IBR, as well as pneumonias. “With everything we do I am aiming for ‘poultry plus’ standards not ‘dairy minus’,” says Jack.
In terms of airflow, Jack has forced ventilation that gives 7.5 clean air changes per hour, every hour.
"Water is another area where cleanliness and hygiene are often overlooked but the importance is huge,” continues Jack.
In terms of medication we are aiming for zero antibiotics... We’re not there yet but we are very close. I have also set myself an ever-decreasing benchmark for mortality – I am currently working towards, and achieving, sub-2%".
"There are so many variable factors in calf rearing – the feed, the weather, travelling time, calf quality, etc but what we’re trying to do is control as much as we can and get the right combination. You can always improve. The day I think I’ve cracked it is the day to stop.”
Everything is focused on the finished carcass market and for Jack, his ultimate aim is to achieve a 320kg carcass by as near to 15 months as possible: “A Friesian steer may do this in 14 months which is great, but 15-16 months is what we are aiming for,” he says.
We now have a network of finishing units in every county from the Midlands down which take our reared calves. And on top of that we also work with third party rearers who sell their finished animals through us, plus we take cull cows from dairy farmers across the country. In effect, what we have is a syndicate of famers that collaborate together, and we are the funnel that feeds their animals through to the buyer.”
Jack has worked hard to build contracts with abattoirs and retailers that reward the constant flow of cattle he can supply.
Last year he put 11,000 animals through the books: “We can negotiate better prices from the abattoirs because we provide them with accurate forecasting and deliver the numbers and spec that they require. In return, we regularly achieve prices that are 10-15p/kg higher than the market average and also have access to data that we feed back to the farmer. This knowledge transfer aspect is really important; if farmers get feedback that they are sending animals too late, for example, they can adjust their system and make feed savings which benefits their business.
“All of this was born out of creating a fairer deal for the farmer – we’ve worked to create a versatile, flexible model where everybody gains strength from the numbers and are rewarded for working with us.
We are looking to grow further, especially in the South West, and are looking for rearers and calves across the country, Jack concludes.”
Balancing the demands of off-farm work alongside those of any livestock enterprise is always a challenge, but for pedigree Limousin owner, Chris White, these challenges have not prevented him from producing excellent quality breeding stock, or from winning a host of top-level breed awards.
Feeding beef cattle with live yeast has been proven to aid rumen development, improve rumen efficiency and ease the transition of cattle on to high energy, high starch finishing diets – helping cattle maximise feed utilisation and achieve good weight gains.
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