When Chris Groom and Matthew Allen decided to form their beef rearing business Vitulo they soon recognised a problem. The quality of calves being supplied via a third party was so variable it affected the business’s efficiency. Initially the dairy and dairy-cross calves were bought in at five months of age, but they soon realised that to achieve the growth targets and economies of scale they were aiming for, they needed to start earlier.
“At the time calves would arrive at 150kg but only 70 per cent would perform well, 20 per cent were non-doers and we suffered high mortality rates. At the time barley was £175/tonne and it cost us a lot of money.”
They forged relationships with dairy farms and agreed to buy calves from them directly. “We pick them up on a three-weekly basis.” Vitulo (which means calf in Latin) commit to taking all a farm’s calves but if any are under sized Chris will ask the dairy farm to keep them until the next collection date, paying an additional rate for doing so. This then avoids any further growth checks caused by moving them and gives them a better chance to catch up, he explains.
“We set a fair price for the calves we buy so that our farmers will commit to us. We find that professional dairy farmers like arrangements like this. They want to know what they are getting for their calves and when.”
On arrival with Vitulo the calves are weighed, given EID tags and separated into bull and heifer groups. They took on a second site near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in December 2021 which took the business up a gear, says Chris. Eight redundant pig buildings surrounded by arable land were ideal and with another eight near-identical buildings on the same site, had scope for yet more expansion.
“The buildings are only 20 years old and in great condition, we just had to modify them for calves,” says Chris. This included raising the height of the partitions and installing automated calf feeders to mix and dispense milk while also monitoring the calves’ intakes and performance.
“It’s a very clever bit of kit. It knows how much they should be drinking and flags up potential issues.” The buildings are equipped with temperature probes and have curtain sides and together with straw bedding this provides an ideal environment for calves with minimal temperature fluctuations.
ForFarmers Prime Rearer 16 is introduced on an ad-lib basis and their intake increases as they are slowly weaned by the machine over a three to four week period. “It is all about putting weight on them as economically as possible,” says Chris.
At nine weeks the calves are moved into the adjacent wean sheds and from there they depart to either Vitulo’s own finishing farm (its original site on the Norfolk-Suffolk border) or to other farms on a bed and breakfast basis.
In the rearing stage calves are transitioned onto a forage-based diet which includes grass and maize silages, brewers grains and ForFarmers Eco Super Beef Grower.
Account manager Simon Pickard provides sound nutritional advice, says Chris. “I speak to him about our forage as well the concentrate element and he has a good understand of our business.
“The ForFarmers nuts do the job for us really well. With previous suppliers we had issues with dust clogging the feeders because the nuts weren’t holding together, but have absolutely no issues with these. ForFarmers were also very interested in the business and supportive of what we are doing.”
Calves are now more consistent across batches heading off to the finishing farms at around 20 weeks of age. “We finish 1200 on our own finishing farm but now want to build up the B&B side of the business to build our capacity.
“At the moment we have eight B&B farms working with us. It suits a farm where they have space, the necessary kit and labour and want a regular income as we pay monthly.
“The contract stipulates that they are on a forage-based diet which can be grass if it’s good quality. The bed and breakfast farms can be anywhere between Suffolk and Wales which is where they eventually go to slaughter at 16 months of age.”
Genetics now needs to be a focus, believes Chris and he is working with a genetics company and his dairy farmer suppliers to make improvements. “We are looking at meat yield and which animals produce the most amount of premium cuts which are worth more to the processor.
“It is hard to make any money in beef, but we could see an opportunity to make a fully integrated system. At the moment the beef industry is so segregated. There is massive potential, but we need other farmers to work with us.”
Ultimately Chris is thinking big. “Our current goal is 10,000 finished animals per year but we know that 50,000 would keep a plant going for a whole year. That would give us massive negotiation power.”