Monday, May 20, 2019

Beef producer transforms herd into progressive unit

January 3, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

George Coles 1

Northamptonshire livestock manager George Coles is getting the best from beef at Red Oak Farm, near Brackley.

George Coles is a man with a plan. In five years as livestock manager for Red Oak Farm at Westbury, near Brackley, he has transformed the operation from a sideline business to a progressive beef unit.

As a whole the enterprise comprises 277ha (684 acres) of farmable land – 70ha (173 acres) of permanent grass, 155ha (383 acres) of arable land and a 32ha (79 acre) solar farm with the rest put to woodland.

One of the farm’s directors, Roger Brown, also owns a 340ha (840 acres) arable farm next door. Cropping across the two farms includes oilseed rape, barley, wheat, beans, maize and peas. Land is cover cropped and combines both winter and spring cropping.

But it is the livestock that George is responsible for.

Born in Towcester from a long line of livestock farmers, he has been involved in farm work for the majority of his life. He first began working at Red Oak – owned by Roger and his mother Jackie Owen – in 2008, lending experience and labour to a workforce of three.

Gradually it became clear that the business needed to grow to be viable. “At the time it was something that was there as a job for the winter for the guys that worked here,” George said.

“I helped out for a few years but after a retirement I took it over in 2011 and have turned it in to a one-man operation running everything through to fat rather than selling stores. It had to be a completely different operation.”

Infrastructure

He admits that he didn’t have an initial strategy. Infrastructure had to come first. A shed had to be taken down and moved, and over time, two more livestock buildings had to be built.

“I was thrown in the deep end. It took us a year to move the first shed and we deliberately kept cattle numbers down until we got two sheds up.”

Work was completed in time for 2014’s calving. The site is now home to three herds. About 100 head of Simmental X and Aberdeen Angus X form the basis of the commercial operation, producing for Dawn Meats at Bedford, supplying Marks and Spencer (M&S) as well as a boxed beef scheme.

A pedigree Simmental herd comprising six breeding females and two bulls are owned by George and his wife, Tanya. A fledgling pedigree Red Angus herd with three yearling heifers, two yearling bulls and one senior bull are part of George’s plan to sell pedigree breeding animals in the future.

Establishing the Red Angus herd took patience and dedication. Live embryos were brought from Argentina to establish new bloodlines in the UK.

“There must be other people who have done this but at the time we weren’t aware of anyone who had brought cattle over from Argentina since the Falklands war.”

They were implanted in 2015 and calved earlier this year. “When we registered the cattle we were number four or five in the UK with solely pedigree Red Angus as most people with reds also run black Angus as well.”

Heifers won’t be put to the pedigree bull, which George bought from a Hampshire herd, until they are at least 20 months old, giving George time to raise awareness.

Three Counties Show

“The plan is to get ourselves sorted with a view to showing at the Three Counties Show in June. The show is the national Aberdeen Angus show and with the World Angus Forum taking place in Scotland this year, anyone who has anything to do with Angus will be there.”

George likes to do as much farm work himself to keep costs down.

He has trained to deliver his own artificial insemination programme, built sheds and designed a bespoke cattle-handling system.

He also takes his own cattle to slaughter, as much as it upsets him. “It sounds soppy but I when I leave the slaughterhouse I cry my eyes out. And I can’t eat my own animals.”

George’s 14-year-old stepson, James, is old enough to help out at evenings and weekends, and Tanya helped pioneer the boxed beef scheme in early 2016.

“Local people kept asking me about buying some beef so we started doing it as a way of earning a bit extra. We made plenty of mistakes but the last batch we did went well.

“Eventually it would be good to do a beast a month, but we have to get the demand.

“You need to make sure you’ve sold it all before the animal goes to slaughter – if not you have to freeze it which is harder to sell. We have to do 18 boxes of 10kg at £125 and we have a bit left over.”

Awareness

Engaging with the public has been important in stimulating awareness of farm, a website was built www.redoakfarm.co.uk and George also uses social media to advertise everything from beef box sales to the new arrival of a calf.

“We did Open Farm Sunday for the first time this year and had 400 people through the gate. We did live AI demonstrations and it worked well. All the calves held so next time people will be able to come back and see the results.

“We have to engage – they are buying our product. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to M&S, a beef burger from McDonald’s or a box scheme – without them we don’t have a customer.”

Cattle are fed tailored TMR forage based on grass silage, wheat straw, whole crop and maize. All commercial cattle are fed SugarRich biscuit meal and minerals in varying amounts.

A Heygates Maxigrow calf nut has contributed to strong daily live weight gains of 1.6kg/day in Simmental steers and 1.5kg in Angus calves.

Calves are weaned at about eight months averaging 400kg plus and George’s target is to hit deadweight carcasses at about 370kg and 390kg. The majority are achieving R grades, with some U grades, he says.

BVD-accredited 

The farm has been BVD-accredited free for three years and monitors IBR and Lepto – all homebred animals on farm since 2010 have no IBR or Lepto. George is also monitoring Johnes closely, all pedigree animals are managed to reduce as much risk as possible.

Using technology has also helped him do more himself.

A thermal imaging camera, which attaches to an iPhone, has helped diagnose foot problems without the need for a vet and helped to reduce antibiotic use massively, and George says a MooCall calving detection system “has been brilliant” in being on hand during births.

George was runner-up in the Outstanding Producer for Innovation category at the M&S Farming for the Future Awards in 2016 and has also been nominated for the Countryside Alliance Rural Oscars.

The farm has come a long way in five years, but George is not stopping.  “We want to get to 150 commercial cattle for M&S and our beef boxes. We’ll probably calve 200 a year in five years’ time.”

A new shed is being planned, as well as an extension to an existing building which will give George the capacity he needs. “It has been a transformation but in many ways we are just starting, especially with the Red Angus.”

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