Bromstead Farm is the research unit for ABP Food Group’s UK operations, based in Shropshire, about an hour north of Birmingham city. The farm, which was purchased by the group in 2015, extends to 380ac and is predominantly grassland, as well as some woodland and ponds. It aims to demonstrate profitable and sustainable dairy-beef systems, while gathering some important data in relation to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from such systems.
The farm brings in four batches of 120 cattle throughout the year and they are brought to finish at around 20 months of age.
Typically, heifer carcase weights range from 250kg to 290kg, while steers range from 275kg to 330kg. All cattle on the farm are of dairy-beef origin and are sourced through ABP’s Blade integrated beef programme. This means that the calves are arriving on-farm at close to four months old weaned off milk.
As the Blade programme has quite a detailed health protocol, the only health treatment the calves receive on arrival is a pneumonia vaccination and a ringworm vaccination. The calves spend the first two weeks on-farm indoors on a transition diet to prepare them for going to pasture. This diet sees stock move from an 18% rearing pellet to a 16% nut.
The same nut that was fed on the rearing farm is fed at the start of the transition period, which is carefully managed to minimise any digestive upsets and includes silage and straw for a fibre source.
Once the calves go to grass, they continue to receive 2kg/day of concentrate. There is a strong emphasis placed on grassland management on the farm, with the aim of reducing concentrate input costs throughout the animal’s life and maximising liveweight gain from grass and forage.
The cattle on-farm are predominantly Aberdeen Angus sired, however they do look at other breeds including Belgian Blue and some Charolais. The major difference in the UK compared to the Irish dairy-beef sector is that they have a flat line calving pattern throughout the year and so calves can be sourced all year round.
Another notable difference is the amount of Belgian Blue genetics used on the dairy herd, which accounts for up to 40% of beef-sired dairy offspring, with Angus accounting for a further 40%. Compare this to dairy-beef sire usage in Ireland, where 44% of matings were to Angus, 32% were to Hereford and less than 4% of calves were sired by Belgian Blue sires in 2021.
All stock on-farm are finished out of the shed after a 90-day indoor, largely forage-based feeding period. This allows the farm to accurately measure liveweight gain as well as feed intake using GrowSafe feed bins, which weigh the amount of feed each individual animal eats over this period.
This provides important data for future sire selection. As feed costs account for a huge proportion of the total production cost of the animal, those that eat less per kilo of liveweight gain can be much more profitable than poorer converters.
There is huge variation between sires, with as much as £250/head (€295/head) difference in carcase value at the same slaughter age between the best and the worst performing stock.
Similar to Ireland, this research comes at a time where there is increased scrutiny on the dairy herd to produce a calf that can provide a viable return for the beef farmer. It is important to remember that there are three pillars to sustainability; environmental, economic and social.
When sustainability is being discussed and considered, it is important that there is a balance in approach across all three aspects, not just environmental sustainability.
Bulls vs steers
While the farm concentrates primarily on steer and heifer production, there was a small number of Angus bulls on-farm. These will remain indoors throughout their lives and aim to be finished under 16-months. However, lifetime concentrate input costs will likely see these systems struggle to leave a sufficient margin with dairy-beef type animals.
When asked about the production efficiencies of bulls over steer systems with regard to reducing the GHG emissions per kilo of beef, Bob Carnell, ABP UK CEO, said that grass-based steer and heifer production systems have a very good story to tell from a sustainability point of view, and that as an industry, we need to get better at conveying that message to the consumer.
The farm has taken baseline soil carbon samples and plans to test again in time, in order to plot changes in soil carbon reserves over a number of years in livestock production systems.
The farm aims to be as commercially focused as possible, so that what is being done at Bromstead is replicable at farm level for others. However, another goal of the farm is to measure everything and provide data to inform the debate around GHG emissions and the sustainability of livestock production.
To do this, the farm is measuring the methane emissions from stock in two ways; firstly using the GreenFeed system that measures gaseous emissions from stock. Every animal on the system has an electronic ear tag, by which the machine is able to identify the animal. It then offers the animal a small quantity of concentrate through multiple feed deposits over the course of three minutes.
The animal can come to the feeder five times a day. As the animal keeps its head in the feeder for the three minute feed period, the machine is able to analyse the animal’s emissions from its breath. The test period lasts three weeks in order to build up a representative sample of the animals’ daily emissions.
It really is all about capturing data – the more data we have, the more informed we will become
The other system they are trialling is the Zero Emissions Livestock Project (ZELP) collars, which are fitted to the head of the animal and not only measure emissions, but also reduce GHG emissions. The collar contains a battery pack and WiFi. It extends down over the animal’s nose and analyses and neutralises methane emissions.
It was described as working similar to a catalytic converter on your car. Trials have shown that the system can reduce methane emissions from livestock by up to 50%.
Commenting on both systems, ABP chair of sustainable beef and sheep systems at Harper Adams University, Professor Jude Capper, said: “It’s not about rolling this out on commercial farms across the country. If we can build up the database, we can then identify sires with lower GHG emissions. In the work to-date, we have seen up to 30% lower GHG emissions per kg of beef with some sires.
“It really is all about capturing data – the more data we have, the more informed we will become. I would love if every farmer weighed their cattle twice a year and (in the UK) then we need one central place where all this information comes together,” he said.