Farming under the new Agriculture Bill looks set to revolutionise the industry’s environmental credentials and it should also reduce input costs going by Yorkshire beef farmer Mike Powney’s notable achievements to date.

A former Beef Farmer of the Year, Mike relies on a 100-cow South Devon cross suckler herd to produce the best of beef mostly from forages, with finished cattle sold deadweight through ABP for Asda.

“First and foremost, I want an easy calving cow – I can’t finish a dead calf. We look to produce quality beef from easy calving, fast growing calves that have a big eye muscle,” said Mike who looks to maximise his income by producing best quality beef with reduced costs and therefore aims to produce 395kg carcases (just under ABP's max 400kg) with E and U+ grades.

“Initially, we relied upon South Devon cattle which being a dual-purpose breed, were ideal for crossing to a Limousin to breed replacement females. However, in recent years we have found these crosses don’t produce enough milk so all of our South Devons are now AI’d with sexed semen to a Norwegian Red with, British Blue and Australian Charolais used as terminal sires,” said Mike, adding that all heifers are served to an easy-calving Aberdeen-Angus, with Wagyu used in the past

“Norwegian Reds are renowned for having good udders, fertility and good feet and legs and they grow like stink. Our heifers are doing 1.25kg per day and our young bulls are gaining 1.41kg per day – nearly all from forages. Our Norwegian Red heifers also have better conception rates too with 86-88% holding to first service, compared to 72% in our South Devon crosses.”

“I want a small, docile, fertile cow that will last and one which is easy calving producing a good amount of quality milk. I also want an easy-care type of cow and one that I only really see twice a year – at service and calving. The average age of our cows is 7.4years but we also have cows at 14 years of age,” Mike said.

In contrast to most beef farms, there are no stock bulls. Instead, the business relies on AI, thereby enabling the best genetics which are selected mostly on EBVs and functionality, to be used. Aberdeen-Angus semen is used on the heifers as the calves have been shown to be 7kg lighter, with sexed Norwegian Red for replacement heifers. The bulk of the herd is AI'd to British Blues with others to Charolais and even Wagyu.

Calved in the spring over an eight-week period last year, resulting calves are weaned at housing at the end of October early November. All are weighed at housing with cows restricted to a diet of silage and straw for a reduced body condition score for easier calving, while heifers are on silage only.

Having a quiet, docile, easy calving breed of cattle to work with means there is little if any trouble at calving time too. Most years there will be just four or five assisted calvings per year. Docile cows and newly-born calves are also easily moved from the cow or heifer shed to individual pens in the handling unit by putting the calf into a wheel barrow and wheeling it round with the mother following alongside.

And, by relying on cattle that can convert forages means that the calves grow well on home-grown feeds. All cattle are EID recorded with calves weighed every three weeks during their first winter with growth rates monitored and recorded.

Bulls are fed a mixture of home-grown red clover silage and a home-produced barley/bean mix with molasses and minerals – the only bought in feeds - to finish within a 13-14month period at 400kg carcass.

Heifers are also fed quality red clover silage and 1kg or so of barley over the winter, then turned out to graze. These are finished off grass or rehoused in the autumn and fast finished on the same diet as the bulls. All are sold by 20-21months.

Out with improved genetics, Mike is also looking to a sustainable future by improving soil health with no-tillage practices and all machinery having low psi tyres to reduce compaction. As a result, most of the field tractor work is down by a 120hp vehicle and a 4m Moores Unidrill is used to sow all crops.

"I really thought I was doing a good job with my crops with minimum tillage until I watched a series of u-tube films from American farmer Gabe Brown. We then went out to the USA with ASDA to talk with him and see first hand how he had turned his soils into 'black gold' by rebuilding top soils with minimal soil disturbance. Now, we have a living plant or root in the ground at all times and we use cover crops containing up to 15 species at the one time and the difference in the soil and crop yields over the years has been incredible."

He added that the introduction of red clover and cover crops, has witnessed crop yields up 10-15%, while rotational grazing has resulted in 30-40% increase in grass growth.

“We have seen spectacular grass growth with rotational grazing. Last year we were moving our cows out of small paddocks every two days during the spring and summer, which at peak grass grown was down to 36 hours. Our first and second winter wheat crops are also yielding five tonne per acre because our soils are of higher nutrition,” said Mike.

“Before we also said, genetics, genetics, genetics was the way forward, but you also need good soils and infrastructure for a sustainable future. Our new more efficient steading saves me 3-4hours a day which is 800hours over the winter and one man for 20-weeks which is great when Dad is in now 80. The new steading is easier to muck out, feed and work in, and the design of the sheds mean I only had to inject one heifer for pneumonia last year and we are already well into our second winter.

Importantly, the cows are happy in it too, but then, all sheds are well lit with double the amount of roofs lights and scored concrete on the floor, to reduce slippage. All sheds are also 3ft higher than advised, with cattle in the cow, and youngstock units free to walk about in.

"There is also scope to upsize cow numbers to nearer 150 now too," concluded Mike.

FARM facts

* Oak House Farm relies on 360 acres of which 160 are improved grassland and 200 cereals with 8 year rotation revolving around three years red clover, two years winter wheat, a multi-species cover crop; spring beans, two years of cereals and back to red clover.

* No tillage, all crops are direct drilled to improve soil structure and reduce costs and compaction. All cattle rotationally grazing to increase grass growth.

* Cattle herd comprises 100 South Devon cross Limousin spring-calving cows. All are served via AI, with an Aberdeen-Angus used on heifers to calve at two years of age; Norwegian Reds to breed home-bred replacement on the pure South Devons and Charolais and British Blues on the offspring to produce quality finished beef from forages.

* New steading on 1.5acre green-field site made up of four similarly sized sheds all aligned. Two 150ft x 45ft youngstock sheds (young bulls in one and heifers and in-calf heifers in another) and 150ft x 90ft cow shed split down the middle with two gates at each end enabling cattle to walk round the entire shed. Handling unit 150ft x 45ft shed with multiple adaptable pens used at calving time and a round tub with curved race leading to an EID weigh crate. All sheds have 5ft overhang, 16ft eaves and exterior raised feed passage in cow and youngstock units. Concrete throughout sheds and between sheds with additional 40ft of concrete from the end of each shed for vehicles and cattle to be moved easily between sheds.

ON THE spot

Best investment? New handling shed

Best advice received? Get the site level at the start and put down as much concrete as you can afford.

Where would you like to be in 2030? I will be 65 then, so semi-retired and passing on my experience to up and coming beef farmers that will be running the farm for me.

What is the future for British agriculture? Quality exports. Great British is perceived by the world as a quality brand, and we must drive exports on the back of this to break the multiple retailers strangle hold over British agriculture.

Best way if any for new entrants to make money from farming? Start to work for somebody else and build up experience. Then build up your asset base (stock or machinery). Identify big farms or estates that have areas too small for them to bother farming. Take these on and further build your assets, being careful not to be a "busy fool". Finally try and get a tenancy somewhere. Be warned, it is not easy, you will work hard for little return, but the satisfaction of selling your first pen of stock or your first lorry load of cereals might just make it all worth while.

Favourite restaurant? Pier 19 in Queenstown. I can't remember what the food was like, but the sunset over Lake Wakatipu with snow covered mountains behind it was unbelievable, I can still see it today 10 years later.