The programme cover of the Oxford Real Farming Conference urges its delegates to ‘Enjoy and get involved’, and that is exactly what nearly 800 people did last week at the Oxford Town Hall.
Whilst the heritage Oxford Farming Conference (70 years of age this year), was arguing over EU membership and worrying about falling commodity prices, the ‘other’ conference was alive with chatter on how to regenerate soils and grow cover crops; how to care farm and mobilise agro-ecology in the UK.
I was there with my Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) hat on, chairing a session to launch the publication of ‘Pasture for Life, It can be done – The Farm business case for feeding ruminants just on pasture’.
Consumer demand for meat from animals that have only ever eaten grass and forage crops currently outstrips supply, as more people recognise the quality of this nutrient-dense food. We need more farmers to kick the grain habit and to commit to finishing their animals 100% pasture-fed.
But to do this we need to clear the barriers that stop farmers from doing so – including any effect this may have on their bottom line. Can it be profitable, we are often asked, when it may take longer to fatten animals this way?
In this booklet we set out to find the answer, by comparing the financial records of eight PFLA members, with the average and top third producers who do the AHDB Beef & Lamb Stocktake costings programme.
The PFLA sheep farmers earned higher gross margins per ewe than the Stocktake top third (£73 v £66) due to much lower variable costs. They are way ahead of the Stocktake average for net margin, when fixed costs (apart from rent) are taken into account (£24 v £9).
While PFLA suckler cow producers show good gross margins due to low feed costs, the net margin per cow and per hectare echoes the industry average, showing a negative figure due to high fixed costs.
However, PFLA farmers who finish their cattle, many selling direct to consumers, produced a healthy output figure per head (less replacement costs) compared to the Stocktake farmers finishing cattle over 24 months of age (£1,304 v £723). This, coupled with very low variable costs, results in a substantial gross margin (£1,128 v £366).
While their fixed costs are also high – due to the additional costs of marketing, the PFLA farmers still show a positive net margin/head, whereas the Stocktake producers show negative positions at current prices, before rent (£567 v £-84).
“I truly believe we can fairly say that rearing livestock on nothing but pasture does make economic sense,” said report author Jonathan Brunyee, Senior Lecturer of Farm Business Management at the Royal Agricultural University.
“While the average livestock farm is losing money, Pasture for Life sheep and beef finishing farmers are profitable.
“They are however, still reliant on subsidies and additional income from direct sales, and agri-environment schemes are crucial. And that is without taking into account other benefits that could be given a value – such as the storage of carbon in grassland and providing wildlife habitat.”
The launch of the booklet was very well received with many hundreds of copies picked up by delegates over the two-day conference.
Thanks to The Real Farming Trust for organising such an invigorating and enjoyable conference. See you all again next year!