Using exceptional quality silage in the simplest of livestock rations has enabled a Dorset beef and pork producer to grow a significant catering supply business across the south of England.

Eric and James Sealey could never be accused of failing to grasp opportunities as they arise. Quick to see trends on the horizon and fast to respond, the father and son team have built a business which began life with meat sales from the back of a van; grew its turnover to £2.3 million by mid-2022; and will reach £2.5 million and rising by the end of this year.

The mainstay of the business – operated from Fossil Farms Ltd, near Dorchester – is Jurassic Coast Meats, a company whose name reflects its idyllic Dorset location and stamps its products with the reassuring provenance increasingly demanded by discerning consumers.

The business of today can trace its roots to Eric’s background in dairy farming – first as a farm manager, later as a tenant, and latterly, as a joint tenant with James, on a 40-year farm business tenancy. In addition to the rented 350 acres (142 hectares), the operation today includes some 180 acres (73ha) of owned land, acquired by Eric’s parents when he became a first- generation dairy farmer.

But dairy farming was dropped in 2004, when attention was turned to beef, and after a few years using a conventional system, the idea was hatched of rearing rosé veal.

Obtaining calves from local dairy producers, the plan for veal production emanated from James’s final year at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester in 2007, where his dissertation was entitled: Future options for dairy-bred bull calves, and he was keen to put his findings into practice.

“We also wanted to cut out the middleman,” explains James, who set up Jurassic Coast Meats with his father, as the marketing arm of the farming business in 2008.

Supplying veal to the wholesale trade saw sales quickly grow to around 1,000 head a year.

But as chefs started asking for beef and lamb, the duo could see the trade’s potential and soon added other meats, including venison, chickens, turkeys and quail.

Today, the veal production has been replaced on Fossil Farms by 300-head of Aberdeen Angus beef and 450 growing pigs, while all other meats are bought-in.

Trade has mushroomed to include large parts of the catering industry including pubs, restaurants, schools and nursing homes, while a website and farm shop – started in 2017 and 2020 respectively – together now account for some 12.5% of sales.

“In the barbecue season we sell around 600-1,000 burgers a day and 600-1,000kg of sausages a week,” says Eric.

Achieving a consistent product

Supplying this trade relies first and foremost on quality and consistency of supply which the team agree is central to their business success.

“If customers are not buying it, it’s because we are doing something wrong,” insists Eric.

Achieving the required consistency begins with sourcing the calves – all of which are steers by Angus sires and from a single dairy herd – and continues through every stage of the rearing and finishing process.

At the heart this process is high quality silage which fuels the growth rates required for an efficient and profitable throughput.

Aiming for a dry matter of 30%, the Sealeys use Safesil Pro on every cut of silage, and have done since the preservative was introduced to them in 2017.

“I made the big mistake when I first got into beef of cutting silage at the end of June,” admits Eric. “I thought we wanted long, bulk fibre that was cheap, but we’d end up buying concentrates because it wasn’t possible to finish the cattle on low quality forage.”

Equally, he says it does not sit well to use feed-grade urea, so sufficient protein must be provided by the silage.

Today, he says he strives to make dairy-quality silage, ideally taking first-cut at the end of April, to achieve the liveweight gain required with minimal concentrate inputs.

“We’ve never had such good silage as we have today, even when we were dairy farming,” he says. He cites the 2021 first cut he is currently using – carried over from a season of surplus – which analysed with a dry matter (DM) of 34.4%, metabolisable energy (ME) of 12.1MJ/kg DM, protein of 15.4% and a D-value of 75.8.

Mandy Mason, sales manager across the south coast for Kelvin Cave, says silage with an ME of over 12 has fantastic scope to achieve liveweight gain.

“A thousand tonne pit of 30% dry matter [DM] silage at an ME of 12 provides 3,600,000 megajoules [MJ] of energy,” she says. “Because we know it takes 38MJ to produce 1kg of beef, that pit of 12ME silage would produce 94,737kg of beef.

“However, if that silage had an ME of 11 – still a good value – the same amount would provide 3,300,000MJ of energy. This would equate to 86,842kg meat, some 7,895kg less than the 12ME pit.”

At current deadweight prices of around £4.83/kg that difference from the better silage would be worth an extra £38,133 (see panel above).

(L to R) James and Eric Sealey with farm manager John Perry talk silage with Kelvin Cave’s Mandy Mason.

However, on the Sealeys’ farm, where sales go direct to caterers or consumers, the difference between 11 and 12 ME silage is likely to be worth considerably more. Eric takes a handful from the 2021 cut, and remarks: “This face has been exposed for a week and it’s still stone cold. The quality and stability were obvious from the first time we used Safesil, so we’ve stuck with it ever since.

Noting in particular the absence of waste on the top and shoulders, he says its palatability and cool touch allows the team to put out feed every other day, whenever required.

“Heating is a sure sign of aerobic instability which means valuable nutrients in the silage are being broken down and wasted – primarily by yeasts and undesirable bacteria,” adds Mandy.

“However, unlike other additives, Safesil works by eliminating the undesirable bacteria and stopping the activity of yeasts and moulds, leaving the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to do their good work, quickly preserving the feed value of the forage, and achieving really good long-term stability.”

The upshot is that the cattle at Fossil Farms are reared and finished on the simplest possible ration of just silage and minimal home-grown rolled barley.

“We feed just 2-3kg/day of barley, depending on whether cattle are growing or finishing, using the best first-cut silage for their final 90 days and second cut for the remainder,” says James, remarking that the cattle will just have grazing from March to October, unless they’re in the finishing group.

Above: (L to R) James and Eric Sealey with farm manager John Perry talk silage with Kelvin Cave’s Mandy Mason.

Liveweight gain

Eric keeps an equally close watch on liveweight gain, and weighs the cattle every month, plotting their progress against his targets.

“If you don’t weigh regularly you don’t know when you will hit your target liveweight [510kg],” he says. “It’s a discipline which traces from our background in veal, when it was essential to have them at a certain weight by a certain age to keep a throughput of consistent supply.”

With calves now arriving on the farm at five months (150-170kg), this requires growth rates of 0.75-0.8kg/day in the youngest group; 1.1-1.2kg/day in the mid-group and 1.5kg/day in the finishing period.

“This means hitting an overall growth rate from arrival to slaughter of 0.87kg/day,” says Eric, who says they will finish at 18 months if these targets are met.

However, he says it can take six months longer if everything isn’t right ‘from the word go’.

He says keys to getting silage-making right include paying attention to sward quality (regularly reseeded); cutting date (always early and making little use of anything later than second cut); additive (now always Safesil Pro); compaction (two tractors on the clamp and careful regard to layering), and sheeting, always with the double-layered O2 Barrier 2-in-1, as ‘why do the job twice when you can do it once?’.

As testified by John Perry, who has joined the team as farm manager in the past year: “The silage here is top quality and makes my job so much easier. I don’t get involved with the choice of additive but whatever they are doing is good.

Silage with ME of 12.1MJ/kg DM is still left over from 2021 says James Sealey

“I have worked with similar systems but reliance has been more on maize which can carry poorer grass silage through. But to finish beef animals as we do with just barley and silage is not easy. Without top quality silage it wouldn’t be possible.”

For the future the Sealeys strive to build systems that are both repeatable and scalable and complementary to the enterprises in place.

“But people are the most important thing,” they insist. “If the system works and you have the right people running it, it’s easier to scale and achieve more efficiencies.”

Last year, the company, Express Vegetables, was added to the portfolio, allowing the family to deliver a one-stop shop to their catering customers, across the length of the south coast, and beyond. But as James insists: “Nothing we’re doing is new; it’s just doing simple things but doing them right. “It’s a job to know where to stop,” adds Eric

Fossil Farm facts

  • 530-acre (215ha) mostly tentanted farm near south Dorset coast
  • Father and son team plus 30 staff including 4-5 full-time butchers
  • Run 300 Angus x steers, 450 growing pigs and buy in other meats
  • Rear and finish all beef on high ME silage and 2/3kg/head barley 

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