A complete overhaul of the beef enterprise at Skelton Farming by manager John Aynsley has resulted in a more efficient, sustainable business which is fit for the future. Angela Calvert finds out more.

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Running a mixed farming business which encompasses 1,416 hectares (3,500 acres) is a challenge for anyone. When John Aynsley took on the role of manager at Skelton
Farming on the edge of the North York Moors 12 years ago, he knew he had to make changes to make the enterprise more efficient and profitable. The land is approximately half arable and half grass, which is a mix of permanent and short-term leys. It is not ring fenced, with the business spread across eight sites, which inevitably brings its own logistical problems.

John is supported by a team of eight staff, including a stockman, with the remainder working across all aspects of the business and he is keen they are all provided with career development opportunities. When John took on the role, the suckler herd consisted of 150 cross-bred cows with stores also bought-in to finish, but in 2012they began to make the transition to Stabilisers with the aim of breeding all their own cattle. He says: “Suckler cows suit our system and the land, but we needed to develop a more efficient way of doing things.

“I like the Stabilisers for their ability to make use of grass, their high fertility and easy calving, the fact they produce a calf every 365 days, their mothering ability and importantly, their temperament.”


  • The farm uses min-till and direct drilling
  • Improving soil fertility is key in both arable and livestock operations
  • Paddock grazing has reduced fertiliser use
  • The carbon footprint of beef produced has been reduced by finishing cattle quicker, having a tighter calving period and improved fertility


Four Stabiliser bulls were bought to put to the cross-bred cows, with the aim of grading up the herd. Since then, the herd has grown to 500 cows which are spring calving and is now a multiplier for the Stabiliser Cattle Company. John says: “Bulls are put in for three cycles and we started calving on March 20 this year, calving 85 per cent of cows in the first six weeks.” For the last three or four years, a paddock grazing system has been implemented which has not only improved grass utilisation and reduced fertiliser use, but brought other benefits. John says: “We have now got the infrastructure in place so mob grazing has become easier. How often we move them will depend on paddock and group size, but we tend to run big groups with multiple bulls in each group, working on the basis of two or three bulls with 80 cows.

“They soon develop a pecking order and do not fight and it has resulted in the PD rate going upand a tighter calving period and, because we DNA test to keep the bloodline separate, it is not a problem.”

“I want to say a big thank you to all our staff – we go through the hard yards but actually this shows we are not doing such a bad job”
John Aynsley


All males are kept entire with some sold or retained for breeding with the remainder finished and sold at about 14 months old at 380kg deadweight, usually to ABP or Dunbia. The best of the heifers are kept as replacements, with the bottom end given a summer at grass and then finished at 20 months old. Data is collected across the whole herd, with calves DNA tested and weighed at birth, at weaning and as yearlings.

Cows are scored for body condition, teats and udders and feet to create a maternal index and there is a disciplined policy in place for temperament.John says: “About 200 ofthe young cows are artificially inseminated each year to introduce new bloodlines so we can breed our own bulls and remain a closed herd.

“The aim is move forward by genetic improvement, which we can do by making constant small incremental changes which all add up. This means we are able to replace some of the older poorer cows with heifers with better figures and keep improving the herd.” Numbers are stable at the moment, but there is the possibility that they may increase in the future. “The limiting factor is buildings, as the land is too wet to winter cows outside, so we have to house them from late October/early November to spring.”  “We currently also run a flock of 1,100 ewes, but we will be reducing sheep numbers so we can increase the cows, as cattle are more profitable.” “The real value of the Stabiliser is as a suckler cow and they are cheap to keep. They are fed on straw for two-thirds of the winter, which we grow ourselves, and the muck goes back onto the land which is good for soil fertility.”

Carbon audit

“We have recently undertaken a carbon audit, which has indicated our system has a low carbon footprint, but one of the issues is that currently there is no standard calculator. “The finished cattle are in demand from abattoirs as they produce such a consistent car case. They are like peas in a pod when they are hung up.

“The meat also has excellent eating quality because of the marbling, but under the current system we do not get a premium for that or whether the beef has a low carbon footprint, but I would like to think that going forward that might be the case.”

John’s close attention to improving efficiency, soil health and staff education impressed the judges of the Beef Farmer of the Year at last year’s British Farming Awards.

John says: “It is such an honour to be recognised by your own peer group and it came as a complete surprise. “It has been a very steep learning curve and I am very proud to get a product onto the shelf at the end of the day that is going to feed people. “We do a lot through genetic and DNA improvement but it takes time to see the positive results. I want to say a big thank you to all our staff – we go through the hard
yards but actually this shows we are not doing such a bad job.”


  • 1,416 hectares (3,500 acres) split between arable and grass, plus 134ha (330 acres) moorland
  • 500 Stabiliser and cross-bred suckler cows plus followers
  • 1,100 ewes based on Innovis genetics
  • Arable land is in a five-year rotation of winter barley, oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter beans and winter wheat
  • Eight members of staff employed, as well as a farm manager

A word from the sponsor

We believe that innovation and environmental responsibility are at the heart of the future of British agriculture, and these form the basis for our approach in everything we do. We have continually innovated in the products we offer consumers from our tenderness and maturation processes to ensure consistently tender and flavour some beef, delivered by our patented Ultra Tender process, to our added value and convenience foods ranges which continue to grow sales in UK supermarkets.

Our innovation extends to our approach to environmental sustainability, with our ground-breaking work undertaken on our research and development farm. There, we are running numerous trials on everything from improving feed conversion to reduce cattle slaughter age, to genetic development works and methane reduction programmes. Initiatives we have already shown can achieve a significant reduction in methane emissions versus our average.

Fresh thinking comes in part from new perspectives. Here we have a rich pipeline of fantastic graduates coming into the business through our award winning ABP Talent Academy. We are proud of our people and
consider our team one of the best in the industry. To ensure this is maintained we invest in our teams through internal development programmes, but also giving our colleagues access to external programmes, from our in house Butchery Academy through to leadership programmes. Innovation runs throughout our business, which is why it is so important for us to seek out and celebrate innovation throughout our industry and sponsoring the British Farming Awards is an ideal way to do just that.


We are looking for a beef farmer who is not afraid to embrace change to boost efficiencies within their business to make their margins work harder. You are making the most of the opportunities presented to you, whether that be in management of quality cattle, demonstrating good stockmanship or implementing best practice. You will be introducing different ways to positively contribute to climate friendly farming, improving efficiency, productivity and profitability.


For more information on the category
and the British Farming Awards,
visit britishfarmingawards.co.uk