Blade system looks to sharpen its edge

A new 63 farm beef production system in the south of England is being hailed for its cutting edge vision. Is this the model of the future? Fred A'Court reports

Richard Phelps does not just look down from his office at the efficiency and profitability of the abattoir he runs in Somerset. He looks out across the complete supply chain. "We take a whole supply chain approach," he says, gazing out of the boardroom of Southern Counties Fresh Foods (SCFF) in Langport across the vast, lush, flat expanse of the Somerset Levels.

"Our factories may be efficient, clean and have high standards but we realise that continuous improvement is key to going forward. But there's no point in having continuous improvement in one area if other areas are lacking. We can only go at the efficiency level of the least developed sector. So unless we bring some focus on the development of the supply chain as a whole, it won't develop."

Enter 63 farms, stretching across southern England, and two SCFF factories to create a new system for the production of British beef that is being hailed as a model for the future of the sector. The system, called Blade, has created what is claimed to be faster, more efficient and better quality beef production, mainly from dairy calves. Ironically it is the only system of its type in Britain, yet it is commonplace in the United States.

Allied to Blade have been factory improvements that have netted close to £100,000 a year in vacuum-packing improvements.

All this and more helped Phelps, SCFF and its parent group, Romford Wholesale Meats, win this year's Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF) Continuous Improvement Award at the SuperMeats Awards. While some in the processors sector have been cynical about this new industry buzz-phrase and slow to embrace its principles, Phelps and his colleagues have embraced the concept.

The Blade system has been hailed a model for the future because it improves efficiencies, cuts costs, reduces cattle finishing time from two seasons to one, gives the processing plant a guaranteed supply of quality animals produced to specification, and ensures that the farmers who rear them get a guaranteed market and a price that's more than likely to be above the norm. Cattle that arrive for processing to specification can attain an average premium of £22.

At the heart of Blade Farming are franchised-out calf rearing production units where the animals are fed a specially devised natural cereal feed. A trial unit of 250 calves was set up in 2000 that found the optimum feed and production regime. "We learnt how we could get maximum output over the shortest time," said Phelps.

The result is a system that produces heifers who make a daily liveweight gain of up 1.4kg and are ready for market in 14 to 17 months, while bulls are finished 30 days earlier.

This year the system will produce 10,500 cattle for slaughter, supplied from 63 farms as far apart as Hereford, Cornwall and West Sussex. Using Blade, Phelps hopes to have 30,000 cattle supplied by 150 farms within three years.

Blade beef currently goes into Tesco, Somerfield and McDonalds, and to those critics who say that dairy-bred beef is inferior, Phelps points to MLC conducted taste tests where Blade beef beat other standard beef.