The introduction of significant changes to the breeding management in the Peebles monitor farm herd is delivering real benefits to the farm’s bottom line.
Monitor farmers Ed and Kate Rowell, with assistance from Kate’s semi-retired father John Brown, run an out-wintered, spring calving herd of 72 breeding females. Progeny, other than retained females, are sold as yearlings.
The land at Hundleshope, a 1,797 acre (727 ha) unit, ranges from level fields to steep heather hill peaking at 2,200 feet.
There is a mix of enterprises on the farm, which is one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland. The hill is the domain of 350 Scottish Blackfaces. A lowland flock of 430 Scotch Mules and Texel crosses produce prime lambs. Approximately 30 acres of barley provides grain and straw.
The first calving after the Rowells became monitor farmers was in spring 2013. From the 70 females which went to the bull, the calving percentage was 79%, with 56% calving in the first two cycles.
In spring 2015 72 females went to the bull and the calving percentage increased to 89%, with 82% calving in the first two cycles.
The Rowells attribute improved heifer conception rate as the reason for these improvements. Of the eight heifers that went to the bull in 2013, three were found not in-calf. In 2015, all 19 heifers that went to the bull produced a calf, with 15 calving in the first cycle.
“We’ve really benefitted from the cattle discussions at the monitor farm meetings,” said Mrs Rowell. “The community group pulled no punches, especially when we told them that we calved our first calvers at the same time as the main herd.”
“We don’t do that any longer!” added Mr Rowell. “Taking the group’s advice, we quickly saw the benefit of calving heifers earlier than the cows and then keeping them separate from the main herd, giving them some extra time and better feeding, to help them recover and take the bull to calve with the main herd the following spring.”
Mrs Rowell added: “They told us to cull late calvers, which were very likely to be late calvers the following year. They also advised no second chances for any which were empty at pregnancy diagnosis.”
“We’re also reducing the bulling period,” explained Mr Rowell. “In 2013 the bulls ran with the cows for 12 weeks, which was cut back to 11 weeks last year. This year we’d intended to reduce it to 10 weeks, but a successful romance-fuelled early breakout by the two Charolais bulls has complicated this year’s family planning by a few days!”
“By shortening the bulling period, the lower fertility females are dropping out of the herd,” commented Mrs Rowell. “Previously these cattle pregnancy diagnosed in-calf, but at calving it was clear that they’d conceived just before the bulls were taken out. Every year we used to have a couple of late-born stragglers, which were too small to sell the following spring and they just hung about the farm until they were saleable. Not now!”
Also in recent years the average sale weight of the Rowells’ yearling steers has increased by around 70 kilos per head, meaning thousands of pounds more income.
Prior to 2013 the Rowells had not fluked their cows. “The group knew we had a liver fluke issue in the sheep, so they suggested we also drenched the cows,” explained Mrs Rowell.
“They’re out-wintered, so we treated them twice in 2013 and have continued to do this. And while it’s impossible to be sure, we have a gut feeling that this has helped to improve cow fertility. For the 2013 calving, nine of the cows weren’t in calf. This year only four were not in calf.”
For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, visit www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms
Caption: Ed Rowell, who runs the monitor farm with his wife Kate, pictured with cows and calves and members of the community group.