A close inspection of returns from this year’s cattle sales has prompted a determined push to tighten the calving period at the Caithness monitor farm.
Attendees at the recent meeting at Westfield Farm near Thurso heard the farm business would have made an extra £6500 (or £140 per head), as well as freeing up summer keep for alternative use, if all their cattle had been ready to market in spring.
The production methods and market performance of Westfield are being put under the microscope as other local producers seek to learn from the experience of the business.
Over 50 were present at the latest meeting to update progress and crunch numbers. The business’ prolonged calving – running from early February through to mid-to-late July – was identified as an Achilles heel soon after the family volunteered to become involved in the monitor farm programme.
Johnnie MacKenzie and his step-son Gary Elder, who run Westfield, have resolved to shorten the period.
Exactly how the problem impacts on their business is illustrated by their returns and the projections based on the income they could have achieved had all their cattle been ready to sell in spring.
Their 35 stots, averaging 334 kilos, and seven heifers, averaging 349 kilos, made £684 and £607 per head respectively at the April sale. The average daily live weight gain was 1.02 kg/day for the stots and 1.05kg/day for the heifers.
Like most producers in their position, the pair chose to keep on smaller, younger stock until the autumn sale cycle. After discussion with the monitor farm community group, they agreed for the first time to weigh their stock and decided to retain cattle weighing under 300 kilos over the summer. That left 46 which ended up at the September sale.
These 24 stots, averaging 405 kilos, went under the hammer at £705 per head and the 22 heifers, averaging 374 kilos, fetched £609 per head. The daily live weight gain was 0.86kg/day and 0.88kg/day respectively.
A lively debate ensued over the pros and cons of keeping on the cattle which were sold at the back end.
Facilitator Iona Cameron of SAC, worked out that the holding was £3700 better off than had all the cattle been sold in April showing that the family had taken the right decision to retain animals weighing in at under 300kg. This figure took account of the estimated £75 per head cost of summering the cattle.
However, Ms Cameron said their income would have been significantly better had the business had a tighter calving period to allow all the cattle to go through the ring in April.
Those that were held back would then have made an extra £6547 or £140 more per head. The holding would also have saved on the costs of summer keep.
Ms Cameron said the study shows how the holding can maximise its profit by aiming to produce animals of the optimum age and weight by spring. Shortening the calving period at Westfield or elsewhere, she said, can be a protracted process. “Even if they change their practices now, it’s going to take a few years to get to the desired outcome,” she observed.
Mr Elder said the financial exercise has been very illuminating. “It was interesting to see that we were better off holding on to the younger and lighter stock until the September sale,” he said.
“It worked out better for us even though prices at the sale were back by on average about £100 a head as factors such as the rising cost of barley made buyers a bit cautious.”
Mr Elder acknowledged the farm could have been even better off had all the stock – a mix of Charolais, Saler, Belgian Blue and Simmental – been ready for the spring market.
He and Mr MacKenzie are now committed to shortening their calving season. Mr Elder said: “It will take a few years as if you go in too hard, you’re going to lose a lot of your breeding stock. We’ll start by not putting the bulls out so early next year – we’ll put them out a month later.”
And Mr Elder encouraged other cattle producers to go through the same exercise. “I’d certainly recommend weighing your animals in the run-up to sales and to have a real breakdown of your costs and projected returns. It’s given us an in-depth look at our operation and we’re now better able to make decisions about the future.”
Westfield is part of a monitor farm project which is supported by Quality Meat Scotland, the Scottish Government and local agricultural businesses.
The next meeting at Westfield will be held on November 17th and further information about the meetings is available from joint facilitators Derek Hanton and Iona Cameron, of SAC, on 01847 892602.
More information on the monitor farm programme is available at www.monitorfarms.co.uk