Suckler herd management was one of the main discussion topics at the recent Forth monitor farm meeting, hosted by the McEwen family of Arnprior Farm, a few miles west of Stirling.
The 815 acre mixed livestock/arable unit, one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland, is farmed by Duncan McEwen and his son, also Duncan.
The cattle enterprise is based on a suckler herd of approximately 60 breeding females and, to date, the aim is to finish all progeny other than retained females.
The 26 bull calves born in 2013 were kept entire, the first time the McEwens had opted to bull beef the male progeny from their herd. Between 19th February and their most recent weighing on 7th May, these young bulls, on an ad-lib ration, were gaining 1.48 kgs per day.
The McEwens have been retaining home-bred replacement heifers, with mixed results. Of the group of 2012-born heifers, bulled to calve this spring at two years old, just 40% had scanned in calf.
However a group of in-calf heifers purchased in-calf, bulled to calve in March at three years old, had calved 100% and trouble free.
“This certainly seems the more efficient route to go for herd replacements,” commented Duncan McEwen junior. “These heifers came from a trusted, high health status source, and with them calving at three, they won’t need the extra feed and attention our home-bred, two year old calved heifers require.”
The McEwens’ main herd started calving on 21st May, and is scheduled to finish by 3rd August.
“We’re keen to bring the calving forward to March/April eventually,” explained Duncan McEwen junior.
“Not only would that give us older and heavier calves at winter housing, but we would also make better use of our peak grass growth in May - growing calves at foot would get the benefit of the grass when it’s at its best, through their mother’s milk. Also we would be bulling the cows before the late summer drop in grass quality.”
In discussion, the group recommended a gradual change to earlier calving dates. This would mean bulls going in with the cows on 25th July this year, compared with 13th August in 2013, and the first-calved, home-bred heifers would go in with the bull three weeks earlier.
Also, to help boost fertility, high energy buckets would be provided to the cows and heifers pre-bulling. Creep feeding of the calves, particularly if the 2014-born bulls calves are to be kept entire, was strongly recommended.
It was also pointed out that the target of calving the entire herd in March/April would be achieved more quickly if an increased number of in-calf heifers, due to calve in March, were purchased over the next few years.
The group which calved this March were running with the bull by the third week of May, in the hope of them calving the same time as a batch of in-calf heifers to be purchased later this year.
A previous monitor farmer, Robert Parker of Drumdow near Stranraer, spoke at the meeting. Mr Parker had been the Wigtownshire monitor farmer from 2004 to 2007.
Mr Parker told the group that he had changed from using continental terminal sires over beef cross dairy females, to running a breeding herd of out-wintered Black Baldie (rotational cross of Aberdeen Angus and Hereford) cows. The emphasis is on the production of Black Baldie breeding females, capable of calving at two years old, with the steers sold store at just under a year old.
“Hereford and Aberdeen Angus breeding bulls are purchased on-farm, where they have not been over-fed or ‘pushed’ for sale. I use the Estimated Breeding Value (EBV) figures, in particular for daughter calving ease and maternal traits,” explained Mr Parker.
“To give me batches of even sized heifers and steers to sell I aim for uniformity in my cows, with a mature weight of 600 to 650 kgs, so I try to buy both Hereford and Aberdeen Angus bulls which are lengthy and of similar shape and size. The hybrid vigour of their progeny boosts their growth.”
Herd health and fertility are priority. The herd is Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) Accredited free and vaccinated, the same for Leptospirosis.
Calving in Mr Parker’s herd starts the first week of April. “To help build natural fertility into the herd, I try to keep to a tight calving pattern, with anything not in-calf, culled. Heifers are calved at two and in 2013 I ran 194 females, including 50 heifers with bulls for ten weeks. Eight scanned not in calf, and by week six, 90% (over 160), of the herd had calved, with two cows and three heifers requiring assistance. When I was using continental terminal sires, calving lasted for between 18 and 20 weeks.”
Mr Parker admitted that his own monitor farm community group had been very sceptical about his decision to change from selling continental crosses to the seemingly smaller Black Baldies.
“However when we compared the average weights of the progeny groups, they were the same. Thanks to the shorter calving period, the Black Baldies were approximately 40 days older than the average age of the Charolais crosses. And significantly, thanks to easier calving, I had more Black Baldie cattle to sell.”
The next Forth monitor farm meeting will be on 24th June. For further information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings:- www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms