2nd January 2019

Farming Family’s Commitment of Suckler Beef Production Recognised

A desire to build their business has seen Aberdeenshire beef farmers Gary and Angela Christie push cow numbers in their suckler herd in readiness for their son Adam joining the business in future. 

The dedication of the family, who farm at Midtown of Glass near Huntly, was recognised recently when they were announced finalists in this year's AgriScot Scotch Beef Farm of the Year Award. The aim of the award, which is run by AgriScot and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and sponsored by Thorntons Solicitors, is to showcase excellence in the production of cattle in Scotland and raise the profile of the dedication and stock management skills behind the production of Scotch Beef PGI.

The family run a pure Simmental and Simmental cross suckler herd on their 157-hectare farm. They operate split calving, with 100 cows calving in spring and the remaining 35 in autumn.

Gary Christie commented: "The split calving suits both labour and housing availability and means we can always have cattle to sell, which helps to manage the cashflow throughout the year."

In recent years the family have also developed a successful pedigree Simmental herd that they manage alongside the commercial herd. Having only starting to sell pedigree bulls in 2016 they have achieved top prices of 14,000gns and 13,000gns as well as a Reserve Overall Simmental Championship Title at UA Stirling in October 2017.

"The pedigree bulls have exceeded our expectations in such a short time and it has added another valuable income stream to the business," explained Mr Christie.

While the Christies clearly gain enjoyment and satisfaction from their pedigree cattle the focus is undoubtedly on maximising profit and efficiency in the commercial herd. 

"Heifers are calved at two years old which gives us a quicker return financially. Keeping heifers an extra year on the farm without a calf is not cost effective. We also find heifers are easier calved at two years old and they have a better milking ability."

A ten-week calving period for the spring calving herd begins in the third week of March. All spring calving is done by the end of May and cows and calves are turned out to grass around mid-May, depending on the grass cover and weather.

Mr Christie explained: "The heifer and bull calves are run in separate lots once they are turned out. Creep feed is introduced to the bull calves around mid-July and to the heifers mid-August. Cows and calves are grazed throughout the summer and housed around the beginning of November and calves are weaned three weeks to a month later. When taken in for the winter, cows and youngstock are fed a total mixed ration which is made up for us by SAC after the forage analysis is done."

Weaning is delayed until there is a good cold snap to help reduce the chances of pneumonia developing in the calves. "By weaning this way we rarely see issues with pneumonia and do not find it necessary to vaccinate calves as a result," said Mr Christie.

Health status is an important factor and the farm has been a member of the Hi-Health Scheme since 2007. The herd has been BVD accredited since 2009 and achieved Johnes Level 1 in 2014. Cows are vaccinated against BVD, Leptosporosis and Rotavirus.

The family also routinely select and test 12 yearlings from the group for IBR each year and have never had an animal test positive yet.

Post weaning, calves remain split by sex with the bull calves taken through to finishing as entire bulls at 12-15 months at 400-420kg deadweight.

Mr Christie said: “To maximise carcase values we aim to get as close to the weight limits as we can without going over. Bulls are weighed every three weeks in the finishing period and are selected when they meet the correct specifications.” 

He added: “We find selling deadweight to be the best option for us, particularly when selling prime bulls.  We value the feedback we get from the abattoir on our cattle and regularly speak with procurement staff to ensure we are producing cattle that meet their requirements."

The Christie keep some of their heifers as replacements and the rest are sold to other suckler herds for breeding. "There is always good demand for these and they are sold privately to regular customers. Heifers which are not suitable for breeding are finished on the farm" said Mr Christie.

All herd records are maintained using a software package and the recording of births, movements, deaths and weights on the system gives them a clear picture of herd performance at any given point in time.

All stock bulls are checked by a vet annually and their semen tested to ensure that the bulls are fertile and healthy when they are turned out with the cows.

In a bid to maximise profits further Gary and Angela have recently begun using digestate from a local anaerobic digester as fertiliser for their grassland with a predicted saving of 75% on annual fertiliser costs.

"This is just one of a number of innovative measures we have introduced to reduce our costs wherever we can.  Another is to finish male calves as prime bulls rather than steers which will save approximately one tonne of feed barley per head," said Mr Christie.

He added: "Both this and the fertiliser saving will help reduce the environmental impact of our beef enterprise. Participation in the Beef Efficiency Scheme also helps us to focus on the decisions being made."

In recent years the Christies have invested in modern buildings for cattle housing and feed storage and they have also purchased an additional 40 hectares to allow for expansion of the business in the future. 

The family is undoubtedly committed to a future in beef farming and are developing their herd to be as efficient, profitable and sustainable as it can be for future generations.

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