5th January 2015

Focus on Quality and Productivity Underpins Performance at Glenkilrie

A strong emphasis on quality and the desire to fine-tune the performance of his suckler herd has helped David Houstoun to increase productivity at Glenkilrie, an upland and hill unit, which is situated the bottom of Glenshee.

Mr Houstoun, who farms in partnership with his wife Morag, has left no stone unturned in his pursuit of making the most of available resources and tweaking his cattle enterprise to maximise returns.

The Houstouns’ hard work was recognised recently when Glenkilrie was named as a finalist in the 2014 Scotch Beef Farm of the Year, run by Quality Meat Scotland and AgriScot.

“Our target is to produce healthy store calves which are capable of strong growth rates. There is an emphasis on producing good confirmation but not at the expense of calving ease,” says Mr Houstoun, who runs 160 suckler cows as well as 1050 ewes on the 1000 hectare unit.

Previously buying in replacement heifers, his switch to breeding his own has been key to the high health status of the herd. Glenkilrie is a member of the Premium Cattle Health Scheme. The cattle are BVD accredited and through testing backed up with a rigorous culling policy, the Johne’s level has fallen to under three per cent in 2014. Calves for the autumn sales are vaccinated against pneumonia at weaning. 

Mr Houstoun makes a point of getting to know the buyers of his cattle and has observed they all seek these health assurances when buying stock to finish.  By keeping the herd as closed as possible, he believes he is limiting disease challenge plus widening the market for his stores.

The herd is split between spring and autumn calving - another deliberate strategy to broaden the appeal of the stock and avoid selling when there may be an over supply. The 90 spring calvers are mainly Limousin crosses and Angus crosses which calve inside on straw before turnout onto sheltered fields within a week of calving. 

Mr Houstoun has introduced regular weighing and monitors performance during the growing season to assess liveweight gain of the calves. This year the top 35 spring-born calves were sold in November and averaged 319kg, the remainder were over-wintered to sell in the spring. Autumn-calvers are also Limousin crosses but Mr Houstoun is aware the herd is becoming very pure so plans to purchase an Angus bull to breed replacements that are slightly lighter but will wean as heavy a calf.

In a move to further boost quality and increase conformation, a British Blue bull was purchased in 2010 to cross with the purer Limousin cows. While Mr Houstoun has observed the offspring are slightly later maturing, he’s impressed with their improved shape and it was the Glenkilrie entry of two pens of eight bullocks that won both the first and second prize at United Auctions, early November, annual show and sale. 

One of the most radical management moves in recent years has been the decision to calve the heifers at two years old. Mr Houstoun admits he felt very reluctant to put them to the bull a year earlier but was motivated by being the focus farm in the “Farming for a Better Climate” project.

With the farmer members encouraging the practice, he now selects replacements from each group. While weight is the primary indicator for selection (they must be at least 400kg but ideally nearer 450kg when ready to go to the bull) he also selects for maternal ability and calving ease

Mr Houstoun chose his bull for the heifers very carefully and is currently using a Black Limousin stock bull sourced from Newhouse of Glamis.

He says, “It’s very important to me that the bull had a track record of easy calving and producing milky heifers. I’m very satisfied now with the decision. The mothering ability of the heifers is exceptional, we find we have fewer management groups to monitor and receive a quicker income compared to calving at three years old.”

Mr Houstoun credits his increased attention to detail to being part of the focus group and continues to be motivated to improve the performance of the herd. The farm grows 140 acres of silage, which is cut once in late June/early July and ensiled in a pit. A BvL tub feeder delivers the ration that includes straw and draff or pot ale, if required, to boost protein levels. 

Condition scoring, is now an integral part of herd management and together with his stockman, Neil Laidler, who has been with him for 16 years, cows are regularly sorted according to condition. Mr Houstoun commented: “We find altering the diet of each group, gives us control of body condition and we can ensure the cows are at their peak for calving time.”

Looking to the future, Mr Houstoun and his wife Morag are looking forward to their son returning home to the farm in 2015. Andrew, 24, is already a partner in the business but has been working for the Alexanders at Douglasfield, Murthly for the last four years.

Farm Facts

·         1000 hectare farm, owned.

·         160 Suckler cows, mainly Limousin and Angus crosses, split between spring and autumn calving

·         Producing homebred replacements calving at two years old

·         Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast business open all year, run by Morag


The judges liked

·         Dynamic business in an agriculturally disadvantaged area

·         Market focussed – know what buyers are looking for

·         Manage all resources to maximise potential

·         Open and willing to try new ideas, particularly in breeding

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