20th November 2014

Forth Monitor Farm Reaps Rewards of Regular Weighing and Grassland Management

Changes made by the Forth monitor farmers, Duncan McEwen and his son, also Duncan, are benefitting their farming business.

At the recent monitor farm meeting, the McEwens of Arnprior Farm, west of Stirling, updated the community group on grassland improvements and the performance of their sheep and cattle enterprises.

Arnprior Farm, one of the network of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farms throughout Scotland, is a mixed livestock and arable unit totalling 815 acres (330 ha). In addition to 200 acres (80 ha) of crops, the farm supports a suckler herd of 60 cows and a recently-increased flock of 640 breeding females.

The McEwens, who have completed two years of their three year monitor farm term, are determined to improve grassland productivity.

“By digging holes, we confirmed compaction issues in some fields,” Duncan McEwen junior told the group. “So we aerated the soil, to get some oxygen into the ground and to the roots of the grasses and clovers.”

At the meeting the group visited a field which had been sward lifted in 2013. “The improvement in grass growth and yield in this field has been really obvious this year,” remarked Mr McEwen.

The McEwens trialled a variety of aeration equipment, deciding that a “Pan Buster” is the most suitable for their land.

“It has made a huge difference to the 140 acres of grassland we used it on, really improving the drainage. This was particularly noticeable following recent heavy rain, which drained away promptly, when previously the land would have been waterlogged.” explained Mr McEwen.

An additional 22 acres were re-seeded, with 14 acres sown with high sugar ryegrass and white clover.

In 2014 the McEwens lambed 550 ewes. “We sold 130 finished lambs straight off their mothers. The majority of the remainder were weaned at 100 days, a month earlier than previous years, at an average weight well over 33 kgs,” commented Mr McEwen.

“We currently have just 90 lambs, plus retained ewe lambs, left having finished just under 550 weaned lambs off the 22 acres of young grass and 25 acres of red clover and foggage. With luck we’ll get the remaining lambs away before Christmas.

“Our soil is deficient in Selenium, Cobalt and Copper, so we routinely put vitamin, mineral and trace element buckets with the lambs. But it seems that not all the lambs were taking the minerals this year. Thanks to regular weighing we spotted that some lambs weren’t performing as well as others, so they were treated. Next year, to make sure the lambs get the trace elements they need, we’ll bolus them once they’re heavy enough.”

In 2013 the McEwens kept their bull calves entire to finish intensively. Bull beef was a new venture to them. The bull performance figures plus the financial comparisons of finishing the bulls versus selling them as yearling steers, were eagerly anticipated.

A calculation using estimated sale value based on actual store cattle prices at the time looked at what the bulls would have returned had they been sold as yearling steers.

Had the bulls been sold as yearling steers in July 2014 their gross margin per head would have been £676. The actual scenario saw 24 finished bulls sold to ABP, Perth with an average gross margin per head of £868, a significantly better result.

“This has been a learning curve for us all but I’ve really enjoyed it,” commented Mr McEwen. “The bulls have been gentlemen to work with and the regular weighings have been very interesting. Obviously there’s a great feel good factor when they’re really motoring, but in the early stages the weighing flagged up that the biggest bulls were the worst performers.”

Two other monitor farmers who produce bull beef came to the February 2014 meeting - Robbie Newlands of Moray and Nairn and Andrew Baillie of Clyde.

“They suggested making the bulls’ diet more appetising, so we took advantage of the low price for feed potatoes. This taught a new lesson – in future if we buy feed potatoes we’ll specify washed, otherwise the potatoes can include quite a lot of rubbish and stones. We had a load like this, and it was clear from the amount not eaten, that the bulls didn’t like them, with a significant drop in performance showing up the next time we weighed them.”

Another suggestion at the February meeting was that the McEwens increase calf weaning weights.

“This year we put creep feeders out mid-August, placing High Energy buckets for the cows alongside, so as the cows go to the bucket they take their calves to the creep. The average weaning weight of our 2013-born bull calves was 282 kgs, having gained an average of 1.16 kg/day from birth. We’re obviously keen to see the weaning weights of the 2014 calves!”

The next Forth monitor farm meeting will be on 17th December. Topics will include plans for future meetings.


Caption: Monitor farmer Duncan McEwen, right, gives an update to attendees at the recent Forth monitor farm meeting. 

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