18th August 2014

Forth Monitor Farmers Reaping Rewards of First Eighteen Months

Significant changes made at the Forth monitor farm over the last 18 months were summarised at the recent farm meeting and open day, hosted by the monitor farmers father and son, both Duncan McEwen and their wives, Anne and Rebecca.

The McEwen family farm the 815 acre (330 ha) Arnprior Farm, 12 miles west of Stirling. Their three year term as a Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) monitor farm started in November 2012.

The farm currently supports a breeding herd of 50 cows and 550 ewes, with all progeny other than replacements finished, plus approximately 200 acres of crops.

The heavy rain and miserable weather of 2012 and Spring 2013, made November 2012 a daunting time for the McEwens to open their farm to the scrutiny of the local farming community. Mr McEwen junior ruefully recalled: “Our stock didn’t look their best and the ground was excessively wet.”

The weather had been one of the main influences which prompted the McEwens to bull beef the male progeny from the 2013 calf crop. In November 2012, Mr McEwen junior told the community group: “During summer grazing our bullocks usually gain over a kilo a day but this year (2012) they only stayed out for six weeks and all they did was ‘plough’ good grass while gaining little over half a kilo a day.”

The first six finished bulls were sold on 21st July (2014), average deadweight 359 kgs. All were fat grade 3 and conformation Grade U or R.

From weaning on 9th January, the bulls gained an average of 1.59 kgs per day.

Mr McEwen junior commented: “We plan to continue bull beef and, following recommendations from the community group, will put a creep with the cows and calves this year to increase weaning weights. We’ve also learnt that it’s better to feed the housed bulls at feed barriers instead of feed hoppers. In the early stages, some of the bigger bulls had difficulty accessing feed in the hoppers.

“The group also suggested we add moisture to the ration to improve palatability and intake. We introduced potatoes and the weight gain certainly increased from then on!”

Monitor farm meetings have included suckler herd discussions featuring disappointing calving figures.

Changes to management and nutrition, including high energy buckets, have helped to improve cow fertility with cows achieving a 96% calving this year and almost all calving within the first six weeks.

However less than half the home-bred replacement heifers produced a calf. “We had a hired Limousin bull to use over our heifers and it seems he had some fertility issues,” said Mr McEwen junior.

To better utilise peak grass growth in May, the group suggested gradually bringing calving forward from June to March/April and to take bulls out earlier to tighten the calving period. This year bulls went out on 25th June.

“Our home-bred replacement heifers have often been disappointing,” remarked Mr McEwen junior. “Through the community group we’ve found a trusted source of high health status, in-calf heifers, scheduled to calve in March at three years old. We bought a batch last autumn and they calved 100% with no problems.

“As three year olds they won’t require the extra feeding and care that we needed to give our two year old, home-bred, calving heifers. They also have some native blood, which we like, so we intend to annually purchase more from the same source. Also, as they calve in March, they will speed up our aim of bringing the whole herd’s calving forward as they’re introduced each year.”

Not surprisingly, drainage has been a meeting topic.

“As a result we mole ploughed some of the Carse land,” commented Mr McEwen senior. “This has really helped to reduce the ground water level in that field.”

Over the last 18 months, the McEwens have also dug many holes to assess soil compaction. “We’ve used a sward lifter to aerate some of the compacted grassland and the results have been great. We had planned to re-seed one field but, after sward-lifting, the grass growth has improved so much we’re delaying the re-seed.”

At the first meeting the McEwens said they hoped to reduce their fertiliser bill.

This spring a 23 acre field was divided into six blocks of approximately 3.5 acres, for rotational sheep grazing. 90 ewes and lambs were turned into the system. Soon 40 more ewes and lambs were added, creating a grazing group of 130 ewes with lambs. “Despite this stocking density, the lambs were gaining 300 grammes per day,” said Mr McEwen junior.

“And while we haven’t yet mastered the art of rotational grazing, we can already see the grass growth benefits. This field has only had a fraction of the nitrogen it normally gets and, in hindsight, we should have silaged one of the paddocks of longer grass as it’s just not been needed.”

Winter rotational grazing of sheep will be discussed at future meetings.

For further information, please contact the facilitators:

Stephen Whiteford. Email: stephen.whiteford@sac.co.uk or

Robin Mair. Email: robin.mair@sac.co.uk

Telephone: 01786 450964

For general information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, please visit: www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitor-farms

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