11th November 2011

Mull Monitor Farm Meeting – Improving hill suckler herd productivity

Improving hill suckler herd productivity in an easily managed, extensive system was the main topic at the recent meeting of the Quality Meat Scotland, (QMS) Monitor Farm on the Isle of Mull - Torloisk, a predominantly hill and 7,600 acre unit on the island’s western coast.

The rugged and challenging Torloisk is farmed on a five year Short Limited Duration tenancy by Iain MacKay. 

In addition to a flock of 850 ewes, Mr MacKay runs the “Cnoc-na-Sith” (The Peaceful Hill) fold of approximately 50 pedigree Highland cows, with plans to increase numbers to around 60. 

“My aim is to develop an easily managed enterprise, with a maximum of 60 functional and productive cows, based very much on commercial lines”, Mr MacKay told the community group. 

“We get over 120 inches of rain here annually, so I am keen to stick with Highlanders. Thanks to their hardiness they can be out-wintered. Also their foraging ability makes them an essential part of the grazing management. 

“I am keen to retain the pedigree element, which I enjoy, and have been fortunate to have sold breeding heifers for premium prices, including two recent export consignments to Switzerland”. 

The “Cnoc-na-Sith” fold has long been clear of Johne’s, BVD and IBR, achieving Elite Health Status seven years ago. 

With most of the work done by Mr MacKay, an easily managed system is a must. In particular he is on his own during calving time. 

At the meeting, SAC Beef Specialist Ian Pritchard outlined the following ways to improve fertility and herd performance: 

* The younger a heifer is calved, the speedier the genetic improvement in the herd. Also better overall individual cow performance will be achieved, as performance declines as cows grow older. 

* Use weight as a guide to determine heifer maturity for bulling, with a minimum of 65% of mature cow weight, i.e. for a 600 kg mature cow, minimum bulling heifer weight – 390 kgs, which may need to be increased if opportunities to keep heifers growing are lacking. 

* Aim to calve heifers a month before main herd, giving them an extra month to blend in with herd for second calving. 

* Crucial to manage first and second calved heifers to ensure they receive adequate nutrition to continue to grow and go back in calf. If possible, avoid mixing with mature cows, where it can be difficult for smaller first calvers to fend for themselves. 

* “Flush” cows to increase their Condition Score by half a point between calving and bulling. 

* Slim down over-fat cows (“not a problem on Mull!” according to the Monitor Farm community group). 

* Ensure trace elements - copper, selenium, cobalt and phosphorous levels are right, supplementing as necessary for the three months prior to bulling. 

* Maintain good herd health. Some diseases e.g. BVD and Johne’s, plus parasites, in particular fluke, affect fertility. 

* Keep the herd young by culling older cows before performance and value declines. 

* Cull non calvers as well as late calvers, especially if they calve late year on year. 

* Also consider culling cows which had problems with their previous calving, they are likely to have difficulty going back in calf. 

* Try to select female replacements from daughters of cows with high genetic fertility, which calve easily and regularly in the first three weeks of calving. 

One infertile cow means one less calf. One infertile or sub-fertile bull can mean much fewer calves. 

Ian Pritchard told the group that globally, 20% of bulls are sub-fertile and that a Scottish survey had revealed a slightly higher figure. 

“Check bulls for fertility prior to use, by semen testing and physical examination”, he advised. “Don’t wait until there is a problem, because by then you will have lost a considerable amount of money. Calves born just a month later than hoped will be around 30 kgs lighter at sale, losing you approximately £50 per head!”

“You want as many cows as possible to conceive in the first three week cycle, so ensure your bulls are in peak condition pre-bulling. As with the cows, have them on a rising plane of nutrition and ensure trace element levels, in particular selenium, are right”. 

For all purchased breeding cattle, females and/or bulls, Mr Pritchard emphasised the importance of carefully checking the health status before purchase. Once home, quarantine and test prior to introduction to the herd. 

Also, look at a bull’s Estimated Breeding Values, (EBVs) to assess his figures for his intended purpose – e.g. calving ease, growth, muscle depth and, (of particular importance if daughters are to be retained), milk and maternal calving ease. 

Tick-borne fever, which can render a bought-in bull infertile for a period of time, is a problem in some parts of Scotland. Mr Pritchard recommended, for areas where this is a known risk, to buy younger bulls, for intended use the following year, giving them time to develop immunity. 

In addition to good calving percentages, high fertility levels also help to achieve a tight calving pattern. Mr Pritchard outlined some of the benefits of calving the majority of the herd within the first three weeks, with all calving finished after ten weeks. 

The first basic steps to establishing tight calving in a herd: “Take the bull out after nine weeks and cull all empty cows”. 

* Better utilisation of time and labour, in particular for “one man bands” like Monitor Farmer Iain MacKay, who also lambs a flock of ewes. 

* More even bunches of calves to manage and/or sell. 

* Cows all at similar stage and condition for next bulling, making them easier to manage and get back in calf. 

* Easier to select replacements – all of similar age. 

* The loss of approximately £50 per head for every less month of age of sale cattle. 

The Monitor Farm community group listed qualities they regard as important in a productive, easily managed suckler cow. In no particular order: 

* Easy calving.

* Small and easily maintained.

* Annually weans a calf of at least 50% of her own weight.

* Good temperament.

* Ample milk.

* Good udder, with teats easily sucked by new born calf, especially important in an extensive hill situation.

* Foraging ability.

* Good mobility.

* Good feet.

* Hardiness. 

At the time of writing, the date of the next meeting of the Mull Monitor Farm is likely to be after Christmas but this has not been confirmed. 

Full details from Joint Facilitators:-

NIALL CAMPBELL, Email: niall.campbell@sac.co.uk  or DONALD MacKINNON, Email: donald.mackinnon@sac.co.uk. Telephone for both – 01631 563093. 

For general information on Monitor Farms, plus detailed reports of meetings – www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms

Photo caption: Females from Iain MacKay’s pedigree Highland herd grazing on “Cnoc-na-Sith” (The Peaceful Hill) were recently exported to Switzerland.

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