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Attention to detail is key to success on large scale beef unit

To successfully run a large-scale farming operation, attention to detail is paramount – and that is certainly a key focus for Sion Williams at Bowhill Estate in the Scottish Borders. Lynsey Clark reports.
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One of four main estates owned by the Buccleuch family, Bowhill comprises of 25,500 hectares (63,000 acres) (which is mostly let out under different agreements), while 3,563ha (8,804 acres) are farmed in-hand, lying between the Yarrow and Ettrick valleys, near Selkirk. A flock of almost 3,200 Blackface breeding ewes graze most of the hill ground, with a further 1,300 cross ewes kept in-bye, while the beef cattle enterprise expands to 500 cows.

The cattle system has been altered in recent years and the numbers increased, following a restructure of the business.

Sion Williams says: “In 2008, the estate sold a lowland farm which we had kept cattle at, and instead took a hill farm back in-hand – it was then amalgamated with two other nearby farms, and a new steading was built on a greenfield site for the cattle in 2011. We were able to design the new steading to suit our needs, which has been great. The extra housing means we can now control the condition of the cows far better, allowing us to manage the tic issue which we had when the cows were out-wintered. It has also enabled us to increase our calf rearing percentage over the past three years.”

The new steading is designed to be as efficient as possible, fitted with a system to collect rainwater to use as drinking water for the cows, and new handling units for ease of management. A large silage pit has allowed them to switch from baled silage (which was costing £22/tonne to make), to clamped silage. This change alone has saved the business £18,000 a year in silage production costs, says Mr Wiliams.



“We are more limited at the second farm for shed space, so we strip graze some of the cows there on kale over the winter, which they do really well on. We often find those on the kale come back in better condition than any of the others.”



The cattle system is based around a nucleus herd of 190 premium health Aberdeen-Angus cows, bred pure to produce both herd replacements and breeding stock for selling. There is also a herd of 60 premium health commercial Angus cows, which are crossed with the Beef Shorthorn to produce replacements for the 250 suckler cows which are kept on the hill farm.

Mr Williams adds: “We initially crossed the commercial Angus cattle with Shorthorn and Limousin bulls, but since moving the suckler herd onto the hill ground, we have found the Shorthorn crosses do a lot better, so we have gone almost all to that breed now. They are crossed with the Angus for the first two years and then with the Charolais to produce calves to sell as stores – we have found a big demand for Charolais cross store cattle.

“We have recently started calving the heifers at two years old, instead of three, which has been working really well for us. Anything more than 370kg now goes to the bull, and we have found they actually calve a lot easier at that younger age.”

All calving takes place in spring, with the main suckler herd calving over a nine-week period from April 5 (heifers are calved two weeks earlier). Almost all bull calves are castrated at birth other than the best of the pure Angus bulls, which are kept to use on the herd or to sell privately.

That tight calving period is particularly important at Bowhill, as it ensures the store calves are of a similar size and weight when it comes to selling them, which is done via a unique ‘sealed bid’ system on-farm.

Mr Williams says: “The calves are brought down to the farm at six months old and housed on straw or slats before being sold as stores at about 12 months, with an average sale weight of 450kg. We have developed a selling system over the past four years – mainly through word-of-mouth – whereby we sort out the calves into pens depending on breed and sex, and the buyers come to us to see them. They can view the calves and also study the sheets with their growth weights, and it is up to them to put in a bid of how much they are willing to pay for them – the highest bidder takes home the cattle.

“This way, we are saving money on commission and haulage, but it also means we can control the price to a certain degree – if we don’t want to sell them, we don’t have to.”



Working on such a large scale, Mr Williams is constantly looking for ways to eliminate unnecessary costs and aims to keep all aspects of the business running as efficiently as possible. To assist with this, performance recording is an invaluable tool, which is used in various forms throughout the farm, and Mr Williams uses the QMS benchmarking scheme to help monitor progress and compare the performance of each unit separately.

He says: “We operate a strict culling policy with the cows, which are condition scored when they come in and pre-calving. Details of calves are recorded when born, so we know which bull they are off of and how easy a calving it was. We also use EID tags on the cows, and we are currently in a pilot scheme with the Scottish Government, trialing new Ultra High Frequency tags, which can store a lot of data and ultimately may take over from paper passports.”

It is also essential bulls perform to their best ability and to help ensure this, Mr Williams says he pays great attention to figures, mainly calving ease, milk and growth rates, when selecting one to buy. As an insurance policy, and to make them aware of any problems as early as possible, they also semen test all the bulls annually.

“We buy most of our bulls privately, and although we do take into account what they look like, we rely quite heavily on the figures and have found them to be fairly accurate. In my experience, the two main factors which could cause issues at calving time are the cows being too fit, or the bull’s figures being wrong.”

With profit targets to meet each year, Mr Williams works to keep the farm as self-sufficient as possible – they currently grow 51ha (125 acres) of spring barley and 9ha (22 acres) of spring oats for stock feed, while 36ha (89 acres) of kale is used for fattening lambs and feeding suckler cows.
In addition, they are able to use chicken manure from the estate’s 32,000-hen laying unit as fertiliser for the arable and grassland, and this manure will also be used to run a new 200kW anaerobic digester, currently under construction.

Mr Williams says: “We hope to have the anaerobic digester up and running by the end of the year. It will be used to produce electricity for ourselves, with the remainder being sold to the grid, hopefully providing a stable income which does not rely on the market price fluctuations we have to deal with in the beef and sheep side of the business.”


Farm facts:

  • The Buccleuch family runs four main estates – Bowhill (Scottish Borders), Queensberry (Dumfries), Eskdale and Liddesdale (Langholm) and Boughton (Northamptonshire)
  • A total of 103,000ha (225,000) acres are owned by the family
  • The beef enterprise at Bowhill Estate was this year awarded the Morrisons Beef Shorthorn Suckler Herd of the Year accolade
  • Farm manager at Bowhill, Sion Williams, oversees eight full-time members of staff, including three cattlemen, three shepherds and two tractor men/general farmworkers
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