With organic conversion and the creation of a Lincoln Red beef suckler herd, an eye on the future has meant a system overhaul for one farming enterprise. Ewan Pate finds out more.
The owners and managers of the 2,000-hectare (4,940-acre) Balcaskie Estate in the East Neuk of Fife certainly cannot be accused of taking a short term view.
For the farming enterprise, this means a gradual conversion to organic production over the 1,100ha (2,720 acres) farmed in-hand, and more specifically the creation of a large Lincoln Red beef suckler herd.
Farms and estate manager Sam Parsons says: “The owners periodically have reviews where they look 50 years ahead and 50 years back.
“We can learn from past experience as we plan for the future and we could see this time things were not going to get better on their own.
“It will be difficult to compete globally against cheaper produce and in short it was time to get off the treadmill.”
The estate, which is in the long-term ownership of the Anstruther family, is already well diversified with let farms, let properties and woodland.
Recently a local pub, the Kinneuchar Inn, has been added to the portfolio along with a steading development at Bowhouse Farm.
This has become home to a monthly food, drink and craft market attracting about 5,000 visitors over a weekend.
Of the beef produced on the estate, 5 per cent is already retailed through Bowhouse and although this will increase, it is not the primary reason for the move into organic production.
This shift will involve a change to the whole farming system, and it has started already.
For Mr Parsons, who has been at Balcaskie for 12 years, the obvious place to start organic conversion was on this higher land which was already predominantly grassland.
He is now in the midst of the tricky task of planning the crop rotation, which will move the lower lying arable land from conventional to organic cropping.
Mr Parsons says: “We were a predominantly arable and beef farm, but will soon be a beef and sheep farm with some arable.
“And it is this which has driven the decision to establish a Lincoln Red herd which is pedigree registered.”
The current beef enterprise at Balcaskie is based on a 100-strong herd of pedigree Luings.
Some of these are crossed to a Simmental bull to produce replacements for the 250-cow commercial herd.
These cows were then put to Shorthorn, Simental, Limousin or Aberdeen-Angus terminal sires, with the progeny destined mostly for Scotbeef or ABP.
Mr Parsons says: “The system was slightly complicated in management terms, but the Achilles heel was straw.
“The six-month winter involved with the present system is not clever so we wanted to see how we could reduce our reliance on straw over winter, especially when we will be producing less of it.
“Our new rotation will be five sevenths grass or herbal leys and only two-sevenths cereals.
“We would also be producing organic grain and feeding organic barley worth £300 per tonne which would be an expensive business.
“We could see that with Brexit, a possible 50 per cent cut in support and a 20 per cent fall in red meat value was possible. In other words we need to cut out £200,000 of costs.”
And, with a move to mob grazing, this search for efficiency is already underway.
This year 110 cows and their calves were moved daily around 1ha (2.47-acre) paddocks, resulting in improved cow condition, better grassland utilisation and a grazing season extended at either end.
Calf growth was no better or worse than on a set stocking system, but most importantly, it extended the grazing season due to soil health improvements.
The big change will however come with the change of breed, and Balcaskie looked long and hard at a number of native breeds before settling on the Lincoln Red.
With the original population of Lincoln Reds bred from cattle that were not involved in a breed society approved breeding up programme, which ran from 1972 until the early 2000s, these original cattle have retained a slightly smaller frame with thicker coats as well as being renowned for calving easily and milking well.
Mr Parsons says: “We liked them because there has been lot less improvement in the breed than in some others and it has retained its Business facts native characteristics.
“We will have 500 suckers here eventually and I definitely do not want wild cattle. The Lincoln Reds have a very good temperament, big wide feet to spread weight and a leg at each corner and vitally, produce a distinctive marbled beef.”
Mr Parsons adds: “It would have been possible to build up a new herd by crossing Lincoln Reds with the Luings, but it would take longer than we could wait so we visited Lincoln Red herds across the UK and now have 105 breeding females of mixed ages sourced from nine farms.
“Fellow Fife farmer Andrew Mylius, from St Fort at Newport-on-Tay, is a long-term breed enthusiast and he has been a tremendous advisor to us as well as a source of stock.”
The new Balcaskie herd, which will probably be the largest purebred Lincoln Red herd in the UK, will first replace the commercial crosses and then the pedigree Luings.
Balcaskie purchased the St Fort bred Lincoln Red reserve champion at Stirling bull sales in February 2019, followed by a further three bulls bought privately from Mr Mylius, including the £9,000 St Fort Warwick.
Foundation females were also purchased from St Fort and from several major Lincoln Red herds including H. and H. Needler’s Walmer herd, M. Read’s Hemingby herd, G. Bolton’s Wragby herd, G. Parkinson’s Donington herd, P. Begin’s Tapus herd and L. Shaw’s Paddworth Park herd.
The Lincoln Reds will all be spring calving and will only be housed briefly for weaning in November and then again for about two months in spring at calving.
It is not planned to grow forage brassicas for winter feed, and instead deferred grazing will be used along with hay fed in the field and cows continually moved onto fresh land daily.
Mr Parsons explains that he intends to use herbal leys to a greater extent following trail work.
He says: “I have felt for a while that our grass mixes have been lacking something, the clovers tend to take over after a while and I have noticed that ground water infiltration can be poor.
“We did tests using herbal leys and found that infiltration was faster by far.
“There are also secondary compounds and minerals in the herbs which cattle selectively graze as they need them. Eating ryegrass all the time must be like having a bowl of plain pasta every day, so I am sure the variety is welcome.”
The herbal leys are also proving to conserve well in general, although it has reducing the proportion of chicory in the mix makes better hay.
Sheep will also have a part to play in the new farming system. The estate already has a flock of 800 Greyface Mules which are crossed to terminal sires to produce prime lambs.
In time the intention is that more home produced beef and lamb will be sold through the Bowhouse outlet.
And with 5,000 prospective customers arriving every month, there is certainly plenty of scope for expansion.