A farm in Dumfries and Galloway has changed its approach to its suckler herd breeding policy with very successful results.
The Smith family, who farm near Castle Douglas, have made impressive growth with their family farming businesses in recent years, after buying a 162-hectare (400-acre) farm in 1981 to buy in store cattle and rear cross Friesian calves with a view to establish a suckler herd.
The farm today consists of beef and sheep enterprises managed by Alan, his wife Kate, son Martin and daughter-in-law Nikki. They took over the tenancy on a nearby farm in 2017 bringing the total acreage to 450ha (1,110 acres).
The family also run a large contracting business alongside a 330-head suckler herd, 400 commercial sheep, 20 pedigree traditional Blueface Leicester pedigree sheep and 20 pedigree Texels.
The traditional Blueface rams are sold at Carlisle and the Texels are taken to Castle Douglas.
The family has also gained significant success in the showring, both at local events and at the Royal Highland Show with the sheep, where they won champion group of three with the Bluefaced Leicesters last year.
About 100 sucklers are finished each year, with half going to the abattoir in Lockerbie to supply a butcher shop in nearby Castle Douglas and the other half to Stoddart’s abbatoir in Ayr.
Alan says: “It is becoming more clear quality dictates the price and I get a premium from the local butcher, so it is important I get the breeding and management right. My name is also on the meat at the local shop so I want to ensure it is always associated with great tasting meat.
“Around seven to eight years ago, I decided to try out a Charolais bull to improve conformation. I was after calving ease and thought the Charolais would be a good cross for my second calvers.
The first calvers, Angus crosses from the dairy herd, are put to the Limousin with all calves sold as stores.
Second calvers are put to the Simmental to produce heifer replacements, which now make-up most of the herd.
“These make really good suckler cows, with great temperament and mothering ability, all qualities ideal for a suckler herd,” says Alan.
These Simmental crosses are bred to the Limousin for their first calving and the Charolais for subsequent calvings, with progeny from these going as stores or to the butchers shop.
Alan says: “Adding the Charolais at second calving gives the stock some weight and shape for finishing and has proven to be much more economical for growth.”
He adds in the past he would select bulls by eye and he had to be convinced to use figures for bulls.
“I would not look back now. You have got to use the figures, it makes complete sense.”
As such, he says selecting bulls without looking at figures is a risk he is not willing to take and he is looking for figures on calving ease, 400-day weight and 600-day weight.
“The weight figures are the best estimate for the genetic merit of a bull, and I find it a very reliable guide for bull selection. It has proven to be a trusted decision tool for us.”
Mr Smith buys bulls at Stirling every year as he says the sale contains a really good selection of quality bulls. This year he bought Gretnahouse Mackie for £5,500, Gretnahouse Master for £6,000 and Harestone Minty ET for £4,500.
“I like to shortlist bulls in the catalogue using the figures before the sale and, from that list, select the ones I like by eye. The Master bull is from an Equinox dam from the Paradise family, so bred for calving ease, which is such an important trait for my herd.
“Mackie is a bull from the Drink family which bred the 10,000gns Ivory and is again from a pedigree with proven calving ease. Minty is also easy calving, and is a great looking bull, very long and stands well. I felt these bulls would offer my herd some great progeny.”
The bulls go out mid-June for about 10 weeks and cows are scanned in October for spring calving.
The empty cows will go back to the bull mid-October and calve the following autumn.
The farm has a good range of modern farm buildings allowing for the herd to be split for management purposes.
“The autumn calvers need extra nutrition to produce milk so they get 1kg/head/day of a 16 per cent protein concentrate through the winter months,” says Alan.
“What we notice is the growth rates of the Charolais. When compared to the other calves, there is no doubt they have faster growth and really good conformation.
“They would command a premium at any age and are very consistent, which is an attractive trait for a buyer.
“We sell them at United Auctions in Stirling as stores aged 15-16 months old and ranging in weight from 500-520kg. We sold 45 heifers in January this year and achieved an average price of £1,130 per head. In March we sold 80 heifers and bullocks privately, they were about 11 months old and averaged £950.
“There is strong demand for this type of cattle and I think this quality is what is needed for farmers’ confidence in the beef market. Supply what is required from the marketplace and beef production will remain viable,” he adds.
“We hope to continue with our breeding policy, selecting bulls on data and focusing on improving what we have. It is about efficiencies and I believe the programme we have in place now is a good foundation for future profitability.”