For Robert Parker, beef farming is not about pushing the boundaries of performance but instead creating balance and consistency, while also making a profit. Erika Hay visits south west Scotland to find out why the formula is winning.
Robert Parker has spent 20 years pursuing careful breeding and developing a cattle production system totally suitable to his farm in south west Scotland.
And his efforts have not gone unnoticed having won Scotch Beef Farm of The Year, announced at AgriScot last November.
Drumdow Farm, Stranraer, sits high above Loch Ryan in the picturesque Rhins of Galloway with views all the way to Northern Ireland.
The farm was bought 30 years ago and now, with the addition of other parcels of land, Robert and wife Eileen farm 230 hectares (568 acres) in partnership.
Most of the land is capable of growing high quality grass, as would be expected in this area, but a large area of moor, bog and rock situated at the heart of Drumdow is what led Robert to develop his current cattle system, based on 210 Black Baldy cows.
The Black Baldy is a cross between an Aberdeen-Angus and a Hereford, and Robert bought his first heifers from a neighbour in 2001.
Originally he used a Charolais as a terminal sire, but a trip to Argentina, Uruguay and Australia during his Nuffield Scholarship in 2006 convinced Robert taking care of the maternal lines and breeding native heifers was the way forward for his business.
He then began criss-crossing them back and forth using an Angus sire if the heifer was on a Hereford passport and vice versa, to develop his own herd of Drumdow Black Baldies. About half the progeny are black with white faces, hence the name, with about a quarter black and a quarter red.
“Some people say I have turned the clock back by using traditional native breeds in a two-way cross, but I could never understand why the industry seemed fixated on continental breeds more suited to cereal-based diets when south west Scotland is famous for growing lots of grass,” says Robert.
It was not an easy transition at first, taking time and a lot of money to change the system.
“The first time I took Hereford steers to Ayr market I felt terrible, having topped the sale the year before with Charolais.”
But the venture paid off eventually with both breeding heifers and steers for finishing in high demand. Careful selection of females and attention to herd health means he has dramatically improved the efficiency of his herd.
“It is not difficult, I do not rely on fancy genetics, just standard good genetics which work and I try to keep away from extreme traits. This has led to a net profit per cow of about £245.”
It is the technical and financial performance which gives Drumdow an edge after developing a production system tailored to suit the resources available at Drumdow.
No adult stock is housed at Drumdow. Cows and heifers are split into seven groups and wintered on the 52 hectares (128 acres) of moorland.
They are fed silage three times a week from feed trailers which are hauled onto hard standing.
“This year they are on a maintenance minus ration as they are wintering so well.”
Bulls are also out-wintered, leaving space in the sheds for the weaned steers and heifers.
Cows come into paddocks near to farm at the beginning of April and calving starts a week later.
“I have concentrated on achieving a tight calving period. Bulls are only in with cows for nine weeks. This results in 95 per cent of cows calving in six weeks, which is great for management but also means I have even batches of calves to sell the following year."
Reflecting on his Nuffield scholarship, Robert believes it helped him take a step back and look at what, and how, he was farming.
“What I learned most from visiting south America and Australia was to focus on maternal genes. I think the trend in Scotland has sometimes been to buy a big, fancy bull and forget about the cows but a breeding balance is important.”
“The best steak I have eaten has been Scottish but so has the worst. In Argentina, all the steaks are good and it is this consistency which we should aspire to. I believe this comes from the female lines.”
Robert buys Hereford bulls from his neighbour John Douglas of Ervie and Angus bulls from John Scott of Fearn or Donald Bigger, Chapelton. He only buys on EBVs, concentrating on maternal traits, and often does not see a bull until it arrives on-farm.
Robert says the native cows punch above their weight when it come to production, although does expect them to work for him.
He will not tolerate anything in the herd which requires assistance at calving or has udder or feet problems. This has led to an average calving percentage of 94 per cent, with fewer than 5 per cent assisted. The same percentage were diagnosed as not in-calf.
The tight calving period allows him to sell yearling steers in groups of eight to 10, batched on colour and breed.
Last year, all the 2015-born steers averaged £910 at 410kg. The previous year they were £945 at 395kg.
Robert says 20 years ago his Charolais cross steers were 385kg at the same age.
“As the calving percentage has improved and calves are older thanks to the tight calving period, I am now selling seven tonnes more per 100 cows than I was when I was using a Charolais.”
Steers have a good following at Stirling, with many repeat buyers liking them for their grazing ability and temperament. Most will finish off grass with a small amount of concentrate and are easily fleshed.
“They are mostly bought by farmers, not dealers, which I find satisfying and easy to get feedback. The carcase weights are more in-line with what processors are looking for in recent years for portion size, and I am sure a cross of two of the most renowned eating quality breeds in the world, finished on a grass-based system, will taste pretty good too.”
Despite this, the steers are still a by-product of the system at Drumdow, with the focus on selling breeding heifers. Last year, surplus heifers averaged £1,150 and Robert describes it as a ‘fat price on a store diet’ as they receive 2kg per head of a home-grown barley, beet pulp and dark grain mix.
Heifers are bedded on home-grown straw, but steers are in-wintered on green sawdust, which is cheaper and good to handle.
“Green sawdust is £55/t compared to straw at £85-£90. It is absorbent and, once composted, ideal for spreading on silage ground about six weeks before cutting.”
This year Robert has less heifers to sell as he is expanding his herd as a result of buying some more land, but he takes pride in the fact he is basically selling a system.
Buyers will come back for two or three years but once they are up and running with their Black Baldies, they are self-sufficient so Robert is always looking for new customers.
He finds Facebook the best medium for selling heifers and they are all sold with health and fertility guarantees. Three-quarters of this year’s batch of heifers in the shed are already spoken for.
Robert has managed to achieve a high health status in the SRUC Premium Cattle Health Scheme.
When he was involved in the Quality Meat Scotland monitor farm process from 2000-2004, what Robert thought was a copper deficiency turned out to be a selenium and fluke problem. He now boluses cows and treats for fluke, but the whole herd is accredited free from BVD and Johne’s and does not introduce anything which would disrupt this high health status.
Culling rates are low for anything other than age or infertility and Robert expects his cows to have an average of 10 calves.
“The moor is a challenging environment but it does allow a selection process for cows which can handle it.”
There is also a flock of 200 Easy Care ewes which are wintered on grass, lambed outside with minimal assistance and lambs are all finished off grass and sold to Woodhead brothers to make an average 20kg R3L carcase.
“The sheep are mainly there to complement cattle grazing and clean up after them, but everything is low maintenance as, with three daughters, I do everything with the help of one more man.”
Robert believes the herd is more or less where he wants it now, meeting production targets on an annual basis. The way forward for him is to continue to weed out the bottom 5-10 per cent to increase efficiency and profits over the whole herd.
“I believe grass-fed cattle is the way forward in south west Scotland, but we need an animal which suits this. I tried many breeds before settling on the Black Baldy and I believe with the eating quality of the Aberdeen-Angus and the Hereford, it is the best cow to produce quality beef from grass.
“For me, it is not about pushing the boundaries in beef production performance and topping the market every year. It is about balance and consistency, maintaining good average figures and making a profit.”