From their large beef unit in the Scottish Borders, the Richardson family are close to achieving their aim of selling most of their calves as six- to seven-month-old stores in a bid to make the best margins possible.
They are accomplishing this by using predominantly Charolais bulls onto their Aberdeen–Angus cross cows. However, within the 400-stong suckler herd, there are a few other breeds thrown into the mix, ensuring they can breed their own replacement heifers too.
Currently, the line-up of bulls includes four Charolais, three Limousins, four Aberdeen-Angus bulls, one Limousin cross British Blue and a pure British Blue.
Ian Richardson, based at Upper Samieston Farm, Jedburgh, with his wife Georgina and their two young sons, Thomas and Adam, says: “We need the Angus and Blues for breeding replacements and, in an ideal world, we would only put Charolais onto them, but we like a bit of Limousin in the cows too, so we mix it up a bit.”
Ian farms in partnership with his parents David and Isabel and together they run 405 hectares (1,000 acres) at Upper Samieston while renting a further 214ha (530 acres) on a five-year, short limited duration tenancy, taking on a further 61ha (150 acres) of annual grass lets.
The Richardsons grasped an opportunity to expand their farming enterprise in 1987 – selling their farm in south-west Scotland so they could buy a larger 202ha (500-acre) unit in the east.
In 2006, they doubled their land to 405ha (1,000 acres), buying the ground of a neighbouring hill farm.
Ian says: “We also took on the rent of a 283ha farm along the road in the same year and, as Georgina and I had just got
married, we moved there on a 365-day lease agreement.
“However, after nine years we unfortunately lost the lease, as the Austrian landlord began to panic about us exercising the right to buy – which we never intended to do.”
This unexpected turn of events left the Richardsons with a lack of cattle housing and prompted a quick decision regarding the future of the business.
They decided to invest fairly heavily in a steading expansion at Upper Samieston, including two new cattle sheds and a straw shed, which doubles up as a lambing shed.
They also rebuilt the existing farm cottage, which is now home to David and Isabel, while Ian, Georgina and the children moved in to the farm house.
“The restructure will definitely be better for us in the long-term – it means we are all working from one base and it is far easier to manage. There is a lot less running from one place to another and, consequently, we have been able to cut back our staff by one person.”
For ease of handling, the two new cattle sheds are fitted with eight calving pens between them, each including a calving yoke – something the Richardsons say made a huge difference for catching cows needing assistance. However, with 40 calves born during the past week, only two cows needed a helping hand.
All but 40 cows calve in spring (mid-March to May) and the calving period is as tight as possible during this time. Bulls go out about June 10 each year, for a strict timescale of 11 weeks.
Last year, 5.2 per cent of the herd scanned empty, which the Richardsons feel is a manageable proportion. The heifer success rate remained extremely high though, with 63 bulled and 62 scanned in-calf.
“To increase the heifers’ chances of getting back in-calf, we keep them separate until they have their second calf. They also get preferential treatment, with the best grass and their calves are weaned first,” says Ian, who calves all home-bred heifers at two years old.
“Any which do not hold to the bull get one more chance. If not in-calf for autumn, they are sent away.”
Over winter, cows receive 28kg silage and 2kg wheat straw fed through a diet feeder, with a bespoke mineral added to suit silage quality.
One month before calving, straw content is doubled and pregnant females are given a pre-calving supplement, which David and Ian say has made a noticeable difference to calf vigour in the four years they have used it.
David says: “A few years ago we had problems with long bone deformity in calves and the vet concluded it was due to a manganese deficiency. We now make those levels up with a supplement and have had no problems since.”
When born, calves are navel dipped and given a calf paste containing antibodies, which the Richardsons found to be ‘brilliant’ in preventing scour infections such as rotavirus, which was a consistent problem previously.
“Once a new calf is up and has sucked, it is moved into a different shed straight away and turned outside as soon as possible,” says David.
“We aim to sell as many freshly weaned calves in October after creep feeding them from the end of June,” adds Ian.
Since 2012, calves have been sold through United Auctions, Stirling, where David and Ian have built a good customer base.
In 2013, a batch of 57 Charolais cross calves averaged 283kg, levelling at £862, with one 270kg heifer collecting the champion rosette and selling for £1,120.
Last year a lot of 82 mainly Charolais crosses, with an average weight of 292kg, levelled at £845. Among them was the champion bullock and champion heifer, with the two selling for £1,000 and £900.
Ian says show potential calves are never treated differently, other than receiving a wash and blow dry the day before sale.
“We have a private buyer who takes 30 Aberdeen-Angus and Limousin cross calves each year as yearlings, but last October we also sold another batch of Angus crosses privately, which we intended to take to Stirling.
“They weighed 320kg on average and sold for £880 each,” says Ian, who sells the remaining calves through United Auctions in the spring.
Keeping on top of herd management is essential on such a large beef unit. The cattle must be easily handled, with the Richardsons taking a strict stance when it comes to getting rid of any animals with a wild temperament.
Straw bedding is rolled out by hand in the heifer shed to settle them, with a bedding machine used everywhere else.
“We keep a note of which cows go to which bulls and calves are tagged with coloured management tags to easily identify their breeding.
“The Angus calves are all tagged with one colour so we can pick them out regardless of which bull they are off. We also freeze-brand all the cows, which is a huge help if they lose their tags,” says Ian.
Bulls are mostly bought at Stirling but, while David and Ian do look at growth rate figures, they find judging calving ease by eye more effective. Particularly with Charolais, they avoid heavy-boned bulls and those which are too strong in the fore-end.
Ian says: “A few years ago, we bought a Charolais bull privately with a calving index of -18. The breeder assured us we would not have any problems calving to him and we have not.
“With the type of cows we have, we do not generally have many calving issues. The Angus crosses suit us best because they are polled – meaning most of the calves are polled too. They are also easy to keep and flesh out well, with plenty milk.”
The Richardsons occasionally buy-in heifers if the opportunity arises, as long as they are health accredited.
“Last year we bought nine in-calf heifers, but the year before we bought none, so it is really a case of if we see the chance, we willl take it.
“The health status has to be right – we vaccinate all cows and heifers against bovine viral diarrhoea and test all first-calved heifers for Johne’s,” explains Ian, who sees potential to increase the herd.
“We rent a shed from a neighbour where we keep autumn-calvers and there is more room if we need it. We would like to increase cow numbers, perhaps to 500, and the ideal scenario would be to sell as many calves as possible in October.
“It has been a hectic year with all the changes and we have made some big investments, but we are confident it will be to the benefit of the business in the long-term.
Hopefully we can look forward to a positive future in the beef industry too.”