One of Scotland’s largest suckler herds is using a well-established criss-cross suckler breeding programme combining native and continental genetics as Farmers Guardian reports.
The Beef Shorthorn breed is helping to future-proof the Marshall family’s beef enterprise at Kincraigie, home to one of Scotland’s largest suckler herds with 500 cows plus heifer replacements across 809 hectares (2,000 acres) of Aberdeenshire’s less favoured area (LFA) land.
Robert Marshall, who farms with his father Robbie and uncle, Norman, says they were first attracted to the native breed’s strong maternal traits, docility and hardiness.
“We also considered it to introduce vital hybrid vigour to what was essentially becoming a herd of pure continental suckler cows which was losing that element.
“Ten years on and that infusion of Beef Shorthorn genetics is delivering just what we are seeking in a modern functional suckler cow in terms of temperament and performance; extreme milkiness and longevity with good udder attachment and teat placements.” See table 1.
Breeding the right replacements has been fundamental to the herd’s success and the Marshalls now have a well-established criss-cross suckler breeding programme combining native and continental genetics – Beef Shorthorn cross Simmental.
Robert says: “This is allowing us to specialise in beef production with the focus on maximising the number of kilos of beef produced over the area we farm. It is also proving to be a winning complementary mix of bloodlines to put to Charolais, the herd’s terminal sire.”
He adds the cows are easily calved, which is a big plus in terms of reducing labour requirements and reducing stress in newborn calves.
“Most are up by themselves and sucking within 45 minutes and the cows have plenty of milk to get calves off to a better start when feed conversion efficiency is at its highest.”
The ultimate goal is to work towards a closed herd of about 500 cows and the Marshalls are keen to introduce a number of tools to keep progressing the herd’s efficiency.
Robert says: “Last year we invested in weigh cells which are helping to build up a more accurate picture of growth rates, get a better handle on costs and improve our all-round efficiency.
“Our mature Beef Shorthorn cross cows are weaning a nine-month-old calf to 49 per cent of the 720kg average mature weight [See table 2].
“This figure is scheduled to fall to our targeted 650kg in the next year or two as the percentage of Beef Shorthorn genetics increases in the herd and more heifers calve at a younger age.”
While temperament is of huge importance when selecting heifers to retain for replacements, Robert also says they are also looking to select on pelvic measurement.
“Pelvic area is a highly heritable trait and we gather it may be higher than the 45 per cent heritability for calf birth weight.
“Working with our vet and using information from the US, we measure all heifers at between seven and 12 months. We use a sliding caliper and retain those averaging 15-16cm and 240sq.cm. Extremes at both ends of the scale are culled.
Cows and calves are housed late October/early November and introduced to a total mixed ration comprising silage, urea treated barley, and a 17 per cent crude protein concentrate designed to grow frame. Once weaned in January the heifers continue on a similar diet which is continually fine tuned to optimise growth efficiency.
“We have reduced age at first calving from 2.5 years to two years with the intention to enable more calves to be reared per head per lifetime, combined with reduced time between generations, speeding up the herd’s overall genetic improvement.
“Heifers are reaching an average of 420kg at 14 months, which is 60 per cent of their mature body weight. To achieve this goal we are working with our nutritionist and feeding 17 per cent crude protein creep from one month earlier commencing in July."
In the past steers and heifers not retained for breeding were sold through the store ring, but Robert says things have changed since Morrisons launched its Shorthorn Beef scheme offering a premium on all finished animals sired by a registered Beef Shorthorn bull.
“In 2016, we decided to establish a new finishing enterprise and take the entire crop to target weight mainly on home-grown forage. Last year we finished 350 head including bought-in stores. The enterprise proved to be a viable option to the business and added to its overall sustainability.”
Finishing came under the microscope this year and Robert reckons the drought resulted in yields of both home-grown forage and straw being 25 per cent down on the year.
“This has led us to question the enterprise’s viability. However, when we witnessed the store trade back on the year by about 15 per cent and after consulting with our nutritionist, we decided to progress with a targeted nutrition strategy.
“We are feeding a specially formulated diet featuring an 18 per cent crude protein blend designed to cost effectively promote fast growth after weaning at nine months through to target finishing weight.
“So far, the first crop of 2017-born Beef Shorthorn cross steers are finishing from an average 14.5 months and 665.33kg.
“Measuring and monitoring on a six-weekly basis is allowing us to be more efficient when it comes to feeding. We sort according to weight, group in pens and feed accordingly. For example, cattle reaching 500kg now go straight on to a 90-day finishing diet.”