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Mull Monitor Farm Focuses on Increasing Output per Cow

19 March 2013

Scottish Farmer, Iain Mackay, has developed a system of producing beef on the isle of Mull in the inner hebrides. Speaking as a monitor for farmer for Quality Meat Scotland, Iain sheds light on crossing Simmentals with Highland breeds.

Improving profitability and efficiency of the cattle enterprise was the main discussion topic at the recent meeting of the Mull Monitor Farm, one of the network of monitor farms led by Quality Meat Scotland.

Monitor farmer Iain MacKay runs a pedigree Highland fold of 55 spring calving, females along with 850 ewes on Torloisk, a 7,600 acre, predominantly hill unit on the western coast of the island, farmed by Mr MacKay on a five year short limited duration tenancy.

The cows, which have been of Elite Health Status (accredited free of BVD, IBR, Leptospirosis and Johne’s), for several years are essential to the grazing management of Torloisk, a rugged and extensive unit, with just 380 acres “below the hill dyke”.

There is no cattle wintering accommodation, so the cows out-winter on deferred grazing, supplemented with between 600 and 700 kgs of cow cobs per head and only receiving silage when the weather is particularly bad. The annual rainfall on Mull is 120 inches.

Cattle enterprise financial figures for the Monitor Farm for 2011, show a total output per cow of £363 against a QMS Enterprise Costings average for hill suckler herds of £634.

Variable costs, however, are similar at £328 for the monitor farm compared with £354 QMS average. Within the variable costs, feed costs for the monitor farm are £90/head more than average, partly due to freight (road and ferry) charges inflating the cost of bought-in feed.

A dairy-type Simmental bull was used over some of the Highland cows in 2010. As a result 10% of the calves in the 2011 figures are Simmental crosses with the remainder pure Highland. It was assumed that most of the herds in the QMS Enterprise Costings survey would be using mainly continental bulls, with some herds also including continental cross cows.

The community group discussed various cow over-wintering scenarios. These included in-wintering, either on another Mull farm or on the mainland, or building a shed. The conclusion was the most economic option is to continue out-wintering on Torloisk, with the bonus of not risking the fold’s valuable health status.

The group agreed there is little opportunity to reduce costs. Instead Mr MacKay should concentrate on increasing output per cow.

Mr MacKay explained that the 2010-born Simmental cross steers had, as yearlings, weighed an average of 150 kgs more than their pure Highland counterparts. Additionally, buyers were prepared to pay more per kg for the Simmental crosses.

In 2011, the Simmental bull was used over 30 cows and thanks to their high health status, Mr MacKay had recently sold on-farm13 weaned Simmental cross heifer calves, for breeding for £450 per head.

Gavin Hill, Beef Specialist with SAC Consulting, a division of SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College, emphasised the importance of keeping the right type of cow to suit the farm’s environment and cope with the climatic challenges while also producing the sort of cattle the market wants.

The increased weight and appeal of the Simmental cross steers, coupled with the breeding premium on the Simmental cross heifers, make the benefits of producing Simmental crosses obvious.

Mr MacKay will continue to put a Highland bull over at least 15 of the best females, to breed replacements. Thanks to their ability to out-winter, the pedigree Highland fold will remain the cattle enterprise foundation. The majority of the cows will, however, be crossed with a Simmental bull.

The current Simmental bull’s Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) indicate comparative ease of calving with calves of low birth weight.

Nevertheless, the group warned that compared to a pure Highland calf, a Simmental cross calf would ask a lot of a Highland cow’s resources.

It was important to avoid reducing the productivity of the cows as a result of the extra demands of rearing continental cross calves. Mr Hill advised: “The cows would need to be better looked after in terms of nutrition as they are likely to require more energy input, to give them a better chance of gaining condition and being ready for the bull.”

The group, supported by Mr Hill, also recommended building up the condition of the in-calf cows during the summer, to help sustain them through the winter.

An additional recommendation was to continue supplementing the deferred grazing with cow cobs, and to keep the limited silage until after New Year and pre-calving, when the quality of the deferred grazing is at its lowest particularly targeting younger and leaner cows, who will need it most.

The next meeting will be on January 31st 2013 on the topics of sheep margins and sheep and cattle EBVs.

January 2013

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