Change of breed to build a 440-cow herd

The current winners of the Scottish Beef Farm of the Year opened their farm to the public last week, outlining how a change in breed type helped to build a 440-cow herd, writes Declan Marren

P eter Watson, together with his sons Adam and David and their wives Aynsley and Lynne, run Darnford Farm near Banchory in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The Watson family were winners of the 2015 Scottish Beef Farmer of the Year award, run by Agriscot and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).

On Thursday of last week, the farm held an open day to show people their farming system, as well as it being an opportunity to raise funds for charities supporting mental health issues.

About 800 acres are leased on a long-term tenant agreement with a further 650 acres farmed on seasonal lets and cropping agreements. The farm carries just over 440 Salers cross commercial cows, a herd of 25 pedigree Salers cows and a large tillage enterprise.

The commercial herd has a split calving profile with roughly two thirds calving in spring and the remainder in autumn. In the past, other breeds of continental crossed cows were kept on the farm. However, after a couple of years of difficult calvings and high levels of mortality at birth, it was decided to change the cow type.

Herd details

Salers were chosen because of their calving ease, milk ability, hardiness and longevity. Speaking on the day, Peter said that the Salers fitted the Darnford system well with the majority of cows calving unassisted each year. The change in breed has also allowed them to increase cow numbers from 250 in 2007 up to the 440 cows today.

Maiden heifers calve to a Salers bull at two and a half years old to ensure no calving difficulties. Following this, all cows are bred to terminal Charolais bulls. This simple breeding policy provides the Watsons with a uniform batch of cows, that when mated to Charolais bulls produce a uniform batch of calves.

David admitted that when selling, the Salers steers will leave between £200 and £250 (€240 to €301) less than their Charolais cross counterparts. But this is something he is willing to take a hit on as he benefits with the breeding heifers and fewer calving issues, and therefore more live calves annually.

Data recording plays a fundamental role in the success of the herd, with all animals on the farm fitted with EID tags. Cattle are weighed regularly and any sickness is recorded, as well as calving data, with any problem animals being culled. The spring herd calves indoors from mid-March before going to grass for the summer. The breeding season starts at the end of May and lasts 12 weeks. Last year, out of the 290 cows that went to the bulls, five cows were scanned not in-calf, which is an exceptional level of fertility. All calves are creep-fed on the farm. David said that feed conversion is good with young animals and it is a great way to get extra kilos on to calves prior to weaning. The ration consists of 60% barley with the remainder consisting of sugar beet pulp, wheat distillers and molasses. Weaning takes place in October. Animals are housed together and then the calves are weaned abruptly. As they are already eating creep feed, the Watsons have no problems with calf thrive post weaning. Cows remain indoors for a few days, are treated for fluke and worms and then batched according to body condition score. Cows in good condition are put out to stubble ground where they are out-wintered with some ration. Thin cows remain indoors and are fed a TMR diet through to calving. The autumn herd calves at the end of September. This year, the breeding season started on 17 December and ran for 10 weeks. Of the 160 cows that went to the stock bulls, just four animals were empty. David said that the last two breeding seasons have been exceptionally good, but hopes to keep this high standard up. Weaning for these animals takes place in late August to early September. Selling cattle David pointed out that the SalersCharolais cross works well with nearly all calves coming with the “highly desired” orange colour that sells well in the mart. Each year, approximately 60 to 70 cattle are sold as stores in Thainstone mart, near Aberdeen. Apart from this, all other animals are finished off the farm. The farm has finished the Salers sired calves as young bulls for the last three years, but due to market signals, male calves were castrated this spring. David said he will do the bulls again as there seems to be a market for them once they are under 16 months and well done. It is an area that he sees the farm can improve on. The average carcase weight is 400kg at just under 16 months. In the future, David hopes to reduce slaughter age while maintaining carcase weight. The 2015 steers at grass have been receiving concentrates since 10 July and will be housed on 1 August for an intensive 80- to 100-day finishing period with a target carcase weight of 390kg. The heaviest 25 steers were kept indoors and will be finished in the next couple of weeks. These animals had an average liveweight of 660kg on 7 July. The pedigree herd was established by David and Lynne in 2007. Although the cows are all pedigree-registered, the herd is run on a commercial basis such is the hardiness of the breed. Only the best bulls are selected to sell on for further breeding or for use on the