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Farm Profit Programme: compacting calving period to increase profitability
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Farm Profit Programme: compacting calving period to increase profitability

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With a prolonged calving pattern, the Biffen family's main focus will be to tighten their suckler herd into a 12-week spring-calving herd to increase herd output.
With a prolonged calving pattern, the Biffen family's main focus will be to tighten their suckler herd into a 12-week spring-calving herd to increase herd output.

Andrew Biffen and his partner Fiona, along with Andrew’s son Matthew and his fiancée Lesley, farm at Mains of Arnage, near Ellon in Aberdeenshire.

The 230ha farm is split fairly evenly between arable cropping and grassland.

The grassland carries a herd of 130 predominantly spring-calving suckler cows and 290 ewes. Calves are sold store at around one year old and lambs are sold prime – both through the auction ring at Thainstone.

Some of the grain from the arable side is retained for feeding to livestock and the remainder is sold off-farm.

Cow type is predominantly Simmental-cross and these go to either Simmental or Limousin bulls, with the majority sold as stores, although some heifers are retained to enter the herd as replacements.

Ewes are a mix of Scotch half-breds and Suffolk-crosses, put back to either Suffolk or Texel sires.

Lambing is normally late March, but this year has been split to an early and late group, as Matthew and Lesley are getting married in April. This means that the half-breds will lamb in late March and the Suffolk-crosses will follow in mid-April.

Benchmarking

As with all the farms in the project, Kirsten Williams of SAC Consulting benchmarked the livestock enterprises at Mains of Arnage and the results show that the current gross margins are £449/cow and £65/ewe.

The challenges

Calving spread and weaning percentage

Calving at Arnage is currently quite protracted. Ideally, calving would be tightened to one 12-week period, starting in March.

However, as the calving pattern is quite spread out, it would require too many cows either running empty for six months or worse still, leaving the herd.

Therefore, a small autumn-calving group will be established from the later-calving cows and this will ease the transition toward having one spring-calving period.

Cows that enter the autumn pattern will not move from there and, over the next few years, the autumn cows will be reduced to leave a spring-calving herd. The first step in this plan is to take the bulls away from the cows outside the desired bulling periods and cull cows that don’t fit the desired calving pattern.

With defined calving periods, less fertile cows are easier to identify and will be removed from the system, leading to a rise in rearing percentage. Looking at the current gross margin, output is running at £818/cow. Lifting rearing percentage to 85% would increase this to £880/cow and 90% would see it rise to £936/cow.

The farm carries 130 suckler cows producing yearling stores.

Lamb rearing percentage

The Biffens also want to look at ewe performance, especially the rearing rate. Increasing the rearing rate from the current 137% to the programme’s target of 150% will make good inroads on the £100/ewe gross margin target.

To achieve this, a number of changes will be made. Lambed ewes will be moved on to a rotational grazing system, with the two separate lambing groups being ideally sized to fit two identified grazing blocks.

Lambs will be weaned around 12 weeks old, earlier than they are currently. This will allow ewes to move off to less productive pasture and give them time to recover body condition.

Meanwhile, the lambs will be grazed on the best of pasture (again in rotation) to get them off farm as quickly as possible. This will free up grazing to tup ewes on and allow a higher cover of grass to be carried through winter in to next lambing, improving ewe nutrition and lamb numbers for next year.

Sheep have been split into two lambing groups in late March and mid-April.

Grassland management

As outlined earlier, the Biffens are going to begin rotationally grazing the ewes with lambs this year. Rotational grazing will keep the pasture in front of the ewes in best possible condition, allowing for good levels of milk production and higher lamb growth rates.

This is also true for the cows and a bulling group will be rotated through two adjoining fields that have been subdivided, leading to higher weaning weights from the calves.

With grazed grass being the cheapest feed on farm, this will reduce the costs associated with the livestock and help improve the bottom line.

With the family preferring livestock to arable, the cattle and sheep enterprises need to demonstrate a return comparable to the arable side of the business.

The Biffens are keen to achieve the ambitious targets of the Farm Profit Programme and with the changes detailed above coupled with the rest of the work that the family are putting in, there may be even more grass put down in the future.

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