This week, I spoke to Shona and Mark MacKay as they looked back on their experience over the last four years with the Farm Profit Programme. On their farm, Greenvale in Caithness, Mark and Shona have managed to increase gross margin per cow by £220 and per hectare by £423.
“Mark and I first discovered the project at a meeting at our local mart, Quoybrae. The project came along at the right time for us as we were transitioning our farming business out from Mark’s parents farming business.
“We discussed taking part in the project and felt that it would be good to have support and some new ideas through the transition.
“After the initial meetings with the advisers, we were a bit overwhelmed with the number of ideas they had for the business. However, it was easy to talk them through with Robert Gilchrist and Declan Marren and discuss what we thought would fit the farm best.
“We also enjoyed getting other farmers on to our farm for meetings too. This gave us other external opinions on the business, and we enjoyed meeting others in the sector. It also meant that we were able to visit other farms and see their set up.”
“One of the first changes we made was to introduce a paddock grazing system for cows and calves. Putting it simply, where we were keeping 25 cows and calves on 25 acres, it meant we could carry 30 cows and calves on the same area. Also, once the advisors explained the improved nutrition in the grass, it made sense to try it. That is not to say it was not daunting!
“Our main concern was the effort required to set up electric fences. However, it was far easier than we imagined as the field perimeters were already electrified so connecting up was simple.
“Paddock management was not as much work as we feared. We have to check the cattle every day so opening the gate every second day for them to walk through to fresh grass is not a lot of work. Unfortunately, in the first year of the paddocks summer was wet, so we let the cows onto the hill ground for a fortnight to protect the grass.
“At the same time, if we had been set stocking, we would have had to do the same. Year two was the exact opposite and very dry. The paddocks allowed us to better utilise the grass we had available and we didn’t run short through the season.
“The programme gave us the confidence to put the paddocks in place and we have reaped the benefit,” said Mark.
“Thanks to the increased grass growth, we have increased cow numbers. To be honest, I was initially sceptical of carrying more cows on the farm, but including the 40 bulling heifers we have for this summer, we will be calving around 210 cows in 2022. This is a significant increase from the 145 cows we were calving prior to the programme.
“As we didn’t start building numbers in year one to match the extra grass growth we were achieving so we took the opportunity to plough up 12 hectares of older grass and put in spring barley. This meant we produced an extra 70 tonnes of barley and 150 bales of straw.
“Declan and Robert also encouraged us to calve heifers at two years old. This is something still quite uncommon on farms around here and previously I would have said that cows were not ready for calving at this age. However, the science does show that once a heifer reaches two-thirds of its mature weight it should be able to be bulled. We weighed our retained heifers and they were all between 450kg and 510kg. With our average cow weight sitting at 650 to 700kg, they were more than big enough. From the batch of Simmental 30 heifers, we pulled five smaller ones out and put the rest to the Shorthorn bull.
“The following spring, we had 22 calves from 25 heifers. These calves would not have been there had we waited to calve at three, increasing our productivity. Through their first winter, they were housed on the slats and fed a diet of silage and 2kg of urea barley until December. They were put out to the hill and fed on ad-lib silage until calving in May.
“Learning from the first year, we have since moved the heifers on to a separate area of the hill from the mature cows as they were getting bullied when part of the main group. This means that we can feed them the better-quality silage to keep them growing up until calving.
“Not everything we tried in the project worked. Robert and Declan encouraged us to keep the spring-calving cows out longer on barley stubbles later in autumn. We fed them on silage in ring feeders which were moved every day. Unfortunately, wet conditions meant the cattle caused too much damage to the ground, particularly around the ring feeders. This also caused difficulties when ploughing.
“The programme has supported us to really push the business. The support of the advisers helped us to budget for the new cattle shed, implement calving heifers at two and adopt paddock grazing. This has allowed us to improve the bottom line and reduce our reliance on support payments. The programme has also given us the opportunity to learn from other farm businesses across Scotland and the whole experience has helped us prepare for the future. ”