We’ve completed weaning the autumn herd a fortnight ago. This is about 10 weeks earlier than usual. Typically, the autumn cows and calves go out to grass as one bunch and are weaned in late July. The main reason we have decided to wean earlier this year is to allow us to put the cows out onto hill ground and prioritise the best grazing for the growing stock that really need it.
Autumn calving starts here in mid-September and finishes in early December. Therefore, by early May the calves were, on average, just over the 200-day mark. At this stage, milk yield in a suckler cow will be quite low and only a small proportion of the calf’s overall diet will be coming from its mother.
If the cow and calf were to go to grass together, they would be in direct competition with each other for the best grazing. By weaning and removing the cow from the equation, this leaves more, better-quality grazing ground available for the growing calf. One thing we are not short of here at Auchriachan is hill ground, so putting cows out to the hill for the summer will only help improve this ground in the long run.
Power of farm weights
Prior to weaning, we weighed both the cows and calves. We decided that we would leave any calf under 250kg on the cow until the usual weaning time in late July. Of the 36 calves, just seven failed to hit the minimum weight target. We had a spread of weights from 383kg down to 185kg, with the average calf at 286kg. Interestingly, it wasn’t the youngest calves that were the lightest, or the biggest cows that had the greatest weaning weights.
Measuring weaning efficiency by comparing the calf’s weaning weight with that of its dam is an interesting way to benchmark the herd. Taking the five heaviest calves, they had a weaning percentage of 54%, ie the calves weighed 54% of the cows weight at the point of weaning. Take the other extreme, the five lightest calves achieved a weaning percentage of just 33%. In this comparison, all weights were corrected to 200-day weights to put all cow and calf units on an even playing field.
Obviously the long-term aim is to get the weaning percentage as high as possible over the coming years. Having the weighing scales on-farm gives you a lot of information and confidence that you are making the correct decision. By building up a picture of the herd over a few years, you soon start to see the cows that continually fail to live up to expectations. As we have been doing this exercise since the start of the project, we are now basing culling decisions on this data to improve herd productivity.
It has been the first year of calving our newly established hill cow herd. We purchased 24 in-calf Highland cows last summer to utilise more of the hill ground on the farm.
Highland cows and calves.
So far, 22 of the 24 have calved and we have 22 calves on the ground. They were kept in a hill park close to the yard, but these cows like to do things by themselves. We’ve had to take a couple in post-calving to deal with large udders – these are older cows that once we get numbers up we will be able to cull out of the herd. We will also be reluctant to keep heifers off these cows as we want to put a strict breeding plan in place that gives us a trouble-free hill cow herd.
We also calved down a batch of 16 Highland-cross Shorthorn heifers that we bulled with a Shorthorn bull last year. Of the 16, all are calved and we currently have 14 living calves. We did bring these in for calving as we felt heifers may need a bit of help, and some were calving at 24 months old. Again, by in large the majority calved unaided.
The plan is to run some pure Highlanders on the hill to keep a nucleus herd, cross some to the Shorthorn, and mate the Shorthorn crosses back to Shorthorn again, to give us heifers for the in-bye herd.
The in-bye spring herd has also finished calving. We currently have 28 calves from 32 cows. We lost a couple of calves with stomach and twisted gut problems. Another cow lay on her calf for the second time in three years so she will now be culled.
The amount of time spent feeding, bedding and calving the in-bye herd compared with the hill cows is quite amazing. We easily spend three quarters of our time with the indoor herd, while number wise we now have more hill cows. While it is early days for the hill cows, we are happy with current performance, and we see numbers increasing in years to come. We are aware they will not come to the same value at the other end as the indoor herd, however, if we have lower costs of production and more live calves per cow to the bull, the difference may not be that great at all.
Lambing went well this year, thankfully the weather was on our side most of the time. We are starting marking lambs this week, so we will know actual numbers for our next update. Last year our ewe gross margin was poor, mainly due to the fact that we were feeding them from mid-December onwards. This winter could not have been more different, with enough grass to keep them going most of the season.
Forage crops and grass
We have earmarked a 13-acre field for reseeding this year. However, we will sow it out half to a Tyfon and half to a hybrid brassica. This will allow us to get more lambs away fat compared with store, as we try to add as much value as possible to lambs leaving the farm.
Andrew Duffus feeding the hill heifers to keep them close by while calving.
Following this, we will do a full reseed to grass next spring. Spring reseeds work best here, as autumn conditions can be quite unpredictable and the growing season can come to an abrupt stop. The farm sits between 1,200ft and 2,100ft above sea level. We also plan to break in an additional four or five acres of ground with forage crops for early winter grazing.
It is hard to remember a time when we have seen so much grass on the farm. Keeping quality ahead of stock now becomes a priority. We have rolled a couple of paddocks in recent days so that we can take them out as baled silage, should they go too far ahead of grazing stock.