Brothers John and Keith Morrison run a mixed arable and cattle unit at Fairburn farm, near MacDuff in the northeast of Scotland.
To drive farm output, the brothers buy in maiden heifers for breeding and subsequently sell these animals with a calf at foot. There is also a significant arable contracting business alongside their own crops.
The current farming enterprises started in 2009, when the family decided to stop dairying. The 230 Holstein cows were swapped for crops and store cattle.
“It wasn’t much fun just finishing cattle, so we thought we would try buying bulling heifers and selling them with calves at foot and it went from there,” said Keith.
Selling first-calved heifers
Every year, John and Keith buy heifers that they put to the bull over winter and calve down the following January and February. Heifers are then sold with a calf at foot in March or May. During the upcoming spring, 70 heifers will calve to Limousin bulls.
Heifers are usually bought in autumn around 18 months old and 400kg-450kg, at £850 to £900/head (€944 to €1,000). Younger heifers are bought earlier in the year at 370kg and £700/head (€770).
For the past seven years, all heifers have been pelvic measured before breeding by the farm’s vet. Any heifer with a pelvic measurement smaller than 12cm high or wide does not go to the bull.
“The year before we started pelvic measuring, we had five caesareans,” said John.
“The year after we had one, and it was the heifer with the smallest measurement.”
“We started eight years ago with a mix of breeds and noticed that big Simmental heifers with calves were selling well,” said John.
“So we started buying Simmentals to meet customer demand, but found they were very hungry cattle. Since then, we switched to Limousin and black Limousin heifers, which are proving increasingly popular.”
After calving, the strongest heifers are sold in March, with the rest sold in May at specialist sales in Thainstone Mart. Outfits have averaged £2,200 (€2,444), with lows of £1,700 (€1,888) and highs of £3,000 (€3,333).
Next year, the plan is to bull 95 heifers, which will be close to housing capacity. However, John is not against selling in-calf heifers during autumn if he feels that housing space is getting too tight.
All heifers are vaccinated for Lepto, IBR, BVD and mycoplasma for £20/head (€22). This year, vaccination was carried out six weeks before calving, with calves vaccinated at one month old.
The farm also carries an early spring-calving suckler herd of 50 Simmental cows crossed to Charolais bulls. In total, the farm runs five bulls split between Limousin for heifers and Charolais for cows.
“We try to buy our bulls privately. The bulls at the big sales are just pushed too hard and we have found too many are not fit to work. We can go visit lots of farms within 30 miles of here and buy good bulls that work,” said John.
Bulls run with heifers for nine weeks. Before then, heifers are synchronised and bred to AI using Limousin semen. Any cow not pregnant at scanning goes into the finishing pen.
Four years ago, the brothers installed calving cameras for £800 (€889) and now say they could not live without them.
“Without cameras, you are in and out every 20 minutes to check cows and end up disturbing the calving process. Now you can check progress from the house without interrupting the cow,” said John.
In the runup to calving, cows and heifers are fed 4kg of straw, 20kg of silage, 250g of soya and a pre-calving mineral through the mixer wagon at a cost of £1.05/day (€1.15).
Once calved, heifers destined for sale get 1kg of straw, 2kg barley, 2kg of a protein pellet, 8kg of turnips, 4kg of fodder beet and 25kg of silage, costing £1.68/day (€1.84). Barley, straw, turnips and fodder beet are all grown on-farm.
Cows are fed 1kg of straw, 1kg of barley and 1kg protein pellets, 35kg of silage, 6kg of turnips and 3kg of fodder beet, costing £1.55/day (€1.70). Feeding and bedding all stock on-farm takes two hours every day.
Young stock are fed 1kg of straw, 1kg of barley, 1kg of protein pellets, 2kg of fodder beet and 24kg of silage.
The brothers also buy 30 steers to join 20 homebred finishing cattle, with animals slaughtered in June.
The finishing diet is 0.5kg of straw, 6kg of barley, 1.5kg of protein pellets, 9kg of fodder beat, 8kg of silage and 75g of urea and costs £1.58/day (€1.73).
Cows and calves that will not be sold are turned out to grass in early May. The brothers have tried to turn cows out earlier, but cold winds off the North Sea and snow are not uncommon during April in the area.
Silage and arable
Around 80ac of silage ground is harvested twice annually, with a combined yield of 15t grass fresh weight.
Silage harvesting is just about the only time a contractor comes on to the Morrisons’ farm, as the brothers use their own kit for most jobs in either the crops or cattle enterprises.
While most suckler herds in Aberdeenshire calve over March and April, calving in January permits John to undertake planting spring crops while Keith looks after the cows. In addition to 250ac of spring barley and 18ac of forage peas, John also sows 1,200ac of cereals on contract work using a 4m Lemken drill and John Deere 6250R, charging £26/ac (€29) plus diesel.
John also ploughs around 200ac for neighbouring farms, charging £28/ac (€31). The brothers do contract work for potato farmers, as well as combining 500ac of cereals for neighbours.
John is a former Scottish ploughing champion, taking national honours back in 1994. He also competed in world championships, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle, who finished runners-up at world championships on three occasions.