The Biffens at Arnage near Ellon in Aberdeenshire are determined to drive the productivity in their cattle herd. One of the key improvements they want to see from their herd is a shorter calving spread.

At the start of the programme, a third of their cows were over 10 years old and calving was spread over an extended period, with one year seeing calves born 42 weeks in the year. Further replacement rate was only 3% so there was scope to tighten the calving spread and increase the proportion of younger, more efficient cows in the herd.

The Biffens' calves last summer.

Replacement rate from 3% to 17%

Last year, the Biffens retained 24 heifers to allow culling of poorer-performing cows and late-calvers which pushed the replacement rate to 17%. The younger herd has reduced the calving spread to 20 weeks, with this year’s target at 14 weeks as they move towards a 10-week spread in the future.

Over the project, output per cow has dipped as they moved from the finished to the store market for their male calves. This dropped the average calf sale weight by 80kg per calf but a higher weaning rate over the herd takes the calf weight sold per cow to 52kg less. As a result, output per cow has fallen £94/cow.

The feeding and bedding costs from 2019 winter were 60% higher than the benchmark year. The first year of the project saw costs at £187/cow, while in 2019 they jumped to £298/cow. The dry summer saw bedding costs rocket, which contributed £75 of the rise adding draff, a distillery byproduct, to stretch the lower yields of silage put on a further £33/cow.

The farm has introduced a Stabiliser bull. His male offspring will be kept entire and finished for the abattoir.

Less feed in the bag

The Biffens now use 138kg of concentrate less per cow now than in the first year of the project, which is a drop of 17%. But the strong 2019 prices for homegrown barley and purchased concentrates meant that concentrate costs only fell by £5/cow (4%).

Indexing those prices to 2016 would actually mean that concentrate cost per cow had fallen by £22/cow.

So what does this all mean? With a £107/cow reduction in output and a £128/cow increase in variable costs, the gross margin per cow has fallen from £449/cow to £214/cow.

Building the herd for the future

Andrew Biffen said: “The reduction in gross margin is extremely disappointing. However, between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the business has faced major feed cost challenges. The 2020 season has seen us address a number of these challenges with a totally different strategy. We have outwintered nearly three-quarters of the herd this year and feed costs are significantly reduced.

“The high replacement rate as we removed the older cows and shortened the calving period has also been quite hard on cashflow. We would have liked to have been quicker with making the changes but with the two high cost seasons of 2018 and 2019, we had to keep the purse strings tight.”

The farm has been moving from a Suffolk cross based flock to Mules which are better suited to outdoor lambing.

Biffen Sheep

The ewe flock at Arnage has undergone a transformation to better suit an outdoor April lambing system. Before the project, the flock was made up of mainly Suffolk cross ewes. While they can be very productive, they were more suited to an indoor system to get the best from them.

This has led to a changeover to more outdoor type ewes over the past three years. As a result, 136 ewes were sold with a similar number of mules coming home.

While this will be good for the long-term viability of the ewe flock, it has reduced the output from the flock as it takes replacements costs to nearly £20/ewe.

Not only has breed type seen an overhaul, the wintering system has too, with a greater reliance on forage crops established after winter barley. This is offering several benefits to the farm. Firstly, it is giving a reduction in winter feed costs for the ewes. Secondly, it is giving the grass on the farm a rest and allowing a quicker start to grazing in the spring, and thirdly it is increasing the organic matter and nutrient cycling in the arable rotation.

The switch to outwintering and better grass availability in the spring has seen a 32% reduction in ewe feeding costs to £11/ewe.

Rotational grazing has also been used to great effect with the sheep, driving up both ewe stocking rate and lamb growth rate over the life of the project. While gross margin per head has changed little, the gross margin per hectare has risen £794/ha to £836/ha, more than competing with the arable enterprises on the farm.