A mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. Farming is a constant learning curve, with every year throwing up a new challenge.

Here, we look at some areas with room for improvement on the focus farms for next year.

1 Good grass v stubble turnips

One of the focus farms sowed 8ac of a leafy stubble turnip for finishing lambs in late autumn. The idea behind going for a leafy variety was that it offered a regrowth potential and the benefit of multiple grazings throughout the back end of the year.

Establishment of the crop was very good. It was direct-drilled into a burned-off grass ley. Nine weeks post-sowing, the crop was ready for its first grazing – by which time it was the second week of September.

Lambs were drafted on to the crop according to liveweight, with lambs over 36kg put on the stubble turnips and the remaining lambs staying on second-cut silage after-grass.

The stubble turnip crop was divided into sections and the lambs gave the crop a light grazing before moving on to the next section. It was important not to overgraze the crop early on, as this would affect the regrowths.

Three weeks later, the lambs were weighed in the hopes of having a draft of fat lambs fit for slaughter.

However, what was found was that the lighter lambs on the grass had outperformed the stubble turnip lambs quite significantly.

So what went wrong?

We now think that there was excess protein in the diet of the lambs on the stubble turnips and not enough energy to maximise growth rates – we should have been in with feeders with an energy source such as barley.

In saying this, the lambs on the stubble turnips were much cleaner than those on the grass and didn’t seem to have a high-protein diet running through them.

Next year

Instead of growing the stubble turnips, the farm will grow swedes for wintering cattle and ewes. The focus for finishing lambs will be to build a sufficient bank of grass post-second-cut silage to carry them through to slaughter.

Feeders will be offered to finishing lambs for a few weeks pre-slaughter to increase the energy intake of the lamb and reduce days to slaughter.

2 Transitioning lambs on to hard feed

On another of the focus farms, barley hoppers were introduced to aid finishing lambs. While the transition was managed and increased slowly, one or two lambs managed to gorge themselves on the barley ration and died.

It is hard to increase concentrate feeding to lambs when they are in large batches or being fed in creep feeders where there isn’t sufficient space for all lambs to feed at once.

Even with a slow and steady increase in concentrate allowance over a two- to three-week period, there can still be instances of lambs that have not been eating much concentrate suddenly eat too much.

A good fibre source in the form of grass, silage or hay should be available at all times, as well as easy access to fresh clean water at all times.

3 Expanding herd costs

It is quite easy to make the financials of a contracting herd look good. It is equally simple to make the financial performance of an expanding herd look quite bad. This is the case for five of the six focus farms that are increasing cow numbers.

The problem is that you either have a lower output from retaining heifers for breeding that would normally be sold or you have to go out and buy breeding heifers to increase cow numbers.

The financial investment for a bulling heifer can take at least 18 to 20 months to return any dividend on the investment – more in many cases.

This can put a strain on a farm's cashflow in the interim. Ways around this include financing stock over a number of years to reduce the cashflow burden.

However, you need to be aware of interest rates and what the final cost of putting these extra cows in place will be.

4 Bull problems

In each year of the programme, there has been at least one farm that has had an issue with a breeding bull. This year was the same, when one farm scanned a batch of cows finding six empty out of a batch of 28.

The bull had gone infertile during the breeding season due to a growth in front of his sheath.

Issues with bulls seem to be on the increase across the country and it is something that needs to be addressed at an industry level.

Many farms are now carrying additional bull power on the farm to cover any issues with bulls not performing.

There are huge costs associated with keeping these additional breeding bulls on farm, but many see it as a cheaper option than having a batch of empty cows come scanning day.

5 Timing of sowing forage crops

The growing season can come to an abrupt stop in the northeast of Scotland. Therefore, getting the sowing timing right for forage crops for winter feed is very important.

The Biffens at Ellon sowed a hybrid brassica into a grass ley that had been burned off and silaged.

It was sown on 20 July and while the crop is respectable with nearly 4tDM/ha, it could have been quite a bit more had it been in the ground a fortnight earlier.

In future years, the farms will concentrate on getting crops in that little bit earlier, as boosting yield can significantly reduce the cost-per-kilogramme of DM.