Since joining the programme in 2017, the Biffen family has made many changes to the farm, but each change has been made with one goal in mind – to increase farm output per hectare using as much grazed forage as possible.

Speaking at the open meeting on Tuesday last, Andrew Biffen said that outwintering was “allowing us to increase stock numbers, and therefore farm output, without having the capital investment of a new shed”.

He went on to say that the fixed costs on-farm were too high and this allowed them to dilute these across more kilos of output every year.

Andrew Biffen and Declan Marren outlining the farm system at Arnage farms.

Stock type

This has seen the farm completely rethink both the cow and ewe type that they want to rear in the future.

Andrew stressed the need “to breed a more compact cow that will produce a 300kg calf every year, while at the same time have enough condition built up over the grazing season to allow her to be outwintered on a forage crop through to calving the following spring”.

Likewise with the sheep enterprise, the Biffens are looking for a ewe with good mothering ability, that can thrive in an outdoor lambing system with minimal cost input.

Increasing output

Andrew said that the farm needs to produce more kilograms per hectare, be that beef, lamb or cereal crops.

This has seen them refocus on soil fertility across the farm, with the forage crops playing a pivotal role in the complete system.

While the farm has always been a typical mixed livestock and arable farm, the majority of the ground was seen as being either arable or livestock plots. In the last two years this approach has changed.

Sowing forage crops into winter barley stubbles is helping to boost soil fertility due to the organic matter left behind by the grazing animals, and is also improving soil structure and increasing the overall biodiversity of the farm.

The Horsch pronto provided by Rodger Glennie, Methlick, Aberdeenshire.

Live demo

At the meeting there was a live demo of four drills in action, sowing Samson, a variety of stubble turnip, into winter barley stubbles. The four machines were:

  • Horsch Pronto, provided by Rodger Glennie, Methlick, Aberdeenshire.
  • Sim-tech Aitchison, provided by John Stephen, Kieth, Aberdeenshire.
  • Simba X-Press with a broadcast bar, provided by Eric Gibson, Maud, Aberdeenshire.
  • System Cameleon, provided by Murray Cooper, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire. Each machine had a demo plot of around 2ha. Attendees were able to see first-hand how each machine worked and the job it did on the day. The Biffen family will host a second meeting later in the year for people to come back and see how each one performed and to see stock grazing the crop. A video of the machines in action is available online at
  • The Simba X-Press with a broadcast bar, provided by Eric Gibson, Maud, Aberdeenshire.

    Cost of growing the crop

    The establishment costs for the stubble turnip are outlined in Table 1.

    Depending on the machine used, sowing costs varied from £35 for the Aitchison up to £65 for the Simba X-Press.

    However, the Simba had a four-leg sub-soiler on the front of the machine to aid soil drainage for winter grazing.

    Seed costs are £19/ha at a seed rate of 5kg/ha, and fertiliser costs are £71/ha for 250kg/ha of 20:10:10. Adding in the cost of sowing, the fertiliser and rolling, this brought the total cost of establishment to between £145/ha and £175/ha.

    Murray Cooper describing his System Cameleon drill to meeting attendees.

    With a conservative estimated yield of 3.5t/ha and an 80% utilisation, this results in a cost of £51-£63/t DM.

    This is just slightly higher than the cost of grazed grass, almost half the cost of silage and a quarter of the cost of purchased concentrates, making it a very attractive option for wintering stock, where land type allows.

    This also eliminates the cost of bedding, which has averaged £75/cow across the six focus farms over the last number of years.

    There is still time for this crop to be established, although in order to achieve a substantial yield it needs to be sown in the coming week to 10 days in the northern half of Scotland.

    The daily feed cost on this crop, along with one third of the diet as silage, is £0.81/cow, excluding mineral supplementation.

    Fodder beet

    The Biffens have also grown 6.5ha of fodder beet for the first time this year. The crop was sown in mid-May and establishment costs are outlined in Table 2.

    While it is clear to see that fodder beet is not a cheap crop to grow, the potential dry matter yield more than makes up for the growing costs.

    As it is the first time the crop has been grown at Arnage, we have used a conservative estimate of the potential dry matter yield of the crop at 15t DM/ha.

    Achieving an 85% utilisation figure brings us back to a cost of £51/t DM – comparable with the stubble turnips described above.

    Speaking about their first experience of the crop, Andrew said he is very pleased with how it has done so far and that if it continues to grow as it has up to now, he can see a role for it on the farm.

    While the crop has had both a pre- and post-emergence spray, the Westerwolds from the previous crop have still come through in places. This is the only weed burden on the crop and should have minimal effect on the overall yield of the beet.

    Managing the transition

    The plan at Arnage is to have a group of dry cows grazing the beet from mid-October onwards.

    The transition from a grass-based diet to fodder beet should be treated the same as going from grass to an ad-lib concentrate diet.

    Fodder beet should be introduced at about 2kg/head and increased by 1kg every second day until animals have free access.

    This means calculating the allowance daily and strip-grazing the required amount. It is important that the break length is sufficient, so that all animals have access to the crop at the same time to avoid problems with shy feeders.

    As is the case with all forage crops, they should only account for a maximum of two thirds of the diet.

    The remainder of the diet should be a fibre source, eg medium-quality baled silage or straw.

    There will be further updates on the forage crops at Arnage later in the year, as well as details for the next farm meeting in early winter.