Farm Profit Programme: good things come to those who wait
In the final week of benchmark results from the focus farms, we see how the Websters at Ardhuncart and the Gammies at Drumforber have got on in the first year of the project.

Webster Family, Ardhuncart Farm

Year one is complete and we are swinging in to year two with a few changes starting to take effect.

There is always a pinch point in early spring when grass is quite scarce. We are trying to have ewes and lambs out at pasture and start to get cows and calves out as well. To try to preserve more grass this winter, we established a crop of swedes on just 1ha of ground to see how it would work for getting the ewes off the grass for a few weeks. It was done as a bargain basement job, by mixing the seed with a bag of 10:18:28 in the hopper of the one pass and then cultivating directly in to the stubble. The crop took well and while it didn’t yield as high as a full crop of swedes, it kept the sheep long enough to give the grass a bit of a break.

Last year lambing was a real struggle with a lot of prolapses. There is a suggestion that ewe prolapses are driven by a lack of magnesium in the diet. The fields that the ewes were grazing on pre-lambing last year were some of the higher-K index fields on the farm. Using the same logic as grass staggers, that high K compromises magnesium uptake, this year we have grazed the ewes on fields with a lower K index.

So far it looks to have reduced prolapse incidence. Whether this is from the reduced K or as a result of bringing in more Cheviot mules this year and culling any problem ewes, we don’t know.

Benchmark

2017 was a poor year for us, we lost five cows for various reasons, and also we didn’t sell as many heifers with calves at foot as planned therefore sales were reduced. However, these heifers have been retained and will boost the output of our own herd in the coming year.

The sheep have improved, due mainly to the reduced amount of hard feed purchased by feeding to litter size and improved sale prices last year.

Aim for this year

This year, the sheep are going to go on a rotation on a new ley at the eastern edge of the farm. It is quite a steep field and initially, we have it split in four, with gates at either end of each fence to make moving stock easy. We plan to make more, better quality silage and remove any unproductive animals from the system. With the extra heifers coming into our herd we can afford to cull that bit harder this year.

The Gammie Family Drumforber Farm

One year in, there have been many changes on the farm. Making top-quality silage for growing stock was one. 2017 silage has 33% more energy than 2016, meaning we have fed next to no concentrates to the heifer calves that will be returning to grass this year. This was achieved by bringing forward the cutting date to the end of May.

The high-quality silage also meant that we have used ammonia-treated straw for the dry cows. This has worked well for us, utilising some of the condition the cows had built up over the grazing season. We then swapped them onto a diet with straw, silage and draff six weeks or so pre-calving to build up milk and colostrum quality.

Getting cattle out to grass earlier really helped reduce the winter feed bill last year with young stock getting out towards the end of March and cows and calves from mid-April onwards.

We looked at the bedding situation very early in the season and decided to do something about it. We have tray driers that run on wood chip and we dried some more chip down and bedded the cattle with it. This has worked really well, with the cattle remaining clean and dry over winter on one mucking out.

Cost wise, it has come in a good bit cheaper than using straw for bedding but we have yet to see how it behaves when we spread it on the ground. We are using wood chip for all the youngstock and cows with calves at foot. The dry cows were on wood chip but now as they approach calving we have moved them on to straw.

Benchmark

As any newly established business will know, it can take time for the initial investment to pay off. This is something we expected and are prepared to work at over the coming years.

We can be assured that by putting a robust system in place from day one, it will pay off in the long run. Gross margin per cow was £264 for last year. We expect to see this increase significantly throughout the lifetime of the project.

Aim for this year

After the success of last year’s early turnout, we are hoping to be able to do the same again. At the minute, ground conditions don’t look like we will be as early as last year but we are holding out hope that things will dry up soon.

There actually is plenty of grass about as it kept growing into October but unfortunately ground was too wet to get out and graze it. It would be nice to get a quick grazing across all the ground as soon as possible to encourage new growth once temperatures rise.

Cow numbers will continue to expand as we try to get to what we feel comfortable with. I have also recently done an AI course so I will see how that goes on some of the cows and heifers this coming year.

Payment boost for hill sheep farmers
Falling ewe hogg claims will increase the amount paid out per hill farmer.

Scottish hill farmers and crofters are in line for a payment boost of around £6/head for their ewe lambs, as over 11,000 fewer animals were claimed for in 2018.

The Scottish Upland Sheep Support Scheme could pay out an estimated rate of £70/head, because of the 10% drop in claims.

While lamb numbers took a sharp drop, the amount of claimants fell by only 19, to 1,142.

A difficult lambing last spring, coupled with uncertainty over the sheep sector during Brexit, have been cited as reasons for the record-low lamb claim.

“Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me,” said Robert MacDonald, chair of NFU Scotland’s Less Favoured Area’s committee.

“It proves we had a really tough lambing season last year. There were bound to be less ewe lambs kept back.

“We also have the unknown over Brexit. With any uncertainty, many will be getting rid of sheep. There is so much uncertainty people are voting with their feet and getting out rather than running the risk.”

The figures obtained by Farmers Journal Scotland are the initial claimed numbers and may fall further if farmers and crofters fail inspections, as the Scottish Government is yet to complete the process. The 1,142 claimants will share a pot of around £6m, and have received £63.23/head for last year’s claim.

Drop in flock numbers

The UK breeding flock had fallen by 4% to just over 14m head in 2018.

This is the largest drop in the sheep flock since the removal of headage payments over 10 years ago.

The situation is leading experts at ADHB to estimate a smaller lamb crop in 2018 – which could be the smallest since 2010.

Based on historic lamb survival percentages, and trends on the December census breeding flock, the 2019 UK lamb crop could be less than 16.5m head.

Scottish Trends: lamb market growing in confidence as beef falls further
Farmers Journal Scotland editor John Sleigh has his take on the week's beef and lamb markets.

The liveweight lamb price was up for the second week running by 3p/kg to £1.97/kg for medium-weight lambs.

Average prices around the marts had a low of £1.82/kg in Kirkwall to £2.03/kg for medium-weight lambs in Castle Douglas.

Heavier lambs rose again by 4p/kg on the week to £1.77/kg liveweight.

Numbers were up by almost 1,500 to 19,909 traded in marts.

The deadweight market reports the price of R3L lambs was up 3p/kg on the week at £4.22/kg across the UK.

Cast ewes through the ring were up by over 1,000 head to 5,493 as the average was up £1/head to £60/head.

Clean beef prices fell again this week to a reported price of £3.49/kg for an R4L steer, with abattoirs paying around 7p/kg less for cattle, with no Aberdeen Angus or traditional breed uplift.

Heifer prices are falling at the same rate, with the AHDB reporting a price of £3.50/kg for an R4L carcase.

R4L steers in northern England have seen their premium over Scotland slip to just 7p/kg.

Young bulls were quoted up 6p/kg to £3.40/kg for R4L carcases, with a 14% fall in numbers processed in Scottish plants.

Deadweight cow prices rose 4p/kg to £2.42/kg for an O-4L carcase, which is in line with prices across Britain.

Figures from the AHDB reveal that the total number of cattle and calves on holdings in the UK at 1 December 2018 stood at 9.6m head, down 2% from the previous year.

Total cattle and calf numbers have remained reasonably stable over the last decade, but have been creeping down over the last three years.

Hill lifeline
Farmers Journal Scotland editor John Sleigh has his take on the week's big issues.

Many will welcome the increase in payments in the Scottish Upland Support Scheme, which is a lifeline for hill farmers and crofters who produce much of our nation’s breeding stock. It’s just a pity the increase came due to the sad state of hill sheep.

Hill sheep confidence is low, as animals move from hard hills to more productive upland farms. This has been the pattern since ewe payments were stopped, and the issue was discussed in Steven Thomson’s (SRUC) paper, Farming’s Retreat from the Hills, published in 2008.

Sadly, all the Brexit uncertainty has locked-in scheme rules for the next couple of years. This is a travesty, as too many farmers are receiving level five penalties for minor errors, eating up their claim. For example, if you out-winter your hoggs and the winterer forgets to notify you they shifted the sheep to a neighbouring farm, you get the high jump.

Fergus Ewing’s much-promised simplification agenda seems to be frozen in time and has delivered very little, as we come to a standstill while Brexit negotiations play out.

It is paramount that such schemes are at the top of the pile for improvements post-Brexit. We must remember region three farmers and crofters carried the can for the rest of the industry by undertaking a bureaucratic, coupled scheme rather than a higher area payment.