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.

Barley price surge
Farmers Journal Scotland editor John Sleigh takes a look at the big issues in farming this week.

Barley prices appear to be rising fast with some farmers quoting a feed barley price over £190/t, but merchants are reluctant to quote anything above £170/t to £180/t. It seems farmers are taking a gamble and holding off selling in hope of a continued price rise. There are good reasons for and against a continual climb.

While some farmers have been pleasantly surprised about the early cut spring barley, the bulk of the crop has yet to really get going. Earlier-planted crops were established before the weather broke in April which could make a big difference to yield. Merchants report that so far spring barley bushel weights are good, showing that the sunshine did help yield, but yields are back around half a tonne an acre compared with last year, which was higher than usual.

We have to remember that growing conditions for later-sown spring barley were very different from plants which germinated before the weather broke in April. Agronomists point out that later-sown barley had a very short growing season of three and a half to four months. Thirty days’ less growing time is bound to have an impact.

On the other hand, some later-sown crops could be on fitter soil or mixed farms which suffered less in the dry due to higher soil moisture retention.

Another positive will be falling yields offset by increased prices, which look to average £40/t to £50/t more on the year. This would equate to an extra three-quarters of a tonne of barley per acre, which will go some way to mitigate the impact of a dry summer.

Specification for malting barley has opened up significantly as crops have high levels of nitrogen. Farmers in Morayshire this week have told me that barley at 1.85% nitrogen has been accepted for distilling, considerably higher than the usual 1.65% limit.

Contract prices

Contract prices for malting barley are sitting around £203/t and Diageo set the price that pay farmers at £205/t this week.

The price could climb even higher for the spot market. But smaller yields and wider spec will see few loads of barley able to take advantage of any spectacular trade. If only this was possible in other years.

This won’t help farmers who contracted too much grain and don’t have the volume to fulfil. Anecdotally, not many folk are foolhardy enough to sell all the tonnes they usually yield per acre and wider specs should help farmers to avoid rejections. Nevertheless, for those who fall short, merchants may force farmers to buy extra grain to fulfil contracts or buy on the market and charge back the difference.

Those further up the hill may read this with in trepidation fearing winter feed costs, however, prices won’t necessarily continue growing; as maize and wheat prices appear to be levelling, this could cap feed prices this winter as feed merchants switch to other grains.

All will become clear as French and American maize harvests start imminently. France’s soft wheat harvest looks better than usual so we could even see some of their grain heading across the channel to dampen feed prices. All the talk of high straw prices might have turned off a few straw choppers helping to increase supply this winter.

The next four weeks will be critical to Scottish farming’s health this winter.

Government tackles sheep worrying
The Scottish Government has announced a contract for research organisations to carry out a project on sheep worrying.

The Scottish Government has announced a contract for research organisations to carry out a project on sheep worrying.

The project will consider the impact of dog attacks and predation by wildlife on farmed sheep, along with potential strategies for mitigation. The objective for the successful applicants will be to obtain data on the scale of these issues in Scotland, and attempt to identify patterns in the attacks.

They will also be required to draw comparisons on the impact of worrying by dogs and wildlife predation to farmers based on time/effort as well as financial and other costs. The research will aim to identify recommendations on how to achieve greater prevention of worrying and wildlife attacks through effective potential mitigation measures and strategies at farm, community (including dog owners) and Government levels. The final date to submit a tender is 6 September 2018.

Scottish TB cases triple
Larger herds are being hit harder with TB, causing the number of cattle being slaughtered to surge.

In the 12 months up to the end of May 2018, the total number of animals slaughtered due to Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) has increased by 196% when compared with the previous 12 months. This has seen the total number of cattle slaughtered due to TB rise from 181 to 536.

These outbreaks of TB are concentrated in certain areas, with 86% of all slaughterings due to TB occurring to cattle in the Ayrshire, Wigtownshire and Argyll area. The Ayrshire region was particularly badly hit, with no TB incidents reported in the 12 months up to the end of May 2017 and 191 cases in the following 12 months.

Also, while the total number of cattle has spiked, the number of restricted herds has remained stationary at 137 for the past two years. This would indicate that the number of incidences are not actually increasing, but rather that larger herds are being harder hit with the disease. The number of tests carried out has actually dropped slightly to 2,062 tests in the 12 months ending May 2018, with 2,097 tests in the 12 months previous to this.

Worryingly, cases have hit their highest point since 2003, when 544 cattle were slaughtered due to the disease.

The amount of compensation paid for animals slaughtered to prevent the spread of TB has consequently increased from £331,498 in 2016 to £415,050 in 2017.

Precautionary approach

“It’s one of those diseases which you can’t predict. It would be great if people were more cautious with where they bought cattle from as buying less cattle from risky areas greatly reduces the chance of bringing TB into Scotland,” according to Penny Middleton, health and welfare policy manager with the NFUS.

“It’s vital to remember that Scottish government are looking at these things and take a precautionary approach. They are looking at the type of TB and most importantly whether farms are getting re-infected or if it is being spread between neighbours,” Middleton explained.

Of the 536 cattle slaughtered due to the disease, 471 were reactors. The sensitive gamma interferon blood test is used to pick up animals exposed to TB. However, they may not go on to get the disease. The Government implements a precautionary approach, with more marginal cases slaughtered to reduce the spread of the disease.

With TB status critical for exports and written into trade agreements, there is little wiggle room on the testing regime in Scotland. Rule changes have seen cattle given TB status after two inconclusive tests as opposed to the three previously required. The new testing regime takes a more invasive approach to herds which have suspected TB with increased testing.

In comparison, last year there were 33,687 cattle compulsorily slaughtered through the TB scheme in England.