Farm Profit Programme: No room for passengers at Arnage
This week Declan Marren talks to the Biffen Family at Arnage to hear how spring work is progressing.

It’s been a busy few weeks with the late season and trying to fit six weeks work into a fortnight, but finally cows and calves have started to leave the sheds. We started letting out calved cows on the 25 April. While there wasn’t an awful lot of grass at that stage we only let out small numbers and didn’t want the grass to get ahead of the cattle when the burst of growth came. This is actually earlier than we have been out in previous years thanks to getting fertiliser out that bit earlier.

Fertiliser

The first of the grazing fertiliser went out on 22 March once soil temperatures were above 5°C at 10cm for a number of days. Growth wasn’t visible immediately but the grass did turn a healthy shade of green and started to move in the weeks afterwards.

More grazing fertiliser went out throughout April during any decent spell of weather. This included the silage fields which should be ready to cut by the end of the month all going well. This week’s heat has pushed them on greatly but they are still a week or so behind where they were this time last year. We plan to cut around the same date as last year, depending on weather, to allow us enough time for two more cuts. Hopefully it can make up some of the difference over the remaining two and a half weeks.

Silage

I think if we learned anything this winter it’s that you can never have too much silage. While we should have had enough to see us through the winter in a ‘normal’ year, we had to start feeding cows in early September last year, extending the winter by a good month to six weeks. It left us having to buy silage to make up the shortfall. We were buying it at £18/t plus haulage which, when you cost it out, you would struggle to make it yourself for any less. However, we want to have full control over the silage quality in the yard and just because we were able to buy it this year doesn’t mean it will be there next year at the same price. Therefore, we have an extra 20ac of silage to bring into the pit this year.

Calving

Our calving spread was quite protracted over the last number of years. This is one of our key objectives in the project to get under control and already we have made good inroads. We left the bulls in with the cows for 15 weeks last year and it really has made a difference to the feeding regime over winter. There were just three batches on farm this winter, dry cows to calve in spring, weaned calves and nine autumn calvers.

This simplified the whole cattle system and left us a lot more time to be prepared for the onset of calving. As a result, we were better prepared for turnout and each task on farm becomes much less complicated. As each of the 10 cows calved they were tagged, dehorned and ringed.

This meant when we wanted to put them to grass when the weather allowed, they were ready to go and there was no time lost running around tagging and sorting calves.

No room for passengers

As of this week we have 90 spring-calved cows with calves at foot at grass with 16 still left to calve. There are 12 cows in the cull pen. These have lost calves for a number of reasons and will not be returning to the bull. With the cost and length of the winter period.

We cannot afford to keep non-performers. No cow is worth looking at for 12 months with nothing from them. Six of these are fit enough to sell and will be through the ring by the time you are reading this. The other six need to flesh up a little prior to sale.

Calving has gone well overall, with calves quick to get up and suckle by themselves. While the cows have had a long winter, body condition is decent and they have plenty of milk for their calves. We will weigh all calves at weaning to see how they performed on their mothers.

We still have just over 50 young stock to sell in the coming weeks with the rest sold earlier this spring. You need to be hitting the correct weight band for the store ring as being too light can reduce the value of the animal.

Again, as we tighten the calving spread in the coming years more and more of the young stock will be sold earlier in the year. These things just take some time.

Sheep

As we have said before we have begun to change the ewe type on the farm to mules. We run an outdoor system and the half-bred and Suffolk cross ewes that we had just weren’t producing enough lambs to make it profitable. The 80 mule gimmers we bought in last year for breeding scanned at 185% while the mature ewes scanned at 166%. We decided to make an outdoor corral for the gimmers to give them a better chance for their first lambing.

The weather was most difficult at the start of lambing, the last days of March and first week of April. There was a high number of losses during that period, especially in the mature ewes outdoors. Overall mortality was 14% – too high even in an outdoor system.

We plan to delay lambing another two weeks next year to about 12 April. The outdoor corral worked a treat and it’s something that we will have to look at doing for the rest of the ewes in the future if we are to get a decent lamb crop in subsequent years.

The ewes and lambs have moved to a grass park that was undersown last year. They will rotationally graze seven paddocks for the summer months with the hopes of getting a large number of the lamb’s away fat. They are stocked at eight ewes to the acre so the grass needs to work hard for the summer. However, running them at a higher stocking rate allows us to take in extra silage ground and the rotational grazing will mean a higher-quality sward in front of the lambs all year, boosting daily liveweight gains.

Arable

Another way to streamline the workload of the business is to move to more winter crop. With that in mind we got 90ac of winter crop in last year. The winter barley is looking very good at the moment and we are hoping that this will be reflected in the yields come harvest time.

This left us with 160ac to sow this spring. While it was a ful month later than we would usually start, after a few long days and nights, we managed to get it all in before the end of April.

Scotland loses BSE negligible risk status after case confirmed on-farm
A case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has been confirmed on a farm in Aberdeenshire, in the northeast of Scotland.

A classical case of BSE was identified on farm as part of routine surveillance in the northeast of Scotland, the Scottish government has confirmed. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) is investigating the source of the outbreak.

The disease was found in a pedigree animal that was not imported to Scotland. As a result, Scotland will lose it's BSE negligible risk status which it gained from the Word Health Organisation (OIE) just last year.

Investigations

The animal in question did not enter the human food chain. All animals over four years of age that die on-farm are routinely tested for BSE.

The animal's cohorts, including offspring, have been traced and isolated, and will be destroyed in line with EU requirements.

Movement restrictions have been put in place at the farm, while further investigations to identify the origin of the disease occur.

“While it is too early to tell where the disease came from in this case, its detection is proof that our surveillance system is doing its job. We are working closely with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to answer this question and, in the meantime, I would urge any farmer who has concerns to immediately seek veterinary advice,” chief veterinary officer Sheila Voas said.

BSE-free for a decade

Scotland has been BSE-free since 2009. In May 2017, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) recognised the official BSE risk status of Scotland (and Northern Ireland) as negligible risk, the lowest risk level. This follows on from the Scottish government’s application to the OIE in 2016.

A spokesperson for the Scottish government confirmed that this case will have an impact on Scotland's BSE-free status.

The case identified is classical BSE. This is the type associated with contaminated feed and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, which caused the European mad cow crisis at the end of the 20th century.

The second variety, atypical BSE, appears spontaneously in older cattle and remains unexplained.

Read more

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Long read: top tips for buying and managing a new stock bull
Buying a new stock bull is one of the biggest investments farmers will make. Declan Marren looks at some top tips for purchasing and managing of your new bull.

Buying a new bull is a huge financial investment but it is also a genetic investment that you hope will propel your herd to the next level.

With this in mind, it is not something that should be rushed into or done without serious consideration. Even for herds that are thinking they will need a bull for next summer’s breeding season, you should be doing your homework now. I would prefer to purchase a bull as early as possible prior to being needed. While it might be an extra hassle having him on farm for the winter, at least you have full control of how he is fed and looked after.

1. Have your research done

You should have your research done long before you attend any sale or visit any farm to buy a bull. Ask yourself, what does your herd need? Do you need a maternal type bull to produce replacement heifers of superior quality to those currently coming into the system? Do you need to improve milk yield in the cows? Perhaps overall cow size needs to be brought down? Or are you looking for a more terminal sire to produce quality beef stock?

Whatever it is you decide you need, you then need to look at what aspects you need to improve in your herd and how a bull can provide these. Deciding on a breed alone is like sitting in a restaurant and deciding to have a main course when you're feel hungry – there are still plenty of options on the menu to choose from, some that you will like, others not so much. There is as much variation within a breed as there is across the breeds at this stage. Hone in on the individual traits you want from your new arrival.

If purchasing at a bull sale it is a good idea to be there to see the bull walking. Waiting until he’s in the ring is not the time to judge him on his feet and also can be quite misleading as they are constantly circling and not walking in a straight line

2. Study the form

Buying a bull from a catalogue page or website photo isn’t the road to go down. Just because a bull has the figures on the page that you want doesn’t mean he will be fit for purpose. It’s important you give the bull a full physical examination before you make the purchase. If buying at a bull sale, it is a good idea to be there to see the bull walking. Waiting until he’s in the ring is not the time to judge him on his feet and also can be quite misleading as they are constantly circling and not walking in a straight line.

Look at the bull’s overall conformation to make sure you are happy. Look for length and a clean body.

Make sure the bull has good feet and stay away from bulls whose feet have been pared or trimmed as this will have to be continued later in life. Make sure the bull stands up straight with his back legs (these are the legs that will be under the most pressure when serving) and make sure the bull walks well, with no limps or stiffness.

Obviously, one of the most important parts of a bull is his testicles, so make sure all is OK in this department – good size and free from deformities.

Talk to the breeder about the bull and his pre-sale feed and health management.

3. Post-purchase management – breeding and fertility

Most bulls will be sold between 16 and 22 months of age. Having paid a large amount of money for him and being excited to see what the bull will put on the ground, sometimes farmers can over-burden young bulls in their first breeding season.

As a rule of thumb, a young bull should only have as many cows as he is in months of age. Meaning an 18-month-old bull would serve no more than 18 cows in his first breeding season. If you have cull cows on farm, it can be useful to let the bull in to these a few weeks prior to the main breeding season so you know he is up for the job.

After the breeding season, we need to look after the bull. He has worked hard for maybe 12 to 14 weeks. A lot of herds will require him again in six months for an autumn herd. Do not place him in a faraway paddock by himself and forget about him. He needs access to top-quality grazing to recover condition and perhaps some concentrate if needed coming into the winter.

Like it or not, the majority of bulls will be on high concentrate diets prior to sales and until commercial farmers start to demand something different, this is how it will remain

4. Post-purchase management – feeding and health

As stated earlier, it is important to talk to the breeder about your new purchase. Find out the feeding regime of the bull prior to the sale. Like it or not, the majority of bulls will be on high concentrate diets prior to sales and until commercial farmers start to demand something different, this is how it will remain.

Therefore, we need to manage bulls correctly when we bring them home. There is no point bringing them home and feeding them average quality silage. You need to start slightly lower than the level they were on prior to the sale and gradually reduce this level of feeding over a number of weeks. The bugs in the rumen that break down concentrates are completely different to those that break down forage, so the population of the bugs in the rumen needs to change – and this takes time. It is important that you feed a balanced ration here and not simply barley alone. Feeding high levels of starch can have a detrimental effect on rumen pH, leading to acidosis. Feeds should be split in two and fed morning and evening.

Again, it is important to ascertain what health programme the bull is on, vaccination and dosing protocol, etc. If there is anything missing from your own programme, make sure the bull is treated prior to coming into contact with your herd.

5. Have a budget and stick to it

When purchasing at a bull sale, it is quite easy to get carried away. This is why it is important to have a budget agreed prior to the sale and stick to it. Do not put your business under pressure by going over budget on a bull meaning you have to make sacrifices in other areas of the business to make up for it. Have a list of potential bulls made out that you would be happy with and buy accordingly.

Political ‘impasse’ stopping progress for Scottish farmers
The UK and Scottish Governments must “resolve the impasse” over policy and financial frameworks and power repatriation

The UK and Scottish Governments must “resolve the impasse” over policy and financial frameworks and power repatriation if they are to create an agricultural policy that “fits the needs and profile of Scottish agriculture”, according to NFU Scotland.

Commenting during a lengthy debate on the draft UK Agriculture Bill on Wednesday, the union’s political affairs manager, Clare Slipper said: “However, we have been equally clear that such a schedule – or any other alternative vehicle – must come about through constructive work between Scottish and UK ministers, rather than being imposed by Westminster.

“It is critical that, within a commonly agreed regulatory and standards framework across the UK, Scotland retains complete autonomy in the development and delivery of new agricultural and rural policy, through an effective transition period, that will enable managed change at business, sector and industry levels,” she said.

Pete Wishart MP told the House of Commons Chamber that the Scottish Government would not agree to a schedule to the bill “as long as this [UK] Parliament and this Government fail to respect the devolution settlement […] We are happy to have common frameworks across the United Kingdom, as we have said again and again, but they have to be agreed and negotiated; they cannot be imposed.”

Terms of reference

Defra Secretary Michael Gove said that his department would soon publish terms of reference for a review of funding across the UK.

“I can guarantee, however, that agricultural funding will not be Barnetised, and the generous—rightly generous—settlement that gives Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales more than England will be defended,” Gove said.

Successive MPs raised concerns that food production and food security needed greater emphasis in the bill: “Food production is missing from this agriculture bill,” said Deidre Brock MP, SNP shadow Defra secretary: “We really cannot talk about how to regulate or support farming unless we also talk about producing food,” she said to the House.

WTO uncertainty

With regard to the vexed question of who should negotiate on the UK’s behalf and how negotiation positions should be reached by the UK Government and devolved administrations, Gove said: “I should stress that the bill will ensure that the UK can take its seat at the World Trade Organisation and negotiate on behalf of the whole United Kingdom.

‘‘Some people have suggested that the bill constitutes a power grab from our devolved Administrations—nothing could be further from the truth.”