In the past decade, the Scottish suckler cow herd has decreased by about 1% per annum.
Lack of profitability is seen as the main reason for people reducing or getting out of suckler cows.
However, over the last three years of the Farm Profit Programme, the focus farms have increased cow numbers by 9% on average.
So how are the programme farms bucking the trend when it comes to cow numbers?
Again, it comes down to profitability – the focus farmers are working at overcoming the major barriers to profitability on their farms.
Over 75% of all variable costs associated with keeping cows can be attributed to feed costs. Most of these costs are incurred during the winter months or while cattle are housed. Therefore, anything that can be done to either shorten the length of the winter or reduce winter feed costs will have a significant impact on profitability.
The focus farms have concentrated on getting stock turned out to grass earlier in the spring using planned grazing strategies. This sees fields that are required for early turnout in spring rested through winter for at least 100 days.
Fields required for early turnout in spring need to be rested for at least 100 days.
Across all of the farms, the average turnout date has been brought forward by three weeks since the beginning of the project. This has a massive benefit in terms of feed costs as the feed energy demand in spring-calving and lambing systems peaks in the first few weeks of lactation. Grazed grass is the cheapest feed we can offer our animals. Getting stock out to high-quality spring grass can greatly reduce the amount of concentrate supplementation needed to meet these energy demands.
2 Matching calving/lambing with grass growth
Another change the focus farms have made is a slight tweak to the calving or lambing date on farm. In most cases this has led to as little as a fortnight of a delay to the onset of calving or lambing. This is for the same reason as outlined above – trying to match the rapid increase in energy demand on farm in spring with the onset of grass growth.
While this has an initial benefit of reducing feed costs in spring, the real benefits are that peak milk yield of the cow will be greater and therefore she will produce more milk throughout the entire lactation. Cow milk yield is the single greatest factor affecting calf weaning weight.
Cows calved more than six weeks prior to turnout will need to be back with a bull for breeding
A cow will hit peak milk lactation at around six to eight weeks post-calving. If the calved cow is being fed indoors on a silage and concentrate ration for the first month of lactation and then turned out to grass, the adaption period of the rumen from the indoor diet to a grass diet can affect the peak milk yield – and therefore weaning weight of the calf.
Cows calved more than six weeks prior to turnout will need to be back with a bull for breeding. In the case where a bull is with cows prior to turnout there is often a break in the calving pattern the following spring that coincides with the changeover of diet. This leads to a more protracted and drawn out calving spread or a greater number of empty cows at the end of the breeding period.
The focus farms are now carrying more stock/ha than ever before. This is because they are growing more grass than ever before. At the start of the programme a proportion of each of the farms was soil sampled. Less than 20% of these samples were at the optimum level for all three measures of pH, phosphorus and potassium.
This meant that one of these three was limiting or restricting grass growth in 80% of fields. The starting point for fixing soil nutrient deficiencies is correcting pH.
Optimum pH levels mean you get the full value of every tonne of fertiliser you spread on your ground
Over the course of the programme, the focus farms have spread a lot of calcium lime in order to increase soil pH levels. This has seen a vast improvement in the grass growing abilities of the ground on many of the farms.
The farms are targeting a pH of 6.3 for grassland on mineral soils. Optimum pH levels mean you get the full value of every tonne of fertiliser you spread on your ground. At a pH of 5.5, half of all phosphorus and 25% of all potassium you spread is locked up in the soil and unavailable to the plant.
Growing grass is all well and good but if we cannot make best use of it there is little point in going to the effort of growing it. This is why the focus farms have embraced rotational grazing. It has allowed some farms to nearly double their stocking rate for their cows over the period of the programme while the Duguids at Cranna and Biffens at Arnage farms are running in excess of eight ewes plus lambs to the acre (almost 20 ewes plus lambs/ha) during the main grazing season.
This high-quality feed increases growth rates in young stock which has led to increased weaning weights of both calves and lambs over the three years
Rotational grazing allows the farms to either increase the total stock numbers on farm, or maintain stock numbers on a smaller grass acreage. It also allows them to utilise the extra grass they are growing and means that the stock are constantly grazing high-quality pasture all year round.
This high-quality feed increases growth rates in young stock which has led to increased weaning weights of both calves and lambs over the three years. The Mackays at Greenvale, Caithness, achieved over 1.3kg/hd/day from birth to weaning on their spring calves – without any creep feeding.
At times when grass growth does get ahead of the grazing stock, as was common this summer on many farms, the benefit of paddock grazing is that it allows you to take out surplus grass as high-quality baled silage – this resets the paddock and ensures the next grazing will still be of the highest quality for stock.
All these measures combine together to increase the level of output from the farms. The farms now have tighter calving spreads which eliminates cows floating from spring herds to autumn herds and vice versa.
Getting stock at grass earlier in the cow’s lactation increases milk yield which increases daily liveweight gain in the calf, leading to increased weaning weights.
Marginal gains in multiple areas of the system can be the difference between profit and loss
Rotational grazing improves the quality of the grazing sward ahead of the stock, which boosts growth rates – increasing weaning weights.
It is the cumulative effect of all of these changes that make the difference on these farms. Marginal gains in multiple areas of the system can be the difference between profit and loss. Over the course of the programme, output/breeding unit has increased significantly.
In order for any of these changes to be made, the first thing any farm must do is measure how their farm is currently performing.