Farm Profit Programme: The going is good at Greenvale
Mark and Shona Mackay run a 150-cow herd at Greenvale farm, Dunnet near Thurso. Declan Marren speaks to them about progress this spring.

The grazing season kicked off properly here on 16 April this year, earlier than in recent years. There were a few reasons for this. Firstly, we had a decent spring weather-wise, with favourable conditions throughout late March and into April. That allowed us to get fertiliser and slurry out earlier in spring. We targeted slurry on grazing ground and spread 2,000gal/ac on 19-20 March. This was followed up on 10 April with 27-6-6 at a rate of 125kg/ha, on ground that had slurry and 250kg/ha on paddocks that had no slurry.

Turnout

On 16 April we let out 25 cows and calves to the paddocks across from the yard. These currently consist of 11ha split into three divisions. There is scope here to sub-divide each of these again in the coming weeks as grass growth increases to give us greater control of the sward quality in front of stock. We have since added another four cows and calves to this group and have another grazing group of 36 cows and their calves out since 24 April.

It really has been great to get them out early as at one stage it looked like we would have to buy-in silage to see us through. Instead, we have ended up with some silage left in the pit for next winter.

We are measuring grass growth weekly with a plate meter to keep an eye on both supply and demand of grass. This allows us to make proactive rather than reactive decisions in terms of fertiliser applications and knowing when we have enough of a surplus of grass to remove a paddock for silage.

Last week growth rates averaged 47kgDM/ha/day, while our demand sits at 43kgDM/ha/day. This means we are growing just over the amount of grass that we are eating each day at the moment. With an increase in temperatures this week and some light rain to keep soil moisture right, we expect to see growth improve further.

If this does happen we will look to split the paddocks where necessary and if we have a surplus of grass it will be removed as baled silage.

Spring calving

We have had a good calving this year with the spring herd. Of the 93 cows that went to the bull last year, 91 were in calf. From this we have now calved 86 and have 88 calves on the ground. We have lost a small number of calves, but a few sets of twins has made up the difference. Over 90% of these calved in a nine-week period, with just six left to calve at the start of May.

Summer herd

1 May marks the start of the summer herd calving. These cows are out-wintered on a sandy hill and fed silage throughout the winter. Of the 58 that went to the bull just one scanned empty. Calving is progressing well with these, we just draft them down from where they are out-wintered a couple of times a week as they look to be coming close to calving. They stay outdoors in the fields beside the yard. That way if there are any problems they are easy to run into the sheds. Mostly though they are working away on their own, which is how it should be.

Replacement heifers

We have a batch of 14 heifers to go to the bull this year. These are mainly Angus heifers and the plan is to put them to the Shorthorn bull we purchased last autumn. All the heifers come into the spring herd here. As mentioned earlier there were six cows from the spring herd still to calve at the start of May. These will now go into the summer herd. This way we can keep the summer herd numbers up when we remove culls. It also saves calving heifers twice a year.

We bought in a small number of in-calf heifers last year also and they have worked out well. I am quite picky when it comes to the type of cow I want coming into the herd – they need to be quiet, sound on their feet, have plenty of milk and not be too big. We may look to add a few numbers this way again later in the year.

We used to calve the heifers a fortnight earlier than the rest of the herd, but we have moved away from this as it just extended the length of the calving season for us. We may look to use a synchronisation programme on them so that they are still calving early in the season to give them as much time as possible to go back in calf again the following year.

Store cattle

Most of the store cattle have been sold this spring. Prices were really good so anything that was up to weight was sold. There is a batch of over 20 still here and they will be grazed for the year and sold off-grass at the end of the summer.

Land work

This spring has been the first in a few years that we have been able to get some much-needed field work done. We have sorted drains that had stopped working and added new drains where needed in a couple of fields also. One field we drained, which is about 20 acres, was going to need reseeding so we decided to sow spring barley in it this year. This will give us extra feed barley and hopefully reduce the amount of straw we need to buy. It will also break up the ground nicely and we will get it back to grass again next year.

This extra barley ground has only been possible by intensifying the grazing through the use of paddocks.

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.