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.

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.