The winter regime is under way for Mark and Shona Mackay. The first batch of spring cows and calves were housed on 16 October, with the remainder coming in five days later.

Housing is staggered to allow sufficient space to wean calves on straw-bedded courts prior to moving to the slatted shed for the winter period.

Creep feeding

Five weeks prior to housing the spring calves were wormed and had their pneumonia vaccinations. Two weeks after this, creep feeders were introduced.

This is a change in practice from previous years when calves would be creep fed from August onwards.

Last year, as a trial, one spring group was creep fed from August while the other group was not.

Although the calves creep fed were slightly heavier at weaning, this difference was not carried through to sale weights in the spring.

Therefore, the decision was made this year to only creep feed prior to weaning to reduce stress levels.

This has worked well on the farm this year, however there was a contingency plan in place.

Cow condition is excellent.

Had Mark started to see cows losing significant condition later in the grazing season, the option was always there to go in with creep feeders to take the pressure off the cow.

As it happened, cows have been housed in really good condition with an average body condition score (BCS) of 3.75 (scale 1-5).

Weaning strategy

Once housed, the cows go on one side of the pass and calves to the other. At the same time the calves were run through the race and a weaning weight was recorded.

A close eye is kept on calves for the first few days to ensure there are no sickness problems

After a 24 hour chorus, things soon settled down. The calves remain on the straw courts for four or five days and are then moved to the slatted shed.

A close eye is kept on calves for the first few days to ensure there are no sickness problems.

Feeding concentrates along the feed barrier is a great way to spot any potentially sick calves that are slow to come to feed.

Weaning performance

Weighing cattle over the last three years has been a major benefit to the Mackays. It allows them to track their progress and see results for the changes to management at the end of the year.

Last summer, 98 cows went to the bull for the spring herd. All 98 scanned in calf. Calving got off to a poor start with some losses but soon picked up.

This all meant that at the point of weaning there were 90 calves from 98 cows – this included three calves purchased in spring for cows that lost calves.

In-calf heifers to join the spring herd next year.

This gives the Mackays a weaning percentage of 92%.

With an average birth date of 23 March, the calves were weaned at an average age of 204 days or 6.7 months old.

Weaning weight

Correcting weaning weights to 200 days to bring all calves to an even playing field allows us to compare each cow and calf unit to each other.

From the mature cows, the average 200-day weight was 305kg. This gives us an average daily gain of 1.3kg from birth to weaning.

As said previously, this only includes three weeks of creep feeding. This is a very impressive liveweight gain from a grass-only diet.

Digging a little deeper into the data, steers averaged 1.32kg/day while heifers were only slightly behind at 1.28kg/day.

The first-calved heifers, of which there were 12, achieved an impressive 1.21kg/hd/day. This resulted in a corrected 200-day weight of 281 for first-calved heifer calves.

Year on year

Looking at how this compares to previous years, the 200-day weaning weight for 2017 was 291kg, 2018 was 309kg and this year is 305kg.

Weaning weight is up 14kg on 2017

Therefore, weaning weight is back 4kg on the year.

However, the farm has fed a lot less creep feed this year and 2018 was an exceptional grazing season in Caithness, whereas this year has been much wetter.

Weaning weight is up 14kg on 2017.

What is driving performance?

When it comes to driving performance at Greenvale, there are three aspects that come into consideration.

1 Genetics – The Mackays have a herd of milky, fertile and functional cows. Although the cows were not weighed this year at weaning, the average weight of the herd is close to 670kg. With an average weaning weight of 305kg, the cows are weaning 46% of their body weight in calf weight.

2 Management – There are no passengers accepted in the herd. Cows that are not performing are culled. This has been the protocol for many years now and as a result, the heifers that are retained for breeding each year are of very high quality – this is reflected in the performance of the first-calved heifers this year.

3 Grassland management – Since adopting a rotational grazing system, the Mackays have seen herd performance improve, both in terms of liveweight gains and reproductive performance. Animals having access to top-quality grass throughout the grazing season allows the herd to achieve their potential.