The Biffen family

Arnage farm, Ellon, Aberdeenshire

Farm size: 227ha

Spring cows: 121

Ewes: 209

The second year of the programme was definitely a challenge, both weather-wise and financially.

Overall, it saw our gross margin fall £181/cow compared with the previous year, and down £106/cow on the benchmark year.

While this is disappointing, we are confident it is a minor blip, as we are very much playing the long game here at Arnage.

On the sheep side, gross margin was up £11/ewe on the year, despite an extremely difficult lambing period.


From the start of the project, calving spread was always the number one objective for us.

We wanted to move from calving most months of the year to a tight, 12-week, spring-calving herd. This was never going to happen overnight.

The initial plan we discussed with the farm advisers was to create two herds, a large spring herd and a smaller autumn herd.

While we did not want an autumn-calving herd, this was to avoid a large numbers of culls/carryover cows in one year.

The autumn herd would then be phased out over a number of years as cows came to the end of their productive lives, with all replacement heifers joining the spring herd.

However, when it came to it we decided not to put the bulls in with what would have been the autumn herd, as we felt we didn’t need the distraction of two herds on the farm.

This has meant taking a financial hit this year, as we’ve had more culls and we held over a number of younger cows that calved in autumn to join the spring herd this year.

This has seen us tighten the calving spread to just 15 weeks last year. This should be reduced to 13 weeks this coming spring.

The new system has made management much easier, especially in terms of winter diets, as there are just three groups of cattle on-farm now – dry cows, growing stock and culls.

While we calved 10 fewer cows in 2018 compared with 2017, we have managed to wean two more calves.

This is reflected in the rearing percentage increasing from 79% in 2016 to 88% last year. This means cows are now working for us – no more passengers.

The poor weather in late 2017 meant we started feeding silage in mid September, which was followed by the late spring of 2018 – so there was an increase of £110/cow of purchased feed.

This winter has been much kinder and we are confident we will see gross margin bounce back again next year.


Up £11/ewe on last year, we are confident the sheep are on the right track.

We are in the process of changing ewe type from Suffolk-cross to Mules, as we look for a more suitable sheep for an outdoor lambing system.

We were affected by the weather last year at lambing time, which saw us lose more lambs than we would like. To combat this we are lambing a fortnight later this year.

We need to get closer to the target of 1.5 lambs/ewe to the tup this year. Output from the flock is simply not high enough to achieve a decent gross margin/ewe.

Last year we tried rotational grazing with the ewes and lambs, and we were impressed with how well it went.

If it wasn’t for the drought we would have had the majority of lambs away off the grass.

This year we will increase the number of paddocks from four to eight per group, to give us more flexibility throughout the season and ease grass management.

The Duguid family, North Cranna, Aberchirder, Aberdeenshire.

The Duguid family

North Cranna, Aberchirder

Farm size: 164ha

Spring cows: 83

Autumn cows: 71

Ewes: 303

Spring cows have slipped back to £186/head and our autumn herd has fallen to £380/head, as detailed in Table 3.

This is a drop of £128/head from the baseline year and £204/head from last year.

The autumn cows are still ahead of the baseline year by £87, but have fallen by £23 from last year’s result. While this is disappointing, reflecting on the year that we had, the results are not overly surprising.

As can also be seen from Table 3, output and rearing rates saw significant improvements over the initial baseline year.

We have worked hard at culling out unproductive cows and tightening the calving pattern. This has led to us having more calves to sell per cow. Hence the increase in output per cow.

However, while our output is at the highest it has been, the cost base from the 2017/2018 season has really punished us. Our feed and bedding costs for both herds were far higher than they had been previously, especially in the spring herd.

It cost us a lot in barley and straw through the tail end of 2017, with poor weather conditions dictating the bills.

When this is coupled with the late spring and dry summer, our costs were far beyond the normal rates.

Within these costs is also the straw that some of the spring cows were fed. The way the gross margin is calculated, the straw has been valued into the cattle at market cost plus the baling.

However, the way the silage cost is calculated, only the fertiliser and reseed costs are accounted for. The machinery, fuel and contract costs all exist in the fixed costs and are not explored in the gross margin.

This does make the gross margin look poorer versus the previous year, when all of the cows were on the straw and silage diet.

It also does not take into account the reduction in silage requirements, meaning that grassland is freed up to either be grazed or turned over to cropping.

Looking forward, we have already taken several measures to improve on the above situation.

Winter 2018/2019 has been a different season altogether and coupling that with around half of the spring herd on forage crops up until the turn of the year, we expect to see a very different cost base for 2019 benchmarking.


The sheep have fallen back on both the baseline year and last year. The first point to note is the difference in lamb sales per ewe.

With a drop of £8 in the average price of lambs sold between 2017 and 2018, this amounted to a drop of just over £12 per ewe year-on-year.

Coupling this with a slightly lower weaning rate brings us to a reduction of £16 in lambs sold/ewe.

Feed and bedding costs are more than double the amount of the previous two years.

The other major rise in the costs is the vet and medicine and the other livestock expenses (OLE). However, this is actually a more accurate allocation of the costs.

In the previous years we were taking the total for each of these entries from the farm accounts and dividing them based on the output of the cattle and sheep enterprises.

With more accurate record keeping, we have managed to split out the vast majority of the costs into cattle and sheep, meaning that we have more accurate numbers being used for these costs.