After weeks of heavy snow and below-zero temperatures, spring looks to be heading to Andy and Debbie Duffus at Auchriachan Farm in the Cairngorms National Park.

Over the next couple of months, Andy and Debbie have 56 out-wintered hill cows and 40 indoor continental cows to calve and 500 ewes to lamb.

Along with this, they will be feeding the 30 autumn cows and calves, sowing 20 acres of spring barley and establishing forage crops. So it is going to be a busy time on the farm until turnout in the middle of May.

Scanning success

Andy was delighted with the scanning of his two spring-calving herds. In the hill herd, the Highland group only had one empty from 35 and a heifer that was a freemartin.

They had been split into two bulling groups, with 23 running with the white shorthorn bull and 12 running with the Highland bull. The Shorthorn-cross group all scanned in-calf after they ran with a Beef Shorthorn bull.

Finally, the continental suckler cows that are inside had two not in-calf from 40. These cows were bulled in two groups, with 25 running with the Charolais bull and 15 with a Beef Shorthorn bull.

Blackface ewes on turnips.

Breeding at 18 months

The steers from the hill herd will be sold store at 18 months after a summer at grass. Most of the females will be retained to build herd numbers.

Last year, the Shorthorn steers were sold for £1,080/head in September. Andy thinks he would like to expand to 45 pure Highland cows and 40 Shorthorn-crosses calving outside.

This year, he has 13 heifers coming forward in the outside herd. Most of the hill heifers don’t go to the bull until they are two years old, but the bigger ones join the autumn calvers at 18 months. This year saw six joining the autumn calvers and Andy says they are looking well.

Spring calving cows are on a draff and hay diet costing 91p/day before calving.

Cow diets

The 40 continental spring cows are getting 8kg/head/day of draff, two bales of hay every day and a bale of silage every second day. This works out at 91p/day for their pre-calving diet. Once calved, these cows will go on to the same diet as the autumn herd.

The 30 autumn cows in the other half of the shed are on a total mixed ration of 100kg of straw, 200kg of draff and 700kg of silage.

They also get 2kg/head/day of bruised barley and minerals in the trough, bringing their total feed cost to £1.67/day per cow. The calves get bruised barley and draff in a trough through a creep gate.

The autumn-calving herd has produced 27 calves out of 30 cows, including two sets of twins. The calf deaths have been put down to one premature birth, pneumonia and poor milk quality from one of the cows. This gives a 90% calving rate as it stands, which Andy and Debbie are pleased about.

“I am happy with the cows and I like my autumn calvers,” said Andy. “I would like to push numbers to 40 cows, as it is a quiet time of year for us and it helps cashflow on the farm. We could move to spring calving more, but with lambing 500 ewes it makes sense to split the herd.”

Autumn-born calves which get bruised barley and draft through the creep gate.

Terrific turnips

Andy and Debbie are delighted with the yield they have achieved with their turnip crop at over 1,050 feet above sea level, which must be one of the highest crops in the country.

Andy’s number one bit of advice for any other hill farmers thinking of growing neeps is to ensure that red deer can’t get into them, as they can decimate the seedlings just as they come through.

The 15 acres of turnips have been grazed by the batch of 56 hill cows since the end of November, with around five acres eaten so far.

More should have been gone by now, but 3ft of snow which fell from the end of January into February meant that they couldn’t get to the turnips. During the month of snow, the cows were eating a dozen bales of silage per week on top of their usual three bales of hay every two days.

Andy plans to calve the cows outside in the grass run-back field beside the turnips, as it has good shelter and means that the cows will be able to continue on the swedes.

“I am pleased with the swedes,” said Andy. “It will be good to see how much of an impact they have on the grass growth in the coming years after the break. My father can’t believe the crop hasn’t been grown here for over 30 years.”

Sheep on neeps

With a lot of turnips still to eat, Andy and Debbie have decided to put the Blackface ewes on to the other side of the field. The mule ewes are on the stubble turnips at Glenconglas, Andy’s other unit.

He is disappointed with the utilisation of the stubble turnips and wonders if he should have grazed them harder before the snow, as he is noticing many of the bulbs have turned soft and rubbery with the cold.

Both forage crop fields will go back to grass this year, with Andy eyeing up a couple of other tired swards that will get the same treatment this year. This means he both cheapens the wintering of the stock and improves the long-term productivity of the grassland.