When it comes to suckler beef farming it’s easy to see the costs rack up, with an endless stream of invoices and cheques that need to be signed acting as a constant reminder of the costs of keeping the show on the road. However, sometimes it’s the costs we don’t see that can have the greatest impact on farm profitability.

Calving spread is one such cost. If we had to write a cheque each year for the loss in production from the cost of keeping a cow for every day over 365 days that she doesn’t calve, plus the cost of the liveweight gain her calf misses out on by calving later, we might start to pay more attention to the reproductive performance of our herds.

The figure for the national average calving interval sits somewhere close to 410 days. That is, on average, the length it takes each cow to go from one calving event to the next. The target is 365 days. That leaves us footing the bill for 45 days of lost production/cow/year across the herd.

However, it’s not every cow on the farm that is causing this problem. In fact, it’s usually only 10% of the herd. Take a herd of 100 cows where 90 of them calve with a 365-day interval. If only five cows slip once cycle (386 days) and five are not in calf yet, retained in the herd, the herd calving interval jumps to 404 days.

At a conservative cost of £2/day for every day over a 365-day calving interval, this costs the farmer £78 per cow. Over 100 cows that’s £7,800. Write a cheque.

That is a very simple example, in truth, the average calving period on Scottish farms is a staggering 18 weeks. This means on farms with both a spring and autumn herd there are only 16 weeks in the year that we are not in calving mode.

If we added in the labour cost for the amount of time lost on these late calvers, checking them, feeding them in a separate group to the rest of the herd, calving them when we should be at other jobs during the summer months, tagging and disbudding the few later-born calves at a separate time to the rest of the herd, weaning them at a later date than the rest, retaining the calf for an extra six months because it isn’t fit to sell with the rest of the herd – it soon adds up. Again, put a value on your time and write the cheque.

Farm Profit Programme event

As part of the Farm Profit Programme evening event at Thainstone Mart on 26 October there was a live animal demo. Two calves were a great example of a spring herd with an extended calving spread.

They were from the same herd, one born early spring and the other the first days of July, weighing 360kg and 205kg respectively. The calves were valued on the night at £850-£900 for the red, heavier calf and £500-£550 for the black, lighter animal.

The average cost of keeping a cow for the year, based on QMS figures, lies somewhere in the region of £650 to £800. Therefore, the cow that produced the lighter calf has a negative net margin of somewhere between £100 and £300.

While the quality of the calves was quite similar, the only difference was the number of kilos between them. As livestock producers, we are only paid for the number of kilos that leave through the farmgate each year.

Therefore, we need to maximise this number, producing them as cost effectively as possible.

The July-born calf had missed the two best months of grazing, where its mother would have had lots of milk produced from cheap grazed grass. Instead, the cow had to either be restricted on poorer pasture during this period to prevent calving difficulty, or retained indoors at a high cost to the farmer.

How the focus farms are addressing this issue

A number of the focus farms are addressing protracted calving spreads on their farms. The detailed farm plan drawn up with each of the focus farmers included a plan to reduce calving spread over the coming years without causing an upset to the cashflow of the business.

The Biffen family, Arnage farms, Ellon

While the bulk of calving at Arnage occurs from February to April, with another smaller peak in the autumn, there are only a couple of months of the year where there are no births registered. Having a sizeable arable enterprise in the business means workload needs to be prioritised at the busy times of the year. For this reason, the plan at Arnage is to move to more winter cereals, which also suits the land type better than spring crops, and concentrate on compacting the calving spread to a shorter, more manageable period in springtime.

This will not happen overnight, it will take four to five years to fully tighten things up – all going well. It would have been easy to have a 12-week breeding period this year and then cull anything not in calf come housing time. However, this would have crippled the business next year in terms of output and, more importantly, cashflow.

First, they will establish a main spring herd – cows that calved from last December onwards have been allowed to slip a couple of months to fit the spring-calving profile. There was a 15-week breeding period this year for the spring herd. This will be reduced by a week to 10 days each year for the foreseeable future.

Scanning of the spring herd will occur in the coming weeks, once all cattle are housed. Those not in calf will be culled and replaced with either in-calf heifers or cows with calves at foot in springtime.

They have also decided to create a small autumn-calving herd to retain cows calving in the second half of the year. This herd will be given a shorter breeding period of nine weeks – and again anything not in calf will be culled. As cows are culled from this herd over the coming years they will be replaced with a heifer in the spring herd. It is hoped that the farm will be 100% spring-calving in five to six years’ time.

Andrew Gammie, Drumforber, Laurencekirk

Calving at Drumforber was also pretty much all year round. Again, cows that calved from December of last year onwards were kept away from the bull to fit into the spring herd from then on. Spring-calving will commence on 1 March next year, allowing Andrew to be free for bull sales in February.

Andrew is rapidly growing the herd at the moment, which makes it more difficult to be as ruthless as you would like with cows not in calf. That being said, do you really want to breed cows that have poorer fertility? While being strict with your breeding policy can be difficult in the first couple of years, the benefits will outweigh the losses a hundred times over in years to come.

There was a 12-week breeding period this year for the spring herd. However, there were some bull issues on the farm, with one bull slipping off a cow while mating – resulting in him having to be put down – and another that developed arthritis and wasn’t serving cows as he should have been. Scan results came in last week and 12 cows from 56 were empty. Six of these have since been culled, with the other six to join the autumn herd. Again, this is the only year we will allow slippage from one herd to another.

While the examples here are for spring-calving herds, the same hold true for autumn herds. Autumn-calving can play a vital role in making best use of farm labour, calving facilities and improving cashflow. However, each of the focus farms were independently benchmarked at the beginning of the project by SAC Consulting, and on farms with both spring and autumn herds, the spring herd left a greater margin than the autumn herds. Therefore, the spring-calving herds should be maximised prior to any expansion of the autumn-calving herd.

Fertility targets for FPP farms

  • 95% of cows and heifers put to the bull scanned in calf.
  • <5% barren cows.
  • 60% cows calving in first four weeks.
  • 80% cows calved by eight weeks.
  • >94% calves reared/cow put to the bull.
  • <5% mature cows with calving difficulty.