This week, we headed to a dry and frosty Caithness to catch up with Mark and Shona MacKay at Greenvale on the very north coast of Scotland.

The 368ha unit has a mixture of land types, from good arable land that grows barley, to a sandy hill where Mark outwinters cattle, through to bog land that has been put into environmental schemes.

Mark and Shona have been increasing the productivity of the farm during the Farm Profit Programme.

The key to this has been expanding the suckler herd. In 2018, the MacKays registered 159 calves, while in 2020 this jumped to 191 calves. Explaining the rise, Mark said: “This year [2020] we registered 170 calves and as part of our expansion plan, we purchased 21 cows with calves at foot, giving 191 calves. Fourteen sets of twins also helped increase the number of calves registered.”

Despite a 20% rise in calf registrations, Mark has not increased the amount of labour on the farm. He puts this ability to expand without increasing overheads to maintaining a simple feeding regime and a good handling system, which enables him to do much of the cattle work on his own if necessary.

“I haven’t felt the increase in cow numbers has seen a significant increase in workload,” he said.

“However once we reach calving time I might have a different answer.”

The chequebook hasn’t been used on too much new machinery for the farm either. This year, they upgraded the straw bedder and to improve safety on the road, Mark also upgraded his bale trailer to one with opening sides.

Mark has moved from Angus to Simmental and Shorthorns for his replacements as he felt his cows were getting too pure.

One-third of the herd is heifers

Due to the expansion of the cattle enterprise, the proportion of first-calving heifers in the herd has risen from a fifth to a third. Originally, Mark ran an Angus bull to breed replacement heifers, but felt that the herd was becoming too pure, so he was sold. Currently, there are two Simmental bulls and one Shorthorn bull put to the best maternal cows to breed replacements.

Mark and Shona hope the steel work will go up for the shed in the coming days.

Over the last two years, as part of the expansion, Mark and Shona have bought a lot of breeding stock. However, now that they are reaching their numbers, they are keen to breed their own replacements as Mark finds buying in breeding stock expensive. His own cattle also have a known quality and temperament to suit the cow type he is looking for in the herd.

Top tips for a calf every year

From 2018 to 2020, Mark has maintained a calving interval of 379 days, which he puts down to managing cow body condition. His top tips for managing body condition are:

  • Getting winter nutrition right to have cows in the body condition score 2.5 to 3 for calving.
  • Feeding a good-quality pre-calving mineral six weeks prior to calving to reduce issues at calving time.
  • Ensuring a good cover of grass early in the season and matching calving date to this to get freshly-calved cows straight to grass.
  • Choosing bulls with good calving figures to minimise the risk of calving difficulty.
  • Fertility testing bulls pre-breeding to ensure that they are ready to go to work.
  • Rotate bulls during the breeding season to reduce the risk of a bull not working.
  • The average age of first calving on the farm has reduced from 35 months to 31 months, which is also helping to drive output.

    Mark said: “Last year we calved 25 homebred heifers at two years old, which is the first time we have done this. It worked well and the calves are in great condition.”

    The ground being prepared for the new shed at Greenvale.

    However, Mark will only bull heifers if they are 420kg at bull, as this is two-thirds of the mature weight of his average cow.

    Average cow age of 5.6 years

    The average cow in the herd is 5.6 years old and has produced three calves. Again, the average age of the herd has been reducing as more heifers have been introduced. Mark is also very selective when it comes to the herd and any cow that shows signs of bad temperament is culled.

    As he also has a greater number of heifers coming through, he will also cull cows that produce a poor calf and those that are getting long in the tooth. However, he finds many cows will continue to perform until they are 12 years of age.

    Winter feeding

    Thanks to the work that the MacKays have done with lime, P and K, they are now growing much more grass.

    Mark's cows are on ad-lib baled silage.

    Mark has a glut of silage due to the bumper crop in 2019, leading to a carryover into 2020. As he doesn’t want to carry the bales forward to another season, Mark has been feeding them ad-lib to the cows.

    The bales are low quality and dry, so it means that they are not using a lot of bedding for the cows. The only drawback is that the cows are perhaps in a little too good condition for this point in the cycle, which is making Mark slightly nervous ahead of calving.