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Beef cattle is the main enterprise on the two almost neighbouring Aberdeenshire farms, which host the Quality Meat Scotland Monitor Farm meetings for the Buchan region.
While the Dicksons and Clarks are both selling finished cattle, there are major differences in the two systems.
The Dicksons are breeders/ finishers, with their enterprise revolving around their 80 cow, closed suckler herd, with all progeny, other than breeding heifers finished. In addition to their own replacements, they are planning to market breeding heifers, having achieved Johnes Accreditation within the HI Health cattle health scheme.
The Clarks on the other hand make frequent visits to cattle marts, generally Thainstone at Inverurie, annually buying around 1,400 big, fleshy, mainly Continental cross steers, aged between 17 to 24 months, tipping the scales at 550 to 600 kgs. Their aim – to pile on the beef and finish them within 60 days.
Finished cattle from both farms are sold deadweight. The Dicksons sell their bulls to McIntosh Donald of Portlethen, suppliers to Tesco, and their finished heifers to the Morrisons supermarket-owned abattoir – Woodhead Bros – at nearby Turriff. Cattle from the Clarks also end their days at the Woodhead Bros abattoir.
The Dicksons' suckler herd, which winters in straw-bedded yards, is a mixture of breeds, originally based on dairy crosses. Simmental bulls from Aberdeenshire pedigree breeder, John Watt of the Mayfield herd at Alford, have been used in recent years.
An outcross arrived in February 2007 – a Luing bull from the Cadzows' herd on the Isle of Luing – purchased at the breed's Castle Douglas sale, with a view to strengthening maternal traits. His first daughters are due to start calving on 12th February.
“The weaning weights of the calves out of the Luing cross heifers will show whether or not we were right to try a Luing,” said Patrick Dickson senior, who blew out 70 candles on his most recent birthday cake. He is in charge of caring for the intensively finished bulls and weaned heifers, housed on slats at Acrestrype, one of the three units farmed by the Dicksons.
Locking yokes on the feed barriers in the cattle sheds, enable the Dicksons to carry out a range of cattle husbandry tasks, single handed, without running the animals through a handling system and crush.
Evaluation of the maternal performance of the first crop of Luing cross heifers is almost a year away. However their half brothers, born in 2008, have already been hung up.
The Dicksons keep meticulous records and figures, using the resulting information when decision making. The performance and yield figures for the 2008-born finished bulls, from McIntosh Donald's Q Box analysis were surprising.
“When we bought a Luing, we expected his male progeny to compare badly with our Continental crosses,” explained Patrick junior.
“But when we compared the performance of our Luing cross bulls with the Simmental crosses, we were proved wrong.”
Until October, (2009), Patrick senior was carrying bags of bruised barley, twice a day to the finishing bulls. In October, encouraged by the Monitor Farm Group, the Dicksons purchased a TMR feeder wagon, with the hope that the Total Mixed Ration of grain/straw/silage, will result in improved performance from the current batch of bulls, scheduled for slaughter in July.
The target is to improve birth to slaughter daily liveweight gain from 1.37 kgs to 1.5 kgs for the bulls. The weaned heifer target is 0.8 kg dlwg in their first winter.
An important personal plus offered by the TMR system is that it allows a once a day feed, providing the Dicksons with the opportunity to take an afternoon off from the farm.
Patrick senior is enthusiastic about the benefits of 0.5 kgs of straw, (about 4 inches in length), per head, in the Total Mixed Ration. “It scratches the rumen, which helps the animal's digestion work efficiently all day. Plus the shorter length does not clog up the slats if a beast spills his food,” he explained.
Rumen “scratching” has long been considered at nearby Thomastown and adjoining unit – Backhill of Thomastown, as the Clarks continually housed, straw-bedded, store cattle are encouraged to eat approximately 30kgs per head, per day of TMR “easy rumen” ration of 40% silage, 40% crimped grain, 10% pot ale and 10% straw. All food, other than minerals and pot ale, is produced on-farm.
“This ration is designed to ensure that when the cattle arrive, there is no shock to their rumen. We're determined to avoid acidosis, which is caused by either too much grain or sudden introduction of a cereal-based diet,” explained Colin Clark, who returned from Lincolnshire to farm in Aberdeenshire in 2005.
The aim is to slaughter each beast approximately 60 days after arrival, with a target daily liveweight gain of at least 1.7 kgs. The ideal weight spec is 720 - 730 kgs, up to a maximum of 780 kgs.
Cattle are purchased in batches of 50 to 60, and are kept together. After being on-farm for 60 days, each batch is weighed and assessed. Hopefully most are ready for the six mile, one way trip to Turriff. The remainder are retained and re-batched, being penned adjacently, with care taken not to introduce strange cattle to a settled pen.
“Any cattle which are still here after 90 days are clearly poor doers,” said Colin. “No hassle – these are sent for slaughter! They're just eating food and taking the room of a better performing beast, and if they stay any longer, they just lose more money!”
Since 2005, tailoring of the Clark beef enterprise has resulted in reducing the number of days purchased cattle are on-farm, from 110 to 85. Meanwhile gross margins have fluctuated, from £148 per head (£1.34 per day) in 2005, to £259 (£ 2.54) in 2008 and £ 191 (£2.25) in 2009. These figures underpin Colin's statement that “volume and scale are crucial with this type of enterprise.”
Colin Clark knows that healthy cattle are productive cattle. When purchased cattle come off the back of the lorry at Thomastown, their first excursion is through the Clark's cattle handling system, where, in addition to ear tags being checked against passports, they are treated against worms and fluke, and vaccinated for IBR.
“We almost never have to treat animals with antibiotics, and we're very keen to encourage farmers to vaccinate as a preventive measure – it's the background level of health problems, not the acute, that costs a livestock enterprise,” explained Colin.
The handling system, which enables 50 fat cattle to be dealt with in an hour and a half, has high solid, rubber sides, a curved forcing pen and race, encouraging cattle to walk forward without being driven, a cat walk, enabling scrutiny and some treatment without putting the beasts in the crush. Should crush restraint be needed – a squeeze crush holds the animal, making tasks, in particular pre-slaughter trimming, safe for two and four legged souls. There is a video of this handling system on: www.qmscotland.co.uk
The Community Group members of the Buchan Monitor Farm, have the opportunity to get involved with two beef cattle enterprises, a couple of miles apart, which are operating distinctly different systems. There is however one extremely strong similarity – both families are passionate about what they do and are determined to do the very best job they can.
For details of the next meeting of the Buchan Monitor Farm Group please contact either of the joint facilitators: – Peter Cook, firstname.lastname@example.org or Jim Booth – email@example.com
Information on Monitor Farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, can be found on: – www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms
Farmers: Patrick Dickson, Sen & Jun
450 acres (170ac LFA)
three tenanted units
Location: Auchterless, Aberdeenshire
Cattle: 80 spring calving cows, closed herd.
Males entire and finished, heifers for breeding & finishing
bulls – 2 Simmental,1 Luing
Sheep: 250 ewes & hoggs,
all lambs finished
Crops: 250 acres combinable
Status: Monitor Farm – Buchan
Farmers: Colin Clark & father Robbie
1000 acres owned
Location: Auchterless, Aberdeenshire
Cattle: Finish up to 1400 forward stores
Sheep: Finish up to 1500 store lambs
Crops: 750 acres cereals
Status: Associate Monitor Farm – Buchan