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Herefords, Highlanders & Blondes
by Eilidh MacPherson
With debate and chat about The Pack Report, presently not far from every farmer’s lips, Bruce Dixon, who farms 1300 acres just north of Lochgilphead, feels that the Single Farm Payment should be rebased on 2009.
“We have spent the past ten years trying to change our businesses to accommodate the SFP, so why change the system now?"
“With a stocking rate of 0.12, there are few enterprises that will be able to achieve this stocking density in the West and North areas, it is these farms and estates, that really need the support. The Single Farm Payment is probably keeping families in jobs in these areas,” commented Bruce, who is speaking from experience.
Originally the family farmed in partnership at Kilbride Farm, parents, brother Robert and sister Sheila. Kilbride at that time carried 1900 Blackface ewes and 170 suckler cows. Following the retirement of David (his father) in 2000 the farm was divided up, with Robert continuing to farm at Kilbride. Bruce and Sheila then formed a new partnership at Killinochonoch. They ran 700 Blackface ewes and 100 cows and at the time employed a full time shepherd and Sheila’s husband.
More recently with Sheila’s decision to leave the partnership, the entire farm business had to be re assessed. As a result the sheep were sold and the cattle numbers increased to 130 cows.
With no sheep on the hill, the hardy Highland cross Shorthorn cows, tallying 130 head, which are the backbone of Bruce’s ‘new’ venture can be put out earlier – at the beginning of April – and come in later – mid December. “They come back in mid May and are bulled on the low ground. Fifty head are summered on Lurg, Fintry from June till October.”
For the past 15 years Bruce has been using British Blonde bulls over his cattle. Bruce has found that all his cows are coming back to the bull quickly and out of 81 scanned on November 1st; there were no yield cows. “Using the Blonde I’m experiencing easy calving, only assisting with two calvings last year. With the easy calving I am getting ten calves out of most cows. Bull temperament and ‘value for money’ when buying a bull are two important factors for Bruce. Bruce buys his bulls (and heifers) as young as possible, usually about a year old, and lets them become acclimatised to the 90” of rain (recorded last year), fluke and ticks for a year before using them. “In the Bulls first year he will only be given 10 cows to see how they go.”
This approach aids longevity and Bruce is still working them at 10 years old. “I haven’t had to pare feet in 15 years – getting them young ensures they are not forced.”
The bulls are wintered outside in a six acre wooded plot. A 2kg mix of barley, beet pulp and dark grains sourced from Harbro is fed along with silage.
The suckler herd are wintered outside on a corral system in small wooded areas. Hard core roading forms the base around the eating areas, where the cattle are fed only on silage. The trees offer shelter from the wild, wet, unforgiving West coast weather. He has found that the cows are wintering much better now on lower ground than they previously did up the hill.
Fluke is a major problem and Closamectin pour on is administered at scanning and they are also jagged with Trodax when they come off the hill in mid December and going to the bull mid May. All cows and calves ate treated with Spot-on at the beginning of April and again mid May. The Dixons test for BVD, as do 5 other large beef farmers in the area. “There is a push round here by the local vets and SAC to get everyone testing as it is a BVD clear area, as there is not such a dairy influence.” Bruce buys in 6-10 healthy heifer calf replacements locally at the November breeding sale at the Caledonian market in Oban.
This year Bruce weaned the Blonde bred calves earlier and instead of putting them out on the hill he housed them. As the Highland cross is late maturing he sells them as forward stores around 11 months and noticed a marked difference with weights up 20kg this year to 340kgs. “Last year 100 calves averaged £600, sold privately down South. They are weighed on farm before they head south and it is that weight that I am paid on.” The other 30 head of cattle are Salers, which Bruce has been mating with Simmental sires. The first Saler bull he had was really quiet, but the second was flighty, so Bruce is now using a Hereford bull over the cross Highland cows and intends to eventually replace all the Salers with Highland cross Herefords. I’ve gone for the Hereford, purely as it is docile and I get home bred native heifers. He purchased the Hereford bull with Australian genetics, pictured below, from Mrs Ellis, Bores Farm, Worthington,Wigan, at the Royal Highland Show in 2008 for £3900.
Bruce has a theory that he will obtain a higher percentage of females with his cows that have produced two bull calves in the past two years to the Simmental if he now puts them to the Hereford bull! Pre-press the first two have calved with heifer calves! The bulk of the cross Highlanders calve in March, while the Salers give birth in June. All calving cows are brought in a week before their due date and housed in cattle courts, then calving pens, then individual pens before being turfed out as soon as possible, heading for the hills. Since taking the sheep off, Bruce spends his summers with bums on seats contracting round the area. Son Alastair (17), who is still at school, helps out on farm and with the contracting business and having past his tractor driving test at 16 has meant his role in busier summer periods has increased. He is planning to attend an agri-engineering course at the Barony College this September and has already had an offer of a four year apprenticeship.
The Dixons of Kilbride are renowned in Blackface sheep circles, having pioneered AI in the Blackie breed and selling tups to a top of £28 000. Still a sheep man at heart, Bruce ‘dabbles’ and is chair of the Mid Argyll branch of the Blackface Sheep and is the Rep. on the council. He introduced Hampshire Downs as his daughter Karen (14) was keen and his idea initially was to use them as chasers for the Blackface flock. “They are small at birth but very vigorous growth rate.” Wintering 300 hoggs and fattening 150 lambs keeps his interest in sheep.
Farmers: Bruce & Heather Dixon
trading as Laggan Farms
(300 acres in bye, 1000 acres hill)
Location: Lochgilphead, Argyll
Cattle: 130 cows mainly Highand x Shorthorn,
using Blonde and Hereford bulls
Sheep: 25 Hampshire Down ewes
a few Texels
winters 350 BF hoggs
40 BF ewes
finishes 150 lambs
Labour: Bruce Dixon & son
Contracting: mainly silage work
Positions: Argyll Blackface Breeders CM & on BF council