Meet the facilitator for Lower Highfield

Michelle LundHi, I’m Michelle Fare the facilitator for Lower Highfield Farm.

I was brought up on my family’s dairy farm on the Fylde, and studied agriculture at Newcastle University. I’ve worked for the Farmers Guardian, Genus ABS and Lancashire County Council as part of the Trading Standards Animal Health team. I started at Myerscough at the end of March 2010.

Malcolm and Judith Sanderson’s enthusiasm for what they do is so refreshing. They are committed to getting the best out of being a monitor farm by encouraging others to benefit from the experience too.

I‘ll be posting updates below as the meetings progress – please contact me at The Rural Team, The Rural Business Centre, Myerscough College Tel: 01995 642206 / Email: livestocknw@myerscough.ac.uk for further information on how you can join in…

Final Open Day Report: Changes boost beef and sheep profitability

The Sanderson family

First generation farmers Malcolm and Judith Sanderson have improved the profitability of their beef and sheep enterprise, improving the amount of meat sold through fine-tuning their livestock and grassland management.

Malcolm and Judith took on their first farm, the tenanted Lower Highfield Farm, Halton, Lancster, 11 years ago, and they are helped in the running of the 250-acre all grassland beef and sheep business by daughter Laura and son James.

“We wanted to make the farm pay without relying on the Single Farm Payment, to maximise its potential and efficiency by reducing costs – and to secure succession for the family,” said Malcolm. “We have grown in confidence and gained the knowledge to look at what we could improve,”- Malcolm Sanderson

 

Final Open Day: June's summing-up event was well supported

 

Four years ago the farm had a herd of 70 Limousin cross British Blue suckler cows put to the Simmental bull, and 400 North of England Mule ewes crossed with the Texel and Suffolk. Now the ewes are split into Mules – bought in privately as either gimmer lambs or shearlings – and first cross Texel Mules bred on the farm.

Independent livestock specialist Lesley Stubbings has been working with the Sandersons from the outset and one of the objectives was to get the balance between the beef and sheep enterprises right as well as looking at the performance of each.

Sheep productivity – getting the right balance

Lesley Stubbings

Now ewe numbers have been increased to 600 to include an early lambing flock and home-bred Texel cross replacements. The beef herd has been reduced through selective culling to 30 cows which calve in a tight nine week period, improving overall management and workload.

“Productivity of the sheep flock at the beginning was good with a high lambing percentage, it was more a question of getting the balance between the cattle and sheep better, coupled with making them more efficient,” said Lesley Stubbings. “Improving the efficiency also focused on making better use of forage. Because of all these adjustments the farm is producing 10% more meat sold,” she added.

“The livestock units were very much biased towards the cattle so the decision was taken to increase sheep numbers and decrease the suckler herd size to improve that balance.

“Previously the flock’s lambing percentage was just under 200%, and to maintain that level of performance while increasing ewe numbers is quite an achievement, Often in the process of change the good elements of management are lost,” added Lesley.

Now the ewes are split into Mules – bought in privately as either gimmer lambs or shearlings – and first cross Texel Mules.

Earlier lambing group

An early lambing flock has been established over the last two seasons with 120 of the older Mule ewes giving them a chance to produce another lamb before culling and enabling expansion of the flock with home-bred females. has been established by sponging the ewes and crossing with the Suffolk.

Lambing starts in late January and the first lambs were sold in the second week of May this year, a fortnight later than 2012 because of the late spring, and they were sold  weighing an average of 40kg through Lancaster mart. Lambs born from March 14 onwards start being sold at the end of June.

EID AND EBVs

To improve productivity, where possible most of the rams are now selected on their EBV. EID has been used to select the best home-bred Texel cross ewes to retain for the traits required.

Grassland at the root of all improvements

Liz Genever

Core to increasing the business’s productivity and profitability has been improving the quality and quantity of grassland by re-seeding, over-seeding, aeration and liming.

While reducing costs was an initial objective of the Sandersons, improving the grassland has incurred extra costs but it has improved overall efficiency.

“The continual improvement to the grassland has resulted in greater qualtities of better quality forage being available to the stock,” said EBLEX’s Liz Genever who has also been advising the Sandersons.

The improvements have produced up to three tonnes more grass per acre, pushed up ewe numbers on the back of it and also saved on feed costs.

Suckler herd effivciency improved by 20%

Malcolm and Judith wanted to maintain the suckler herd – 600 ewes is the optimum for management and labour purposes – and as a result of the changes they have improved herd efficiency by 20% in terms of kg of calves sold per cow a year.

Previously, the cows calved in both the spring and the autumn and there was big slippage in calving patterns.

Now, with bull fertility testing, taking the bull out after nine weeks, hard culling of cows which have been sold for similar prices to heifer replacements, the herd now comprises young females which are producing a calf a year.

In 2012, 44 cows all produced a calf within a tight nine week period. Calves are sold at around a year old to the same buyer – who now has a batch of calves which are close in age.

For the future, the Sandersons plan to improve cattle handling facilities in a new building which is also increasing the amount of sheep housing to 520 ewes for lambing

As well as the initial farm audit to develop aims and objectives, soil testing was carried out. “Before we started with the monitor farm programme, we were very interested in getting lots of information, but we weren’t using it properly,” said Malcolm. “There was so much of it – and where do you start?”

Improvement work – “overseeding seen most success”

As well as using ryegrass in re-seeding programmes and overseeding with clover , sward lifting and aerating has been carried out in fields with high levels of compaction, depending on the depth of the problem.

“We have had great success with overseeding but we have been very thorough in harrowing and preparing the fields. As a result, I don’t think we will plough again but use re-seeding to rejuvenate grassland,” said Malcolm.

“We have tried alternative forage crops but we have found that the finishing lambs do just as well on the silage aftermaths on these improved pastures,” he added.

Monitor farm facilitator Myerscough’s Michelle Fare, said: “Having worked with the group at Lower Highfield for the last three years I have seen them develop in sharing their own ideas and experiences and all benefit directly as a result of this.

“The small changes made by Malcolm and Judith Sanderson have all added up to help improve the performance of the farm and this approach of making small tweaks has been replicated by many of the farmers in the group.

“The most popular meetings have focussed around improving the grassland and making more of the most valuable resource on a farm – the soil. Aeration to alleviate compaction, liming, reseeding and overseeding are all techniques demonstrated at Lower Highfield which have been shown to produce more good quality forage.”

Lower Highfield is in Higher Level Stewardship and among work carried out is half a mile of dry stone walling and two miles of hedging which is double fenced. Grant aided work has also been carried out under the FFIS and Catchment Sensitive Farming to renew concrete yarding and create a new silage clamp and cattle pens.

 

  • Sandra Blades, of Hilltop, Carnforth, which carries 55 Limousin cross British Blue sucker cows and 200 predominalntly Mule ewes, has attended numerous meetings and carried out soil testing to improve grassland after listening to advice.

“Last year we carried out a trial with Calcilime and we found the stock did a lot better on the treated pasture,” said Sandra.

  • John Maxwell

    John Maxwell who finishes 200 to 300 store cattle a year at Whinney Garth, Lancaster, while also working full time, has also put soil testing into practice on 60 acres.

 Improvements to his grassland he hopes will enable him to finish his cattle rather than selling them as strong stores at 20-24 months old.

“Attending these meetings has jogged my memory of some of what I learned at college and I am now putting them into practice. While I haven’t yet aerated any ground, I have done a lot of drainage work.

 

  • Brian Longton, whose farm Stonethwaite, Troutbeck, Windermere, runs to 1,300ft, has moved away from tradtion running Texel cross ewes put back to the Texel.

After attending regular meetings at Lower Highfield, he has now begun bolusing his ewes to counter selenium, iodine and cobalt deficiencies on the farm to improve lambing percentages.

 

Key Performance Measure        

SHEEP ENTERPRISE

                                                       2009   2010   2011   2012

No of ewes tupped                         409     416     443     506

Total lambs sold / retained            696     701     770     863

Scanning %                                     -       188%   203% 192%

Lambs sold per ewe %                 170% 169%  178%   173%

Weaned lambs sold by end of August (as % of total lambs sold)

                                                      40%    57%    61%    53%

Ave weight lamb sold (kg)             1         41        40        41

Total kg lamb weaned / sold         28,536 28,741 30,800 35,383

 

CATTLE ENTERPRISE

                                                       2009   2010   2011   2012

No of cows put to bull                    67       47        53       44

Calving %                                      78%    81%    92%    93%

Calving period (weeks)                  29       32        24       9

Total kg calves weaned / sold       13,000 11,750 12,250 10,250

 

Total kg meat sold                         41,536 40,491 43,050 45,633

lambs + calves)

SAC’s John Vipond proves a hit

Due to preparations for the Celebration day at Lower Highfield I have got a bit behind on my blog postings but for completeness I thought that I had better do a quick write up of our May meeting.

There was so much discussed that I won’t be able to do it all justice in my write up but I have tried to summarise the most important points.

As we have now finished much of the monitoring activity at Lower Highfield this meeting gave us the opportunity to explore what is happening currently in the UK sheep industry regarding EID and to discuss whether or not it could be used at Lower Highfield to aid in the selection of replacement ewes for breeding.

We invited renowned SAC sheep specialist John Vipond along to share his experience of EID trials and developing easier care systems of sheep production to reduce labour inputs.

 

Suckler enterprise costsings

Before this I ran through an exercise with the group to follow on from a suggestion that was made last summer by Gavin Hill. Malcolm and Judith have always sold their calves as 12 month old stores to a local dealer but it was suggested that it may be more profitable to sell calves at weaning and thus free up more winter forage for the ewes.

This year we got the calves valued at weaning (late February) and then costed out what it cost to take the stores up to sale and compare the actual price realised. Due to a TB outbreak in the local area and movement restrictions, the calves actually ended up being sold six weeks after weaning instead of the more usual 12 but the principles of the exercise were still the same.

 

Is it better to sell at weaning or as 10-11 month stores?

Costs of keeping calves for six weeks:

Concentrate

1.5 kg/head/day

1.5 x 41 head x 42 days = 2.6 tonnes concentrate @ £256/t = £666

Silage

25 kg/head/day

25 x 41 head x 42 days = 43 tonnes silage @ £28/t (£1/1% DM) = £1,204

Labour

1 hour/day for feeding/bedding/scraping out x 42 days @ £12/hour = £504

Total cost = £2,374

 

Price difference:

£3,336 better off by keeping the calves for 6 weeks after weaning and selling as stores!

 

Obviously details such as the cost of silage will differ for everyone and stock values can differ from week-to-week in the auction which would affect the bottom line, but with the values used Malcolm and Judith have gained more by keeping the calves for six weeks after weaning and selling them as 10-11 month old stores. This information will be useful for deciding when to sell next year’s stores.

 

How efficient are your ewes?

The first question which must be asked is how do you define efficiency in terms of ewes?

John explained that the measure he uses is kg of lamb weaned per kg ewe liveweight. For example a 65kg ewe weaning twin lambs at 35kg each (1.08kg lamb/kg ewe) is much more efficient than an 80kg ewe weaning the same lambs (0.88kg lamb/kg ewe). If you select sires with good EBV’s for lamb growth they do not need a big hungry ewe to support them.

 

Other measures of efficiency include:

  • Lambing % – this is the main determinant of profit in a sheep enterprise. Any barren two tooths should be culled as it is unlikely that they will ever be prolific ewes. EID can be used to identify and cull anything that weans lambs any less than 10% below the average weaning weight for that litter size as research shows that these ewes will have 5% fewer lambs at every subsequent lambing.

 

  • Lamb weight at slaughter/retention – EID can be used to collect feedback from the abattoir (if this is supplied when selling lambs) and also to select lambs accurately at the correct weight and finish for the market requirements.

 

  • Ewe weight at mating – need to combine prolificacy, good mothering ability and a lower liveweight when selecting ewes for breeding.

 

“Profit is where the return from added value derived from data is greater than the cost of collecting and processing it.”

This is extremely important to remember when you are collecting data as a lot of time can be spent collecting and dealing with unnecessary information. You must not lose sight of what you are collecting the data for and what you are going to do with it to add value to the end product. In this case will it pay to use EID to identify the most inefficient ewes and cull them?

 

In a nutshell using EID as s election tool will offer no financial return above a simple ear notching system to mark ewes for culling. However if you are selling breeding stock for a premium and are recording details such as sire and performance (muscle and fat depth) then EID records could add value to the stock.

 

Selection on management traits

If you are wanting to select ewes for easier management traits then you should cull (by this I don’t necessarily mean kill but don’t select these animals for breeding and mate them to a terminal sire instead so their ‘faulty’ genes are not continuing in the flock) for faults such as dags, footrot and assistance at lambing (all traits which increase handling and labour requirements).

By marking these ewes with a simple ear notch when they commit the ‘offence’ will mean that when it comes round to breeding time you know to actively not select these particular animals. Every farm will be different on their selection criteria depending on the traits they want to improve in their own flock.

 

Case studies

1)  Flock of 2200 Lleyn ewes crossed with Easycare wool shedding tup – ewes were originally selected for cull against  lambing assistance, footrot, dags and handling outside of flock gather, now also select on wool shed. In 2012 less than 10 ewes were assisted at lambing and the flock plus 140 spring calving sucklers are managed by just one man. All this was achieved without EID using just simple ear notches.

 

2)  By comparison another flock that John works closely with have 1300 Lleyn ewes which are all fully EID recorded. All lambs are tagged at birth and records kept of litter size, maternal instinct, lambing assistance and udder score. Initially ewes were culled for negative traits but now there is a move towards selecting those ewes that have all positive traits, with the main aim of the farmer being to reduce labour requirements.

 

Conclusions

  • Efficiency target – 1 kg lamb sold or retained per 1kg ewe liveweight to the tup. EID can be used to calculate this for each individual ewe in the flock.

 

  • Use benchmarking to see how your farm compares with other similar systems.

 

  • Make the most of the feed grown on the farm and utilise this effectively to minimise bought-in supplementary feed.

 

  • You don’t have to physically record to benefit from recording – just buy performance recorded tups with top EBV’s for the traits that you wish to improve.

 

  • You may think that your flock are efficient, but could it be because you prop them up with large labour inputs (labour is often not costed out properly on farms)? If this is the case look at the whole farm situation, identify where there are large labour inputs and do something to address this.

 

  • Cull ewes on repeat bad performance whilst prices are good at the moment.

 

  • It pays to cull barren two-tooths – use accurate EID records to help in making these decisions.

 

  • Identify what the real problems are in your flock – using a high EBV growth rate tup will not solve the problem of losing lambs at birth.

 

  • Seek advice from independent professionals as opposed to someone who is trying to sell you something.

 

Following the main presentation John had a detailed discussion with the group about a number of other issues regarding sheep health and nutrition. There is too much to cover within the scope of this report (plus my note-taking skills on the night were quite poor) but if anyone is interested there is a handout that John provided with a brief summary – please contact me and I will email it over.

Lower Highfield Farm – the final chapter (for now!)

Well it is with a sense of pride at being associated with such a successful monitor farm that I write my final Lower Highfield blog and summary of our celebration day on June 25th.

The weather behaved itself for a change and the sun shone down on the 60 farmers and various industry representatives that came together to celebrate the achievements made by Malcolm and Judith Sanderson.

Back in 2009 four years would have seemed like a long time to have their farm and business open to scrutiny by so many and I’m sure that Malcolm and Judith’s sense of adventure was also tinged with some trepidation as to how it would all work out.

20 meetings and over 100 individuals

As we all know though in the farming calendar time passes very quickly and in that time there has been 20 meetings (both on-farm and at Lancaster Auction) with each meeting on average attracting 27 farmers and over the course of the four years over 100 individuals have come along to hear about the changes that Malcolm and Judith have made to their business.

As Lesley Stubbings has been involved from the beginning of the process she was asked to draw everything to a close and provide a summary of the main changes made.

Changes made on farm – small changes add up over time

These have included altering the worming policy, monitoring the response to various trace element treatments, reducing suckler numbers and increasing the breeding ewe flock, bringing forward the start of lambing time, tightening up the calving period, continuing to improve the soils and rejuvenate the grassland to produce more good quality forage – the list is endless and Malcolm and Judith have really embraced the changes and not shied away from trying anything.

Each change to the farming business has been small but carefully managed and over time all the small things have added up to have a big effect on the business – most notably the fact that the meat produced by the farm has increased by over 4 tonnes  since 2009 (10% of total meat production) on the same area of land.

This has been underpinned by the improvements to the soil and forage produced which is key to the success of everything on a livestock farm predominantly reliant on home-grown forage.

Asda, EBLEX and Macedonia!

Being the monitor farm has led onto various other ‘opportunities’ for Malcolm and Judith which has included hosting visits for Asda buyers, visitors from Macedonia and the EBLEX progressive sheep group.

Although the monitor farm project has come to an end, Malcolm and Judith will be continuing in their quest to improve the business further and are involved with another trial with Lesley looking at ewe body condition scores and also the efficacy of the flukicides they are using.

The farmers in the monitor farm group at Lower Highfield have seen numerous benefits of attending meetings on a regular basis and following the developments on the farm.  They have shared their own ideas and experiences with one another, helping them to realise that they are often not alone in the problems that they may come across on their own farms.

The future? – forming a Lancashire Farmer Network…

As many of you have shown a real interest in continuing to meet after the project comes to an end in July, Myerscough College  are working with all the farmer groups the programme has worked with that want to continue and are supporting them in creating  a Lancashire Farmer Network.

If you are interested in becoming a member of the group please contact me on 01995 642206.

On behalf of myself and Myerscough College I would like to thank everyone that has been involved for making this such a successful project, the legacy of which we hope will continue in Lancashire, and especially to Malcolm and Judith for being such excellent and willing hosts and a real pleasure to work with.

Thank you…

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Michelle our facilitator, who has been a pleasure to work with, and all those who have supported the monitor farm group over the past four years, to make Lancashire`s beef and sheep monitor farm the success it has been.

Malcolm and Judith Sanderson

Meeting Report: Cobalt – the story continues

Trace element supplementation of lambs at Lower Highfield Farm has been an ongoing issue since the start of the monitor farm programme, and a number of trials/monitoring work has taken place to try and get to the root of the problem and decide on the best way forward in the future.

 

Background

Lesley Stubbings at a previous on-farm meeting

Lesley Stubbings has been very involved in this work since the beginning and she came along to speak to 25 members of the business group at our most recent meeting on January 8th.

Lesley started with a brief run-down of the past activity:

  • Historically ewes and lambs drenched regularly
  • Low lamb growth rates, especially after weaning meaning lmabs not finishing as quickly as liked
  • Soil, forage and blood tests showed inconsistent and inconclusive results, although marginal cobalt in some bloods
  • Trial last year showed marginal performance response to cobalt (compared cobalt bolus, cobalt + selenium/iodine bolus, cobalt + selenium/iodine + copper blous, liquid drench and untreated control)

 

This year’s trial

It was decided that different forms of cobalt supplementation would be compared. Lambs treated at around 8 weeks of age:
 1/3 being given a cobalt bolus,

1/3 monthly trace element drench

1/3 treated with a long acting B12 injection (Smartshot) which was imported from New Zealand. For more information on Smartshot see the website  http://www.stockguard.co.nz/products/smartshot/cobalt-b12-deficiency.html 

Lambs all weighed regularly to determine their live weight gain at intervals. There was also a small untreated control group. The graph below shows how LWG altered over the course of the summer:

GRAPH 1

Graph 1

Effects of the weather

The huge drop in growth rates seen across all groups in late June illustrates the negative effect that the weather has had on growth rates. Although alarming, especially when visualised on a graph, Lesley commented that the considerable reduction in growth rates has been seen all over the country as a direct result of the wet summer and the effect on forage quality and grazing. Is it any wonder that lamb sales nationally have been down last year!

 

From this alone it is not possible to draw any significant conclusion as there are no real differences between the treatments.

 

However Lesley then compared the growth rates in the different groups up to weaning:

 

 

Control

Drench

Bolus

B12

May to June:% reduction in growth rates

-18

-16

-19

-3

June to early July (just before weaning):% reduction in growth rates

-42

-39

-34

-21

 

This shows that prior to weaning all the groups showed reduced growth rates, but the B12 group had the least reduction (growth rates held better). Interestingly Lesley also noticed from the information that we have been collecting that at least twice as many gimmers have been retained for breeding out of the B12 treated groups compared to the other groups. This has certainly not been intentional but the fact that Malcolm and Judith tend to retain lambs based on their performance provides further anecdotal evidence of the superior growth rates shown by the B12 treated lambs.

 

At what cost?

It is no good looking only at performance as treatment also has to be cost effective – every penny counts when the lamb price is where it is at the moment! The cost of treatment is as follows:

  Ø   B12 injection (for lambs) 50p

  Ø   Bolus 65p

  Ø   Drench (given 3 times) 36p

There is not a huge difference in the price of treatments, and so from the preliminary evidence that Lesley has it would seem that the long acting B12 injection would certainly be a good option for the future. However she did point out that the information we have collected would need further work on it to determine any statistically significant differences.

 

Lesley was also keen to point out that there have been very extreme circumstances this year in terms of the exceptional rainfall and also the high liver fluke burden on the lambs which has affected growth rates and could have affected the viability of the trial. We all know from personal experience of farming that you can never account for the weather and just have to work with what we have!

 

What for the future?

The burning question is – what will Malcolm and Judith be doing next year based on what we have learnt from the various trials?

 

Treatment of pregnant ewes to increase B12 levels in milk – treating ewes with the long acting B12 injection would work in theory to ensure that the lambs got sufficient B12 in the milk whilst suckling. However due to the dose size needed for ewes it would cost in the region of £3/ewe to treat which is too high to justify this option, particularly as the lambs would also need treating before weaning once reliance on their mother’s milk is reduced.

 

Treatment of ewes with a cobalt bolus would be a more cost effective option to increase B12 levels in milk. It is likely that half of the ewes will be treated with a cobalt bolus and half left untreated to provide a comparison.

 

B12 injection for lambs at a younger age – to help minimise the check in growth rates seen in the lead up to weaning (from late May onwards) it would seem sensible to treat the lambs sooner. Lesley suggested that any time that is practical after 3 weeks of age would be advised.

 

Repeat B12 injection – although Smartshot is reputed to last for at least 8 months in sheep and lambs, which would provide sufficient cover for the whole growing season, Lesley felt that a booster shot may be needed for those lambs still at the farm 10-12 weeks after the first treatment to ensure that early growth is not compromised. The first 12 weeks growth is critical for total lifetime growth.

 

Malcolm and Judith are continuing to work with Lesley as part of another trial which is being funded by EBLEX. The work is focussing on ewe body condition score and the resultant effect on lambing performance but will also continue looking at trace element status of the ewes and lambs. If possible we will try and keep the group informed of any findings from this trial work.

 

Trace element summary

The issue of trace elements is not clear cut and it will take a few years of trying different treatments, and more importantly monitoring the effects, to base future decisions on the results. This really illustrates what the whole monitor farm project has been about and hopefully the message that will be taken away by all members of the group at the end of the project is that monitoring and measuring changes is the best way of making a decision about the future of the farm business.

 

Feed budgeting

Liz Genever from EBLEX then spoke about using the Farmax programme. Farmax is a system of feed budgeting which has been developed in New Zealand and is now being trialled in the UK to help improve knowledge of feed budgeting and to see if it can improve business efficiency. The system uses information on sward heights combined with knowledge of the livestock on the farm to calculate when there could be forage shortfalls or excess and the extent of these.

 

Malcolm and Judith have carried out a great deal of pasture improvement work over the past few years and discussions with the group in the past have raised questions about ideal stocking rate at Lower Highfield and the optimum livestock mix. Liz suggested using Farmax as a tool to help in future decision making.

 

Graph overload

Liz warned the group that her presentation could be a little overwhelming in terms of the number of graphs and so I have tried to pick out the most relevant.

 

Over the past 6 months grass growth at the farm has been monitored on a monthly basis using a rising plate meter. This provides a detailed picture of the grass supply (in kg DM/ha) and is plotted on a graph as below:

 GRAPH 2

Graph 2

The blue line shows the actual measurements that have been made since May and the red line the expected grass yields for the next 3 months. The thick green line is the target cover for this farm, so it can be seen that cover is running underneath target.

As time progresses and more information is collected a clearer, more accurate picture will develop of grass growth. Looking at the pasture cover in this way allows us to see how much grass is actually available and forecast what grass will be available in the future.

 

Demand

When we consider the livestock on the farm ie. the demand, the following graph can be produced. In general the demand for grass from the cattle on the farm (green area) is fairly constant over the course of the year, whereas for the sheep (red area) demand builds up rapidly in the spring as more lambs are born and ewes are lactating, peaks in the summer and then gradually declines over autumn as lambs are sold.

GRAPH 3

Graph 3

Supplementary feed

GRAPH 4 

Graph 4

At Lower Highfield 24.5% of the demand for feed is met from feeds other than grazed grass (silage, hay, straw and concentrate). By using Farmax to predict the extent of any forage shortfalls this will help to plan a feeding strategy which minimises the use of expensive supplementary feed. Obviously during winter extra feed is needed to make up for the decline in grass growth. Minimising the need for supplements and using grazed grass where possible will help to save money.

 

Farmax then combines all this information to produce the following graph:

 GRAPH 5

Graph 5

Currently at Lower Highfield demand is less than supply and so all the livestock can feasibly be fed on the forage available and the supplements that are currently fed in the winter.

 

Outcomes of different scenarios

Farmax really starts to become useful once more accurate  information on a particular farm is input. Different scenarios can be then entered and the graph produced will show whether or not this option is feasible given current production and supplement feeding levels.

 

1)      For example if Malcolm and Judith were to increase ewe numbers by 100 (at current stocking rates) the graph is as follows:

 GRAPH 6

Graph 6

April, May and June would see a shortfall in feed as demand would be higher at these times and so if Malcolm and Judith decided to go down this route they would need to ensure that arrangements were in place to make up this shortfall.

 

The graph below shows the difference in cover between the original forecast for the plan (red line) and the new scenario (green line).

 GRAPH 7

Graph 7

The program also allows the estimated financial impact of  an extra 100 ewes being  added to the flock to be calculated.  In this case there is a cost of approximately £170/ha associated with the extra feed requirements over the extra productivity which could be expected.

 

2)      Another scenario showed what could be expected if Malcolm and Judith decided to get rid of the cows and to replace them with 150 ewes.

GRAPH 8

Graph 8

This would be feasible with no expected feed shortfalls and in terms of financial impact would be worth an extra £330/ha due to the fact that currently sheep are in a better financial situation than cattle. However this scenario must be treated with caution due to the fact that they take no account of the other benefits that come from having cattle on the farm, namely the FYM and slurry they produce and the fact that the farm set-up is such that cattle are an integral part of the system.

 

Other future scenarios which could be run through Farmax include selling calves at weaning as opposed to 12 months old or lambing more ewes in January and fewer in March. There are a variety of options!

 

One of the group members asked Liz what this told us about the stocking mix at Lower Highfield, which is currently 550 ewes and 44 sucklers. As yet we have not got a full annual set of data and so it is difficult to accurately predict this, but on the whole Liz commented that there is not much leeway to be able to tweak stock numbers. However it would seem that by selling the cows and increasing ewe numbers there could potentially be more profit to be made as sheep are more efficient than cattle in terms of the weight of meat weaned.

 

Farmax summary

ü  A comprehensive feed budgeting program can be a useful tool to help match forage supply and demand.

ü  Allows varying scenarios to be entered to give an idea of the impact this will have on feed and a likely financial impact.

ü  Decisions can be made based on fact rather than gut feeling.

 

 

Wean earlier?

Lesley and Liz left the group with a suggestion which could possibly be explored in the future – wean lambs sooner to take full advantage of the most efficient growth rates shown in the first 12 week of life. As lambs get older they become less efficient at converting nutrient intake to liveweight gain and they are also receiving a greatly reduced proportion of their nutrients from the ewe and much more from grazed forage. By weaning early the lambs can be given the very best grazing available on the farm which they will convert  much more efficiency than ewes. The dry ewes can then be moved onto the less productive pastures as their nutritional needs are much reduced if they are no longer lactating.

 

As farmers we all know how tempting it is to leave lambs with their mothers a bit longer especially when time is short and there are other jobs to do, but it is very difficult to meet the nutritional demands of both on the same forage. High quality forage is converted efficiently into meat by lambs but is ‘wasted’ by ewes, and by the same token poorer grazing is fine for meeting the needs of the late lactation ewe but is not as good for optimising growth in the growing lamb. Just something else to bear in mind for next year!

 

Suckler update

At the suckler meeting it was suggested by some of the group that Malcolm could explore the option of selling calves at weaning instead of leaving them until spring, thus freeing up more winter forage for the ewes. We are in the process of getting the calves valued at the moment and will then work out the cost of keeping them until sale and from this calculate which is the most cost effective option. Further updates to follow.

 

  • Date for the diary – celebration event at Lower Highfield on Tuesday 25th June. As the Northwest Livestock Programme comes to an end in July we will be rounding up everything that has been achieved at Lower Highfield over the last 4 years as well as thanking Malcolm and Judith for all their hard work and being fantastic hosts. All welcome, more details to follow in due course.

Fluke – interactive, informative meeting

Given the high prevalence of fluke this year and the fact that Malcolm has seen some livers from lambs condemned at slaughter, a meeting was organised with Dunbia and Novartis to look at the impact this can have on performance and production… and ways to stop the loss.

An interactive presentation using “Who wants to be a Millionaire” style ask the audience key pads, the meeting tested 40 farmers on what they knew about the life cycle of fluke, allowing those in attendance to understand more about the timings of their own treatment regimes (using NADIS parasite forecasts and vet advice) and to strategically plan ahead.

Dunbia are doing these meetings across the country and have now done a few in the NW with the Livestock Programme to improve understanding of the effects of fluke - showing examples of condemned livers containing different stages of fluke (early immature, immature and adult), the times of year you’d see these stages and what to use to treat them.

The fact fluke takes eight weeks / two months to mature in sheep, and depending on how wet a year is can be picked up on pasture from late summer through to December, means several strategic treatments can be needed in wet areas with a known fluke problem. 

For more information read the meeting reports from when Nick visited other groups earlier this year and last November.

 Burnley and Pendle Group: Fluke Meeting >>

 Myerscough Vets: Liver fluke “What is it costing you” >>

How will you feed your cows this winter?

This was the topic for late October’s meeting which was organised in response to this summer’s weather and the impact it has had on feed stocks for many.

Malcolm and Judith have been fortunate in that they have managed to make some good quality silage, but due to the fact that the sucklers had to be housed 6-8 weeks sooner than usual Malcolm wants to be prepared for winter and look at other options for feeding stock indoors.

Condition scoring

Condition scoring

As the steering group had expressed an interest in having a session on practical condition scoring it was decided to tie this in with the feeding element and have a discussion about how body condition can be managed to make the most of the feed available.

We also had a change from Lower Highfield and visited Yealand Hall by kind permission of group member Simon Temple. Simon has excellent handling facilities for the cattle and the pedigree Red Polls are very quiet and good to handle making them ideal for a condition scoring exercise.

Practical guide to scoring
Independent vet Debby Brown was the speaker for the day and we began at the farm with Debby explaining the main areas to look at when assessing body condition score (BCS).

The technique that Debby demonstrated involved gripping the outer edges of the loin with the thumb curled under the transverse processes of the spine. The ball of the thumb is then used to feel the thickness of the fat covering the bones. Condition score ranges from 1 to 5, with 1 being poor and thin and 5 being grossly fat.

Body Codition Score

Body condition scoring

 

There was debate about which side of the cow should be felt to determine BCS. Debby’s response was that there is no real right or wrong answer to this and that you should feel both sides of the cow and decide which works best for you. This may also be determined by the set-up of your handling system ie. can you only get to one side of the race?

Debby had picked out a selection of four cattle for the group to have a go with and then we discussed what everyone thought. The cows were all in different stages of lactation. Only one was classed as being BCS 4 (fat) whilst the rest were between 2.5 and 3.5. The main point that Debby made was that it isn’t necessarily the score which is important but how this changes over time. Dramatic changes in BCS should be avoided, particularly after calving.

Once everyone had had a go and Simon had spoken briefly about his own system and the feeding regime, we returned to The Kings Arms at Hale for lunch and then an afternoon meeting.

“If you don’t know what a healthy cow looks like, and acts – How will you recognise the unhealthy cow?”

Debby opened with this very valid point which highlights the importance of checking your cattle regularly and noticing any changes in BCS. Ideally a cow should always have a condition score between 2.5 and 3.5. If the cow is in the correct condition at calving then they have a much better chance of starting cycling again quickly and getting in calf again. This is particularly crucial with suckler cows when the aim is to have them producing one calf every 365 days.

Use grass where possible
Grazed grass is the cheapest feed available for ruminants so you should aim to use as much of this as possible to manage condition score. Spring calvers should use summer grazing to build up condition after calving. They can then afford to lose some condition over the winter whilst they are housed and are relying on conserved forage.

The abundance of grass available in summer (most years anyway!) can cause a problem for autumn calving herds as cows tend to put on condition over the summer and can be over-fat at calving leading to calving difficulties.

Target BCS

  Spring calvers Autumn calvers
Spring Calving 2 Pregnant/suckling 2
Summer Service 2.5 Weaning 2.5
Autumn Weaning 3 Calving 3
Winter Pregnant/dry 2.5 Service 2.5

Suckling calves and weaning
Calves can also be a useful way of altering BCS – calves on thin cows can be weaned early to allow the cows to put on condition, whilst fat cows can suckle their calves for longer to remove some condition. A 550kg cow producing 5 litres of milk a day requires 30% more energy than a dry cow. It is also more cost effective to feed any concentrates directly to calves as they have a higher feed conversion efficiency, rather than feeding cows to produce milk.

Avoid fat and thin cows at calving
Condition at calving is a major factor determining the return to ovulation. Thin cows take longer to come into heat which delays conception and pregnancy, whereas fat cows are more likely to experience problems at calving which will also delay the onset of oestrus. Cows that slip in their calving pattern tend to slip more every year, and as we have seen at Lower Highfield a tight calving pattern is much easier to manage (and more profitable in the long term) than a spread out calving period.

Any changes in BCS should always be done gradually. Also aim to alter in mid rather than late pregnancy as this can lead to bigger calves (and associated calving difficulties) rather than bigger cows.

Feed the rumen rather than the cow
We must always remember when feeding ruminants that it is the microbes in the rumen which break down plant material and produce protein for the cow, so essentially if the needs of the microbes are met then the rumen will function optimally and maximise utilisation of the feeds being consumed.

Rumen pH
The rumen pH is a very important factor in achieving maximum feed intakes. The rumen bugs will multiply best at a rumen pH of between 6.2 and 6.8 so the aim should be to maintain this wherever possible and avoid any fluctuations, for example by feeding large amounts of concentrate in a short period of time.

At pH below 6.0 bug growth is dramatically reduced and the digestion of cellulose is virtually stopped. This reduces the absorption of nutrients and if low pH continues feed intake will be reduced. Rumen microbes will work at their best in warm (37 degrees), wet, anaerobic conditions with an adequate supply of energy and nitrogen. A good source of fibre, such as straw, hay or long chopped silage is needed to ensure efficient rumen function and cudding.

Debby then asked the question – what do we want from the diet?
 Provide required nutrients for maintenance and efficient production (also meet the needs of rumen microbes)
 A fibrous structure to stimulate rumination and buffering of rumen acid
 Palatable to maximise DM intake
 Be consistent from feed to feed to avoid dramatic changes in rumen pH
 To be cost effective and to fit in with your own farming system.

In terms of meeting the nutritional requirements of the animal this will be affected by the following factors:
 Stage of production cycle – lactating animals will have higher requirements than dry animals. Growing and finishing animals will also have different energy and protein requirements.
 Animal age, weight and type – as animals get older their live weight gain tails off gradually until they reach their genetic potential.
 Weight adjustment – are you trying to increase or decrease BCS?
 Weather conditions – requirements are greater in cold wet weather as animals are losing heat
 Feed quality/availability
 Health status

Calculating daily Dry Matter Intake requirements
Growing cattle: 2.3% of the liveweight
Finishing cattle: 2% of liveweight
Suckler cows: dry – 1.8% liveweight
Cows with calves – 2.2-2.5% liveweight

Calculating Energy requirements
Growing cattle:
• Maintenance = 5 + 0.1 x liveweight
• Eg. 400g steer maintenance = 5 + 40 = 45 MJ/day
• For growth at 0.5 kg/day = 1.5 x maintenance, and for 1 kg/day = 2 x maintenance
• Eg. 400g steer growing @ 1 kg/day = 90 MJ/day

Suckler cows:
• Maintenance = 5 + 0.1 x liveweight
• Eg. 700kg suckler maintenance = 5 + 70 = 75 MJ/day
• For lactation 1 litre milk = 5 MJ
• Eg. 13 litres = 65 MJ/day
• Total energy requirement for a 700kg suckler producing 13 litres milk/day = 140 MJ/day

Average values

Period DM intake (kg) MJ ME/day Crude protein (% DM)
Dry cow

9.5 – 10

75

8.5

6 weeks post calving

12.6

140

12+

18 weeks post calving

12.5

130

11.5

The value/cost of body condition
On average 1 BCS is equal to 65-75kg bodyweight depending on breed and size of cattle.
A cow which loses 75kg over the winter (equivalent to 1 BCS) will mobilise 2000 MJ of energy from her body reserves, which is the equivalent of three quarters of a tonne of average silage.
By comparison a cow gaining 75kg will require 2250 MJ ME or the equivalent of 0.85 tonnes of silage.

Following the discussion on feeding to body condition, Duncan Rose from Carrs Billington spoke to the group about silage analysis, and focussed in particular on Malcolm and Judith’s analysis this year. In comparison to other silage samples taken by Carrs this year Malcolm’s analyses well as it was cut at the right time and under the right conditions (of which we had very few this year!).

Sandersons' forage analysis

Sanderson's forage analysis

The group had quite a discussion about the best options for Malcolm and Judith and their plans for feeding the stock this winter. The sucklers and calves are already housed due to the poor weather. The plan is to feed the cows restricted clamp silage and ad-lib wheat straw which is ideal as the cows can mobilise body condition over the winter. This will also mean that there is more high quality clamp silage available for the growing calves which should reduce the amount of concentrate needed to be bought in.

As many of the farmers in the group expressed concern over the availability of forage stocks to last them over the winter and may be looking for other cost-effective feed options Duncan had put together a table comparing relative values of various feedstuffs:

Feed value

Feed value table

Malcolm has considered buying in some fodder beet for the ewes as this looked to be a relatively cost effective option and was keen to hear the opinion of other group members on their experiences of feeding this. There was quite a debate over the issues of buying washed vs unwashed in terms of price and keeping ability. However it was pointed out that this would need to start being fed shortly in order to avoid a change in diet (and subsequent changes in rumen microflora) too close to lambing time.

It was suggested that it would be best to combine the beet with hay and that intakes could be improved if the beet are chopped rather than being left whole. Another option that Malcolm proposed was buying in molasses as an energy source. Although this doesn’t look like a cost effective option from the figures in the table it would need costing out before any decisions were made.

Main take-home points:
 Avoid dramatic changes in BCS.
 Remember that you are feeding the rumen microbes – meet their needs and the rumen will function optimally. Avoid sudden changes to the diet as this will alter the bug population.
 Consider what you want to achieve in terms of growth rate/production – can you do this from your forage?
 Analyse your forage so you know what you are working with in terms of nutrient availability.
 Manage BCS to help balance your forage availability.

A little snippet – tup ratios!

At the previous meeting with Lesley Stubbings, tupping and the ideal ratio of tups to ewes was touched on briefly.

Judith has since brought to my attention an article in the Autumn 2012 edition of Sheep and Beef Producer publication in which Lesley advocates increasing the tup:ewe ratio from the more traditional 1:40 up to 1:60.

“Well bred, sensibly reared rams are more than capable of tupping at 1:60 or higher and doing so can dramatically reduce ram costs/lamb reared” said Lesley.

However Lesley pointed out that it is crucial that a full tup MOT is carried out at least two months before you are wanting the tup to work to ensure that they are fully fit and capable of serving more ewes. Alternatively if the tup is not fit or sub fertile there is sufficient time to source a replacement.

There are significant savings to be made by using a tup over more ewes as fewer tups are needed. The table below shows this quite nicely:

Tup costs per lamb reared at different tup:ewe ratios (assuming 1.6 lambs reared/ewe tupped and a tup cost of £600

Years worked

Ewes/tup

 

40

60

80

100

1

£9.38

£6.25

£4.69

£3.75

2

£4.69

£3.13

£2.34

£1.88

3

£3.13

£2.08

£1.56

£1.25

4

£2.34

£1.56

£1.17

£0.94

The money that is saved by using a tup to serve more ewes can be invested in buying better quality tups to improve the genetics of your flock. “Using and buying fewer rams gives the opportunity to buy better rams which will improve flock efficiency and the quality of lambs, adding to profitability.”

 

A different approach to sucklers

Following the meeting at Lower Highfield in June focussing on the improvements made in the sucklers by reducing the calving spread, some members of the group expressed an interest in seeing the suckler system on another farm.

So when group member Henry Rowntree kindly offered to host a farm walk at his Windy Pike Farm, near Gisburn to look at his pedigree Ribble Aberdeen-Angus herd the group made a trip to take a look.

Henry with his breeding heifers

I don’t know how we managed it but we picked a nice evening for the walk, which unfortunately meant that most of the group were busy trying to get caught up with field work. However for the 15 group members that were able to make the visit we had a very interesting guided tour of the farm with a chance to discuss the breeding strategy in the herd and how the stock are marketed.

 

Background

Windy Pike was originally a dairy farm until FMD struck in 2001. The decision was made to continue in farming but to restock with pedigree Aberdeen-Angus. The 170 head suckler herd run alongside a breeding flock of 450 Mule ewes which are crossed with the Meatlinc tup, and all the stock are run over approximately 440 acres (total farm acreage is 490 acres but there is woodland and other ungrazable areas).

 

Breeding policy

It was very clear listening to Henry speak that he has a real passion and enthusiasm for breeding the very best cattle for both his own system and for the markets he supplies. A brief run-down on EBV’s (Estimated Breeding Values) was given as all stock on the farm are performance recorded to allow breeding decisions to be made based on actual figures rather than just the look of an animal.

One bull which has been used heavily in the Ribble herd breeding is Fordel Enniskillen and his EBV graph is shown below:

 

The calving is carried out in two blocks with about 120 of the cows calving inside in the winter (March – May) with the remaining 50 calving outdoors in late summer (July-August).

 

Cattle sales

Young breeding bullsApproximately 20 bulls a year are kept entire with all of these being sold as stock bulls for breeding. The majority are sold privately to breeders direct from the farm. The rest of the bull calves are castrated and these, along with any heifers that are not sold as breeding females, are finished on the farm by 18-22 months of age and are sold direct to Dovecote Park for slaughter at 300-350kg deadweight. In addition the farm runs a beef box scheme with approximately 7 animals a year being sold down this route.

 

Monitoring

Henry has made the decision to calve all the heifers down at two years of age, therefore good early growth rates are vital in order to ensure that target weights are reached at bulling time. All the young stock are weighed regularly to monitor performance and to provide feedback for calculating EBV’s for both sires and dams. Even when cows are fully grown Henry prefers them not to be too big as larger animals do not suit the system and the heavy clay grazing land at Windy Pike.

We saw a variety of cattle during the visit, from calves that were a couple of weeks old to in-calf heifers and breeding bulls, and for me personally one of the most noticeable things was how quiet and placid all the stock were. Being a dairy farmer’s daughter when I think of suckler cows I tend to think of wild Limmys and cows that shoot in the opposite direction when you come within about 100 yards of them. However all the Angus are used to being handled regularly and as such are quiet and good to manage.

 

Grassland

Like Malcolm and Judith, Henry has made improvements to his grazing over the years with a lot of draining and reseeding having been done.  Grass growth has been poor in July and August so it has been difficult getting stock to the grass without them making a mess. The farm is in both ELS and HLS and through these schemes a lot of hedging has been planted and double fencing put up.

Henry openly admitted to the group that most farmers would question his decision to have so many stock on the acreage he has given that the land is heavy. However he commented that they can normally grow plenty of grass and he needs a lot of stock to make the most of it. This year the decision was taken to sell store cattle and any lambs that were still on the farm by the end of July so that more grazing would be freed up for the cows. Also a production sale of cows and heifers is planned for October to reduce pressure on forage before the cows are housed for winter. It is this flexible approach to the management of the farm which allows the number of stock to be kept there.

 

Health

The health status of both the cattle and sheep is very important, particularly with the sale of breeding stock playing a large part and also to ensure efficient production of meat for the market. The cattle are in an SAC accredited health scheme and are accredited as being BVD free. Work towards becoming accredited as Johnes free is underway and vaccinations are given for Lepto and BVD.

Cows and young calves

Cows and young calves

 

Sheep

On the sheep side of things, replacements for the 450 ewe Mule flock are sourced as shearlings from Skipton auction. The ewes are crossed with the Meatlinc tup, a composite breed which Henry believes to be an excellent cross onto the Mule to produce the right sort of lamb for the market he supplies. Lambing starts late March and the majority of lambs will be sold straight off the ewe direct to Woodheads abattoir.

 

Handling

The walk ended with a look at the new handling system which Henry installed last year with the help of an RDPE performance grant. The curved holding pen has solid sides to prevent distractions and there is a forcing gate which aids in pushing the cattle forward towards the race. The race has two backing gates which fall down behind animals as they move forward to prevent them backing out. Once in the crush there is a head scoop to aid in handling the stock and administering any treatment. The squeeze crush has sides which can be moved in to effectively trap the animal and hold them still when belly clipping is being done, and this is also useful for holding calves and preventing them turning round. There is a built in weighing facility which allows weights to be measured accurately for recording purposes.

 

Conclusion

It is always very interesting to see another farming system and this visit gave members of the monitor farm group an opportunity to compare what is happening at Lower Highfield with the sucklers at Windy Pike. The two farms are quite different and have both chosen a system which suits and makes the most of their own resources.

The one thing however that both Henry and Malcolm and Judith do have in common is enthusiasm for what they do and the drive and desire to constantly improve. This is clear at Windy Pike by the genetic improvements in many traits that have been made above and beyond the Aberdeen Angus breed as a whole, and at Lower Highfield in the huge improvements that have been made in the calving period in a short length of time. The key to achieving this is flexibility and being able to appreciate that the small changes can add up to make a big difference.