Keeping cattle outside for some or all of the winter and the potential to reduce costs are the subject of a second year of SAC trials.
Trials involve various groups of cattle, including dry cows, cull cows and, most importantly, store cattle, said Gavin Hill, SAC beef specialist.
“We see finished cattle prices at 1.90 for steers and heifers, yet comprehensive costings in Scotland show even the most efficient producers need 2.20 to break even.”
Last winter’s trials involved keeping spring calving cows outside for 100 days more than normal and fed brassica crops.
Compared with cows that were housed all winter, there was a saving of about 30 a cow for those on kale and 40 a cow for those on stubble turnips.
Speaking at the open day at Easter Howgate Farm, Edinburgh, Mr Hill said he believed there was potential for keeping other classes of stock outside for longer, too.
Even with an improvement to cull cow price and the average 35 a calf, Scotland’s producers will get from the Scottish calf scheme, producers are still chasing a significant price gap.
“But, with six- to seven-month winters in Scotland, keeping cattle inside is expensive.
“We need to look at a system where cattle may not get to the heaviest weights at the earliest age, but where they could be profitable when everyday costs are kept low.”
This year two groups of Limousin and Angus steers will be weaned and a control group housed through winter.
Another group will be outside on kale supplemented with straw, with a third group outside on kale supplemented with silage.
Cattle will be weaned at 320kg and the aim is for a weight gain of 0.75-0.8kg a day through winter, taking the animals to 420kg by April next year.
Another 90 days at grass, with a weight gain of 1.1kg a day, would bring the cattle to 520kg liveweight by mid-summer, added Mr Hill.
“They will then be supplemented at grass and, in late autumn, brought into sheds for about two months for finishing.
There is, however, the possibility that some could be finished off grass,” he reckoned.
The aim is to reduce costs by about 20p an animal a day, resulting in a saving of 26 a head this winter.
Unfortunately, because of risk of poaching, outwintering on brassicas will be limited to farms with free-draining soils, mainly in the east of Scotland.
“But there could be the opportunity for farmers in the east to contract finish cattle from the west.
After all, it’s cheaper to move cattle east rather than shift straw from the east which can cost 85/t or more.”
For the trials, kale was sown after grass had been sprayed off with glyphosate, said Mr Hill.
“The ground is not ploughed.
Ploughing destroys soil structure and will result in poaching through the winter when you put cattle on brassicas.”
Strip grazing using electric fencing will allow calves to be stocked at about 20 calves a hectare (8 an acre) and access to about a 1m a day of kale.
Straw or silage, already in the field, will be rolled out daily, depending on the trial group.
Stubble turnips in Scotland need to be sown by early August, possibly after cereals harvested as whole-crop, he added.
These grows quickly and need no weed control, but will yield less than kale.