17 April 1997

Cost control vital in anxious times

At first sight, things look to

be going well at Kings Arms.

But cutting costs and

streamlining the business

are big concerns.

Allan Wright reports

IT has been a good two months at Kings Arms – a successful lambing is all but over, ewes and lambs have gone out to more grass than ever before and the winter feed bill is down.

Extreme weather has avoided south Ayrshire and spring has been early. Calving suckler cows is going well and there have been no health disasters in either sheep or cattle.

But the general health of farming continues to cause anxiety for Robert and Caroline Dalrymple. While refusing to be pessimistic at this time of year, they are trimming their cloth to match the price squeeze facing the whole industry.

"It is the first spring that we have not bought any machinery and do not intend to this year. We no longer order anything without asking the price. We shop around and are making substantial savings, like 30% on formalin for the sheep footbath," says Robert.

A routine injection to counter pneumonia in calves has been discontinued. "It cost £9 a time, but we still got pneumonia in some calves in May, and the consequent vet bills.

"I now have a bee in my bonnet about getting a perfect mineral balance for cows and calves with selenium for calves at birth and a booster when they go to grass at three weeks of age. We hope that will make them less susceptible to pneumonia."

Another saving, driven by experience as much as a need to cut costs, involves the mating of heifers coming into the suckler cow herd.

Original practice was double injections of hormone to synchronise calvings but the conception rate was only 50%. Last year, a single injection was used which achieved the same result. But next week, the cost of AI will be removed altogether. A single hormone injection will be followed by putting the heifers into small batches in straw-bedded pens and using the four stock bulls on them.

"The aim is to tighten the calving pattern so most calve before lambing begins on Feb 20 and the night lamber can keep an eye on the tail enders," says Robert.

This years heifers have all calved as have more than two-thirds of the spring calving cows. The 15 replacement heifers, Limousin-Friesians, were bought in at an average of £500 to join eight home-reared ones and six young cows that failed to get in calf last year. These were given another chance because of the low sale value under the OTMS scheme.

The Dalrymples buy in most replacements to avoid changing the main terminal sire from Charolais. "If we were to breed all our own replacements, we would have to shift to something like the Simmental and I am not convinced we would get the hybrid vigour or milking ability that we get from first cross Limousin-Friesians."

Calvings are inside with the cows in groups of eight on slats. They are moved to calving pens or bedded-out slatted pens when the time arrives. After a couple of days cows and calves are batched into bigger straw-bedded pens and then turned out to grass when calves are three days to a week old.

Robert has been rising at 3.45am each morning recently to monitor calvings and the last of the lambing. "There have been few mornings that there has not been something happening."

He claims to have retained his own sense of humour and optimism and pays tribute to the staff of Andrew, Jim, and Kenneth who have done the same. "They have put in long hours over the past two months and never failed to find something to smile about."

At the other end of the beef cycle at Kings Arms, the past week or so has been busy, clipping and dressing 118 suckled calves for yesterdays annual fair day sale at Ayr market. But they went to Ayr discussing how much prices might be down on the year. "We hope to average 105p/kg compared with last years top of 154p and averages of 123p for bullocks and 107p for heifers. Even at that we were down £65 and £45 a head on the previous year and the downward trend is set to continue," says Robert.

Passing thought is given to cutting cow numbers in favour of more sheep. "The heavy costs are all tied to the cattle. But we have a system with cattle and sheep complementing each other," he says.

An example of the two working together is creep feeding about 560 of the best lambs so that they get to market in May/June, releasing grass for the beef herd.

"We creep only Suffolk crosses and select the strongest lambs. We find the Suffolk respond better to creep feeding than Texel crosses. The cost is about £5 a lamb and that, plus a margin, can usually be obtained from the early market."

Although there is only a handful of ewes to lamb, he is reluctant to talk final averages. "I do not like doing that until the final one has lambed. But things have gone well and I am hoping last years 183% of reared lambs will rise to 185% this time." &#42

Clipped, groomed and ready for market – some of the 118 suckled calves which made their way from Kings Arms to this weeks sale at Ayr. Right: Caroline and Robert Dalrymple – loooking on the bright side.


&#8226 Kings Arms and Crailoch Farms, at Ballantrae on the Ayrshire coast, run as one 262ha (650 acre) unit by Robert and Caroline Dalrymple.

&#8226 Grass the only crop – for grazing and high quality silage. It is an early area but land near the sea is sandy and burns easily in summer.

&#8226 Suckler herd of 180 cows mated to Charolais sires and progeny sold as yearlings.

&#8226 Sheep flock of 900 Mule and Texel-cross ewes lambing from mid-February. About 300 hoggs are also lambed.

&#8226 Farm staff of three.