John Scott admits investing £120,000 in a new cattle shed and handling system is a “leap of faith” in the beef sector, but knows he will have to move to a system he can manage with less labour.
The 160ft x 75ft building, with 30ft lean-to, is now complete and awaiting the installation of pens for 120 suckler cows and followers.
“At the moment we are not making money from beef without the single farm payment, but looking to the future, we think beef prices will improve and we want to ease our workload.”
The decision follows the departure of the Scotts’ only full-time member of staff, flock manager Steve Lewis, who will not be replaced in the short term.
“Although our sheep enterprise is the only one on the farm which is currently profitable without the SFP, we envisage increasing our arable acreage to take advantage of higher grain prices.
“It’s also possible that we might expand our suckler cow numbers, so we need systems which Dad and I can manage ourselves if we are not going to have any permanent hired labour.”
To this end, Mr Scott has settled on a cattle handling system developed in the USA by animal behaviourist Temple Grandin of Colorado State University.
“I have found it difficult to get independent advice on cattle handling in the UK because all those involved usually have a product to sell,” says Mr Scott.
“But it’s well known that a curved race is more efficient than a straight one and will encourage cattle to move forward because they want to rather than being forced.
“It is less stressful for the animal and will be easier for the two of us to handle.”
Cattle make a 180° turn through the singe-file race and are not distracted by seeing people and other activities at the end of the race.
The key is to design the curve so that the animal can see at least two body lengths ahead.
The search is now on for a cattle crush and Mr Scott was impressed with the New Zealand-designed Cattlemaster he saw at the Beef Tech event in Aberdeenshire. It will cost about £5000.
He is now planning a trip to Ireland to see the crush on a farm, but is impressed with its construction and suitability for one-man operation.
The “squeeze” sides help to constrain the animal, making it safe for the operator while making the crush suitable for any size of animal, from a calf to a mature cow.
Apart from routine tagging and vaccination, an efficient cattle handling system will be invaluable for AI and ET work with the Scotts’ pedigree herds of Beef Shorthorn and Aberdeen Angus cattle.
As the most northerly of Scotland’s eight monitor farms, Fearn Farm regularly hosts visits from other farmers in the project, some of whom have questioned the move into pedigree cattle and sheep.
But Mr Scott points out that pedigree stock are treated in a similar way to the commercial stock and sees it as a means of adding value to the output of the farm.
Young bulls have to be halter-trained and fed for sale, which although time-consuming, is something Mr Scott enjoys and Shorthorn bulls have achieved 11,000gns while Angus bulls are selling off the farm at £2000-£3000 a head.
And benchmarking feed costs of the suckler herd against other farmers has identified potential cost reductions.
At present, cows are wintered on stubble turnips and straw for the first part of the winter at a cost of 27p a head a day, before switching to draff (distillers’ grains) at a cost of 45p a cow a day.
But Mr Scott is considering replacing draff with ammonia-treated straw, which would cost about 65p. This would allow him to clear a field of winter barley straw quickly and sow grass sooner.
“There should also be a saving in labour, although feeding draff daily has the advantage of ensuring we have a good look at the cattle every day,” says Mr Scott.
In a further bid to make the livestock systems more manageable, careful thought is also being given to the timing of lambing and calving next spring.
Mr Scott plans to lamb the pedigree ewes earlier in March and the main commercial flock from the end of the month, at the same time as cows are calving.
“I will be looking to employ two experienced lambers next year along with a student.”