Beef enterprise set for expansion at Fearn Farm

The Scott family are set on further developing their successful pedigree and commercial beef enterprises in the coming years, with a clear focus on buyers’ needs rather than the glamour of the show ring. Ian Ashbridge reports

“I guess both Dad and I have a greater interest in the stock side of our business than the arable side,” says John Scott. “Our stock is what interests us, the potential of the genetics and what we can do to change and improve things. I’ve never really been that into machinery.

“It’s interesting that my sons seem to be drawn the same way – both James and Archie seem to have a natural inclination for stock and aren’t drawn to the big machines – at least at this stage. Mind you, it would be handy to have someone who can fix all the things I break.”

But one thing both John and his father James are serious about is the potential to build Fearn Farm’s growing reputation for quality Shorthorn bulls and Shorthorn-Simmental cross heifers.

“We went towards pure-bred Shorthorns because we wanted to look at getting into a pure breed and produce really good pedigree animals. So at the Calrossie dispersal we bought our first females.

“Ultimately, we want to build a reputation for bulls and heifers that will thrive in most environments and have a high health status and figures that reflect their potential.”

Of the 115 cows that will go to the bull this year, 35 are pedigree Shorthorns and 15 are Aberdeen Angus. The remainder are 65 Shorthorn-Simmental commercial crosses. Simmental-cross cows are put to the Shorthorn bull for the first two cycles, aiming for this cross-bred heifer, with the dependable Angus sire put with the cows for their last cycle, to “clear up”.

“Our aim for the commercial types is to produce a high-quality, high-health-status heifer either for our own replacements or for sale, using a blend of Shorthorn and Simmental genetics,” says John.

“These roan females are very desirable and the herd is BVD-accredited and vaccinated, and accredited for Johne’s Disease. We’re not yet accredited for IBR (Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis) and leptospirosis, but all our testing is clear. We’re trying to produce a heifer that will go to the bull at 15 months and calve at 24, while the commercial males are finished entire and sold as bull beef at 12 months or less.”

The figures from the finished stock are encouraging. So far this year, carcass weights have averaged 348kg and prices £956/head, sold to processor ABP at Perth. “I like using these guys because they’re efficient, the charges are sensible and payment has been prompt,” says John.

Both the commercial and pedigree stock are run as one herd, which brings benefits both in terms of ease of management and means pedigree beasts are not mollycoddled unnecessarily.

“Because they’re raised in a commercial environment they’re tougher,” says John. “I can’t emphasise enough how commercially-focused we are. These bulls have got to go and work for six or seven years and make the guys that buy them want to come back for more.”

Most are sold through private sales – John finds a lot of truth in the old adage that word-of-mouth recommendation is the best form of marketing – but bulls with the best show-ring potential will go to the February bull sales at Stirling – formerly Perth Bull Sales.

“It’s important to maintain a presence at Stirling, but there’s no point taking stock there unless you’ve got something really good to show. However, in that situation a lot can depend on the type of animal the buyers fancy on the day.

“We’re still very much in the building stage of our pedigree business. We don’t show often – it’s not my highest priority – but we will show what we’ve got at the Royal Highland Show this year. We go as a family and will show a yearling Shorthorn bull, a yearling heifer and some of our Beltex sheep as well.”

This year’s Highland Show (24-27 June) also plays host to the beginning of the 2010 World Shorthorn Conference, where breeders from all over the world will gather for a two-week tour of Britain’s leading herds as well as the main breed meeting at Stratford-on-Avon.

A major influence on Fearn’s current crop of pedigree Shorthorn bulls has been genetics from Australian breeder Graham Ashby, who runs 350 Shorthorns on his 5000-acre farm at Gulnare, South Australia.

“I picked these genetics because they’re easy-fleshed animals with good figures. It’s not a show-ring animal for over here, perhaps – just a good quality bull – but their EBVs are very impressive. The Shorthorn is a dual-purpose breed, but we have to make sure we keep the milk there and these bulls have very good milk figures.”

One of the products of this investment is Fearn Bundaleer (pictured). A two-year-old bull used as a yearling, he is one of four bulls put to work at Fearn this year, as well as an 18-month old Simmental and a six-year-old Angus who will be sold after the breeding season.

Bundaleer has a Shorthorn terminal index of +22 and a self-replacing index of +21 – breed averages are 11 and 10 respectively, putting this boy in the breed’s top five per cent. “He’s half Australian,” says John. “And on his mother’s side he goes back to Fearn Scotsman, a bull we sold at Perth for 11,000gns.”

In 2006, John completed a Nuffield Scholarship into health planning and disease prevention in beef cattle and sheep, which took him to several farms Down Under. But he met Graham and Tom Ashby by chance on a subsequent Nuffield tour in the USA.

“Nuffield really opens your eyes and makes you think differently about what you do. It’s a steep learning curve at first, but it’s also a lifelong learning experience – for instance, I’m taking part in a Nuffield beef and sheep study group this summer.”

The spring calving period is nearly over for John and James Scott, with only six females left to calve. Next year’s crop will see 19 pure-bred Shorthorn bulls on the ground at Fearn. “At some stage we would like to begin exporting genetics elsewhere,” he says, “but the commercial market is our bread and butter at the moment.

“We’re trying to use polled bulls if we can – partly because polled beasts are more desirable to buyers from a handling perspective, but also because we have a few customers looking to buy polled bulls to put onto Highland cows.”

The future of the Scotts’ beef enterprise looks assured, but cereals prices will have a marked effect on how quickly the family expands this side of its business. If returns from malting barley and wheat remain depressed, John sees Shorthorn and Angus numbers increasing relatively rapidly.

“We could easily handle more cattle on some our lighter ground here through the winter. Other than buying semen and AI services, administration and registration, the costs associated with this enterprise aren’t significant. And last year we averaged £1000/head for our commercial bulling heifers while their commercial counterparts achieved more than £2000/head.”

Nutrition is based on a home-mixed ration of bruised barley and peas with some bought in beet pulp, in a 75-15-10% mix. Creep is fed to all calves from August, beginning with a bought-in pellet. Heifers receive a daily ration of 4kg of cereals plus silage, while bulls are on an ad-lib ration, aiming for 350kg liveweight.

The next stage of building the beef enterprise is to work on the developing brand for Fearn Farm. John Scott already has a distinctive logo in place, based on the two letter Fs in the farm’s name, and a unique, stylised image of a bulls face. Shortly to follow is a website, which should be up and running by Farmers Weekly’s next visit.

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