Farm profile: Beef Shorthorn cross thrive on a Welsh farm

Beef Shorthorn cross Highland cattle are proving a winning formula on one Welsh upland farm, where progeny is hitting 1kg liveweight gain a day and returning a margin of £710/head over feed.

Upland farmer Christopher Evans, who farms the 587ha Llerneuaddau Farm, near Aberystwyth, in Ceredigion, purchased Highland cows privately from Scotland some 12 years ago.

By coincidence, they were already in-calf to a Beef Shorthorn bull at the time, but Mr Evans and his then farm manager Daffyd Jones were so impressed with the performance of their calves that they’ve stuck to the breed ever since.

HIGHLAND V Shorthorn calves

See also: Reader pictures of Highland cows

The spring-calving herd of 24 is kept outdoors throughout the year, keeping rearing costs low at £100 a cow and £140 a calf, while also helping to manage the farm’s unimproved hill grassland, which rises to 670m.

Since joining the Glastir environment and country stewardship scheme three years ago the farm’s stocking rates have fallen by 45% to comply with the scheme’s strict grazing conditions so a big emphasis has been put on measuring stock efficiency to improve farm output.

Despite their small size – Highland cows in the herd average just 470kg at weaning –  data shows they pack a big punch with weaned calf weights this year averaging 225kg.

“For this type of ground it’s very hard to beat a Highland,” explains Mr Evans, who is an avid recorder of data. “At my age if you don’t record you tend to forget,” he adds. 

He believes the hardiness of the Highland and their easy calving nature combine well with the Beef Shorthorn’s carcass traits to produce exceptional progeny that thrive in the toughest climates.

Breeding

The stock bull, which was purchased privately from the Balgay herd in Perthshire, is within the top 1% for carcass traits, boasting an eye muscle score of +5.3 and a 200-day weight of +22 – within the top 15%.

He is currently used across the Highlands and the farm’s small pedigree herd of Beef Shorthorns, although his daughters are estramated and AI’d. 

Despite the fact his calving ease direct scores are not great, at -4.7, the current farm manager Rheinallt Jones says he has yet to assist a single Highland cow at calving, although he has had to calve the odd Shorthorn.

“The Highlands calve very easily and are excellent mothers. Sometimes you won’t find the calf for two days,” he adds.

The bull is turned in with the Highlands in June for three months and cows start calving in late March. Last year 80% calved in the first six weeks and 100% by week eight. 

Through the winter cows are kept on deferred grazing. Cows are offered 2kg of sugar beet nuts to make up for the grass growth deficit and 1kg wheat beet nuts is added to this a few weeks pre-calving in mid-March.

Post-calving high DM silage is added until there is a plentiful supply of grass to help boost milk production. 

This simple feeding regime helps keep feed costs low at just £100/cow which includes year-round mineral buckets at £20/head, explains Mr Evans.

Calves start receiving creep feed in September to aid weaning in November and to allow the cows to maintain condition.

Beef Shorthorn x Highland weaning data

Sex

200 day weaning weights (average)

Cow weights

Average daily liveweight gain

Steers

240kg (2016 nine days earlier than 2015)

252kg (2015)

2016 – 471kg

2015 – 480kg

 

1kg

Heifers

220kg (2015)

210kg (2016 nine days earlier than 2015)

2015 – 460kg

2016 – 465kg

0.8kg

Calves are then housed at weaning and fed silage and a 18% crude protein blend of wheat distillers and sugar beet until May, with bedding and feed costs averaging £140/head.

The best steers may be sold straight out of the shed at 15 months old and the balance are run with heifers at grass until the autumn when they are sold privately to a farmer who fattens for the Morrison’s Beef Shorthorn scheme.

Surplus heifers are sold at 18 months for breeding, averaging around £850/head (£2/kg). 

Farm facts

  • 587ha
  • Land rising from 300m to 670m
  • 440 Welsh Mountain Sheep consisting 340 breeding ewes and yearlings
  • 24 spring calving Highland cattle
  • 10 autumn calving pedigree Beef Shorthorns
  • High health accredited herds – BVD, Lepto, IBR and Johne’s accredited
  • Part of the Glastir scheme

To further improve efficiencies this year, for the first time, the retained heifers have been AI’d to an easy-calving Aberdeen Angus bull to calve at two years old.

Heifers born earliest in the calving period are chosen as herd replacements because these are the most fertile and meet the target bulling weight of 400kg.

“Calving at three is another year of expense without return which we want to avoid,” explains farm manager Mr Jones.

He and his father Dafydd, the farm’s previous shepherd, have been integral in the drive to increase the production of the farm’s 400-head flock of Welsh Mountain Sheep.

Sheep production

Since the 1960s weaning weights from the flock have lifted from 15kg to over 30kg and lambing percentage has risen from 80% to 120%. 

“Male fat lamb sales have risen from around 20kg to nearer 40kg over the same period. A big improvement has come in the last few years following the application of trace elements to the fields that the lambs graze after weaning.

“We used to feel lambs stood still after weaning so we had the soil tested by Trace Element Services Carmarthen; use of their product spread on the land has produced spectacular results, raising weights by 20%.”

“This year losses from scanning to sale were just 10%. This is good for a hill farm adjacent to a lot of forestry as most of these would have been from foxes at lambing,” adds Mr Evans.

Mr Jones says the lower stocking has undoubtedly led to improved ewe size and condition. However, he says it is a careful balance at flushing to ensure twinning rates are not too high.

These ewes can get up to 150% but says Mr Evans costs and losses on these hills make it uneconomic.

“I would rather one good big lamb than two small ones.”

Pedigree Shorthorns

As well as the commercial enterprises Mr Evans established a small, pedigree herd of Beef Shorthorns, three years ago, as a result of the forced reduction in stocking rates.

Under Glastir neither cattle or sheep are not allowed to graze the farm’s highest hill ground from 1 October to 1 April.

Therefore, the small herd of 10 pedigrees calve from September and are in-wintered from November.

They graze the highest 270ha of mountain ground through the summer after drying off, where stocking rates cannot exceed 27lu/ha in total – eight of which must be cattle.

“They came to the farm so I comply with the restrictions imposed by Glastir. We have found a way to incorporate them successfully but it does mean a lot of expense in the winter,” admits Mr Evans.

Wintering costs £300/head excluding labour, but the purebred calves are achieving higher daily liveweight gains of 1.12kg up to weaning in April and go on to average 1.3kg/day between weaning and turnout in May (see table below for breed comparison).

 Performance compared

Beef Shorthorn

Beef Shorthorn x Highland

Feed costs per calf

£40

£140

Average sale price of calves

£1002

£850

Margin over feed/bedding (£) excluding cow costs

£702

£710

Winter cow costs

£260

£100

Cow weaning weights (%)

46% (only one male calf)

50%

Calving (%)

98%

100%

Calving period

Two weeks

80% calved in first three weeks

DLWG (kg) up to weaning

1.12kg

0.8-1kg

Bull calves are castrated and the aim is to sell steers and heifers off grass before their second winter.

Mr Jones says the premium they command more than makes up for their high wintering costs, with all yearlings averaging £1,002/apiece this year.

“Our best 18-month-old heifer won champion at Stoneleigh and made £2,500 back in May.” Although he adds this wasn’t included in the yearling average. 

Performance recording

In the last two years Mr Evans has started scanning the pedigrees in an attempt to monitor the fat cover and carcass characteristics of the herd.

Yearlings are scanned at 300 days and have their eye muscle and rib fat recorded.

“At the moment scanning is showing very little fat cover and that’s something I’m trying to correct. Last year we used the easy-calving bull Dakota of Upsall, on our heifers who has very high fat cover and marbling EBVs. This year we are using Tofts Billabong Prince, whose EBVs I also like.”

He hopes this will also help improve the hardiness of the animals and further promote better eating quality and feed efficiency, which he says is key to the profitability of the farm.

However, in the future he says hill farming subsidies must continue to support the viability of upland farms.

“There is no doubt about it. Even if we are increasing production we would not survive without hill payments.”

Glastir

While Glastir payments have made up for the reduction stock, Mr Evans fervently believes it is making hill farms inefficient and more worryingly, he says, is its impact on the land.

While the scheme has been successful at reintroducing Curlew birds back to the farm, Mr Evans says Heather has been choked by Molina and infestations of bracken and gorse have been compounded by lower stocking densities and selective grazing.

In the wake of Brexit he believes a such schemes shouldn’t be a “tick box exercise” but should take into account individual situations.

“With Glastir the farm “must suit the scheme” but every farm is different so the ideology should be the opposite and those drawing up the contract should have the power to adapt the scheme to suit to the farm.

“If there is to be a revised scheme I do hope more financial encouragement is given to farmers to introduce cattle on to the hills.

“Suckler herds are expensive to introduce and it is several years before they bring in an income.

“I would like to see a payment based on one cattle livestock unit for every 10ha and paid at a rate that is something similar to the reduced stocking payment rate.”

“The other big worry is the fact that to enter these schemes you have to have a huge reduction sheep flock numbers.

“If such schemes come to an end on farms like this you can’t just go out and buy more sheep, you have to breed them at home to live on these hills and that means a big reduction in income for several years until you are back at full production.”

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