Former NFUS president, Nigel Miller farms in partnership with his sons, Gus and Malcolm, a traditional stock breeding unit, Stagehall, located in the Borders, near Stow, Selkirk.
Nigel Miller’s clear cut objective for a viable suckler enterprise is to maximise output per cow. “Our target is for all progeny to achieve a minimum 1kg DLG through to sale at between 12 to 17 months, see table 1, and for the 2013 season with a cow and calf unit’s variable costs close to 200p per day over the winter period, then that 1kg DLG must be valued at over 200p to start to make sense. The grazing period is crucial for profit.
“Our cows need to get back in calf as quickly as possible. We get concerned unless at least 70% of the herd calves within the first 30 days it’s scheduled to – that’s important for management purposes and achieving weight uniformity. Our target is to maintain cows in condition score 3 throughout and the entire herd is calved outdoors for health reasons.
“Overall we’re going for maximum number of calves reared per cow, and this year we achieved 178 out of 180. The herd also has to demonstrate longevity; it is currently averaging eight calf crops.”
To consistently achieve such levels of performance on the LFA unit which rises to 1,000’, then the Millers have adopted a strategy which features a blend of native breed genetics combined with management and nutrition together with minimal labour. “This is what we do, and we can do well,” he says.
Table 1: Stagehall Beef Shorthorn cross Angus suckler performance to sale date
Ave wt* (kgs) DLG Ave wt* (kgs) DLG
May / Jul born 499 1.03 454 0.94
Aug / Oct born 441 1.10 421 1.05
* Includes birthweight
Beef Shorthorn was introduced to the mix at Stagehall over 20 years ago, and it continues to fit like a glove. A nucleus of up to 40 red, white and roan Beef Shorthorn cows are kept to supply replacements to the main herd of 140 head which features, Beef Shorthorn cross Aberdeen Angus, all of which are put to the Angus. Never at any stage is the herd allowed to exceed 75% Angus genetics, he says. Furthermore, Nigel, a former vet adheres to his principles and apart from purchasing bulls, he makes sure the herd remains closed.
“Beef Shorthorn confers the maternal characteristics which are essential in a functional suckler cow – milk, ease of calving and motherability. The entire herd is consequently quiet and genuinely easy to handle, in fact the cows are a pleasure to work with, 99% calve themselves and we could put a halter on each one if necessary.” New herd sires are selected visually before a final appraisal using Breedplan performance data in particular EBVs for maternal traits - milk, calving ease daughters and SRI. If 200, 400, and 600 day growth rates are above average, then that’s a bonus.
“Beef Shorthorn is a hugely complementary to Angus which we use to achieve growth performance. However, we’ve noticed that our Beef Shorthorn cross steers sired by our last two bulls purchased are demonstrating growth rates just as good as their Angus cross counterparts.” Both bulls were in the breed’s top 5% of Breedplan performance data.”
Furthermore, better genetics combined with management is also enabling the Millers to breed from their heifers up to 12 months earlier. “We are targeting all our replacements to calve at 24 months simply because they’re now sufficiently grown to reach puberty at 430kg by 13 months and we implement an AI programme. This year they calved slightly lighter at 625kg; we expect them to grow on to reach 750kg mature weight.”
Cattle are turned out in April just ahead of calving, and managed alongside the sheep on clean rotational grazing system, an area ripe for small tweaks in fertiliser and muck management and the introduction of more productive grass leys, he says. Cropping is limited to fodder production – grass silage and triticale, while spring barley is grown for wholecrop and introduced to a TMR fed to housed calves after weaning in February.
After housing the herd in November, the calves are weighed on housing, weaning and turn-out. “Weighing is an important tool for management and benchmarking purposes. It provides us with an idea of how much it’s going to cost us to achieve the targeted gain. Also, if we find that a cow isn’t looking after her calf properly, then she may have to be culled.”
Nigel admits that current winter housing facilities are expensive and space is an issue. The family have subsequently agreed to sell a portion of land for development and invest the return in purpose built accommodation which is scheduled to ease stocking density and reduce bought in straw costs by 50%.
For 30 years, the Millers had placed virtually all their eggs in one basket and sold up to 120 head of stores in one day through St Boswells traditional beef breeds sale at St Boswells mart. “Recently we realised they had more potential for us, and we engaged a local contract finisher to take the steers and any heifers not making the grade as replacements,” he explains. “The arrangement based on daily liveweight gain, is working. The steers are going on to average over 1.0kg per day, reach 600kg target finishing weight at 20 months and kill out at an average 50.4%.”
To the future, Nigel Miller is cautiously optimistic his farming business will ‘hang together’ following CAP Reform. “We already operate under a relatively lower level of support, and understand the levels of performance we have to achieve to remain in profit. In fact we know the sheep enterprise can, in a good year, exist without payments. It’s Aware there a goal we’ve set for our beef enterprise.”
- Stagehall’s sheep enterprise provides that essential balance to grassland management. The flock comprises a mix of North Country Cheviots and Suffolk cross Cheviot ewes put to Meatlinc or Suffolk terminal sires, and lambed in March indoors – a ‘precautionary, risk averse measure’. The flock is averaging160% lambs reared. Lambs reach 20kg target finishing weight off grass from July.
The Stagehall fact file:
• 550ha mixed LFA unit
• 180 suckler cows, split calving May/Jul; Aug/Oct
• 950 breeding ewes
Turnover excluding support
Sheep inc wool 32.4%