Future proofing a 500-cow beef enterprise

Kincraigie fact file
Robert Marshall farming in partnership with his father, Robbie and uncle, Norman
500 Beef Shorthorn cross Simmental cows plus heifer replacements; split calving herd
1,700 acres grazing LFA
300 acres arable LFA

The Marshall family, Norman, Rob and Robbie

The Marshall family, Norman, Rob and Robbie

Beef Shorthorn is helping to future proof the Marshall family’s beef enterprise at Kincraigie, home to one of Scotland’s largest suckler herds with 500 cows plus heifer replacements on 2,000 acres of Aberdeenshire LFA.

“Over a decade ago we were attracted to the native breed’s strong maternal traits coupled with its docility and hardiness. We also considered it to introduce vital hybrid vigour to what was essentially becoming a herd of pure Continental suckler cows which was losing that element,” says Robert Marshall who farms with his father, Robbie and uncle, Norman.

“Ten years on and that infusion of Beef Shorthorn genetics is delivering just what we are seeking in a modern functional suckler cow in terms of temperament and performance - extreme milkiness and longevity with good udder attachment and teat placements.” See table 1.

“Breeding replacements has been fundamental to the herd’s success and we now have a well-established criss-cross suckler breeding programme combining native and Continental genetics - Beef Shorthorn cross Simmental, which is enabling us to specialise in beef production with the focus on maximising the number of kilos of beef produced over the area we farm. It is also proving to be a winning complementary mix of bloodlines to put to the Charolais, the herd’s terminal sire,” he explains.

“These cows are proving to be very easily calved which for us is a big, big plus in reducing both labour requirements and stress in new born calves which seem to have that natural vigour; the vast majority are up by themselves and sucking within 45 minutes, and the cows have plenty of milk to get the calves off to a better start when feed conversion efficiency is at its highest,” he explains.

“Furthermore, the breed is enabling us to achieve another goal, towards closing the herd and in turn minimising health risks,” he explains. “We are currently maintaining the herd at 500 cows which is about to stocking capacity for this unit in extreme seasons like this year, whilst introducing some of the most modern tools to continue progressing its efficiency.”


Robert Marshall discusses herd tactics

Measuring and monitoring: Last year we invested in weigh cells which are helping is to build up a more accurate picture of growth rates, get a better handle on costs and improve our all-round efficiency.

Cow efficiency: Our mature Beef Shorthorn cross cows are currently weaning a nine-month-old calf 49% of the 720kg average mature weight. See table 2. That figure is scheduled to fall to our targeted 650kgs within the next year or two as the percentage of Beef Shorthorn genetics increases within the herd and more heifers calve at a younger age.

Heifer replacements: Temperament is number one - anything that plays up at any point of handling is out. Then we select on pelvic measurement, dam and heifer health, genetic make-up, and finally looks. We will be further tightening selection criteria in future by selecting first born heifers from the crop.

Heifer management weaning to breeding: Cows and calves are housed late October/early November and introduced to TMR comprising silage, urea treated barley, and a 17% CP concentrate designed to grow frame. Once weaned in January the heifers continue on a similar diet which we are continually fine tuning in order to optimise growth efficiency.


Two-year calving: We’ve reduced age at first calving from 2.5 years to two years with the intention to enable more calves to be reared per head per lifetime, combined with reduced time between generations resulting in speeding up the herd’s overall genetic improvement. Heifers are reaching average 420kg at 14 months, that’s 60% pf their mature body weight. To achieve that goal we are working with our Harbro nutritionist and feeding 17% CP creep from one month earlier commencing in July.

Pelvic area measurement: Currently one of our most import selection tools. Pelvic area is a highly heritable trait and we gather it may be higher than the 45% heritability for calf birth weight. Working with our vet and using information from the USA, we measure all our heifers at between seven and 12 months; we use a sliding caliper and retain those averaging 15cm to 16cm and 240cm2; extremes at both ends of the scale are culled.


Temperament: Docility is vital from a health and safety point of view - no one can afford injuries on the farm. The Beef Shorthorn’s quiet temperament also enables us to minimise the workload which is vital on this large-scale unit run by family labour. If we do have the odd animal which displays any abnormal behaviour then it is immediately culled.

Health status: We are members of the SAC Premium Cattle Health Scheme – we firmly believe a healthy herd is more productive and will have added value. We review our preventative health plan on a yearly basis. We are currently focusing on Johne’s and have reduced to level 3 status. We are members of Livestock Health Scotland Calf Loss Project, a North East Scotland project investigating calf losses from breeding to weaning.

Finishing enterprise: Ten years ago, we accepted that Beef Shorthorn cross steers were a by-product from the suckler cow breeding programme. We sold through the store ring all the steers and heifers not selected for replacement purposes. However, things have changed since Morrisons launched its Shorthorn Beef scheme offering a premium on all finished animals sired by a registered Beef Shorthorn bull.

In 2016, we decided to establish a new finishing enterprise, and take the entire crop to target weight mainly on home-grown forage for the Morrisons scheme. Last year, we finished 350 head including bought in stores. The enterprise proved to be a viable option to the business and added to its overall sustainability.

Finishing came under the microscope in 2018; we reckon the drought has left us down 25% on both home-grown forage and straw, leading us to question the enterprise’s viability. However, when we witnessed the store trade back on the year by around 15% and after consulting with our nutritionist, we decided to progress with a targeted nutrition strategy. We are feeding a specially formulated diet featuring an 18% CP blend designed to cost effectively promote fast growth after weaning at nine months through to target finishing weight. So far, the first crop of 2017 born Beef Shorthorn cross steers are finishing from an average 14.5 months and 665.33kg.

Measuring and monitoring on a six-weekly basis is allowing us to be more efficient when it comes to feeding. We sort according to weight, group in pens and feed accordingly, for example cattle reaching 500kg now go straight on to a 90-day finishing diet.

16 month-old three quarter bred Beef Shorthorn cross heifers

16 month-old three quarter bred Beef Shorthorn cross heifers

10 month-old weaned heifers

10 month-old weaned heifers