Low cost, low input systems - Beef Shorthorn the way to go

Mountbenger fact file
2,500 tenanted acres, 750’ to 1,800’, including 170 acres permanent pasture, 80 acres silage
45 Beef Shorthorn cross suckler cows and followers
25 pedigree Galloway cows
18 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows
1,300 ewes – Blackface, Hill North Country Cheviot and South Country Cheviot

©Catherine MacGregor

©Catherine MacGregor

Low input, low cost systems are for the now and the way to go, says George Irving who is finding that Beef Shorthorn is offering a solution at Mountbenger, a Borders rough grazing hill and upland unit based in the Yarrow valley, near Selkirk.

“There is talk of the current payment system continuing until 2022, yet we don’t know exactly what is around the corner, however it does give us time to keep improving the unit’s efficiency. We want decent output from minimal input, so we will need to farm cattle that are both easier kept and that are required by the marketplace, and we are finding that is what Beef Shorthorn is all about,” he explains.

“For example, both the Beef Shorthorn cross sucklers and the pedigree cows are great foragers and we winter them on rough grazing with minimal supplementary feed. They’re easy fleshing cattle and stay in good condition throughout, which is really important on a hill unit like ours.

“The commercials don’t need housing at all - they calve outdoors on permanent pasture, whilst we bring the pedigrees in for just two to three days in the run up to calving, and then they’re back out on to in-bye pasture immediately afterwards. Both herds graze the in-bye until weaning in late October when they go up on to the hill where we’ve noticed they’ll graze at up to 1,800’.

“Beef Shorthorn has also proved to be very fertile; 60% of both the pure and commercial herd are calving within the first three weeks, whilst our target is for all the cows and heifers to calve within six weeks before the end of March – we’re getting there. Furthermore, last year we achieved 95% calves reared from cows and heifers put to the bull.

©Catherine MacGregor

©Catherine MacGregor

“Also, both pure and commercial herds are easy to calve; Beef Shorthorn has a naturally wide pelvis and we calve them in condition score 2.3 to 3. Consequently, the only females that have ever required assistance are the occasional heifer and those bearing twins.”

Whilst traditionally calving the unit’s commercial heifers at three years, George says he has pulled the Beef Shorthorns back to two years in an attempt to save time, save costs and again, to improve unit efficiency. “We’ve found these heifers are able to grow to 400kg target weight at 15 months first bulling and eventually achieve 500kg to 600kg mature cow weight. The next challenge is to calve the commercial heifers at two years, it’s something we are currently experimenting with.”

Beef Shorthorn cattle were introduced to Mountbenger back in 2005. “We had been successfully breeding tups for a while so I decided I’d like to start breeding pedigree cattle. I chose Beef Shorthorn because it is a breed with an appealing quiet temperament, easy to keep and I like the red and roan colouring. They’ve also proved to be easily fleshed and the cows hold their condition well.

“We started off investing in some heifers and the pedigree herd evolved from there. In fact, what began as a hobby is now a main part of the business. Bulls have sold to 8,000gns in Stirling and females to 2,600gns three times, including the Carlisle champion and leading female. Heifers are always in demand both in the ring and privately, and we have also sold to a few start up herds. Steers are sold as stores, and we’ve found that Morrisons Shorthorn Beef scheme has definitely helped the trade – 12 month steers are making an average £100 a head more over the pure Galloways. Considering the trends for demand, I believe there is potential to further expand the Beef Shorthorn herd.”

A mix of data, eye and classification goes in to the selection of new herd sires and replacements. “We use Breedplan, in particular for calving ease EBVs, however the bull also has to look right, he has to stand correct, have good fleshing, a good top and overall balance and above average scrotal circumference. He also has to be polled. Heifer replacements also have to be of a certain standard, and out of our best breeding females. Classification is also proving to be a useful selection tool. Last year 16 cows were classified, they all achieved minimum Good status, including four Excellent.”

Mountbenger’s success was also reflected in the Beef Shorthorn Cattle Society Scottish Club’s 2017 awards when it was presented with the top medium size herd.

Once pure Beef Shorthorn had been tried and successfully tested, there was little hesitation introducing the breed to Mountbenger’s traditional Blue Grey suckler herd which is currently in the process of being phased out. “The Beef Shorthorn cross Galloway calves are more easily kept and the breed’s milkiness is reflected in growth rates – at eight month weaning last season they achieved an average 30kg more than the Blue Grey bred calves.

©Catherine MacGregor

©Catherine MacGregor

“We used to put a Continental bull over the Beef Shorthorn cross sucklers, however after achieving higher prices for lighter Angus sired bred yearling steers, we decided to abandon and go completely native,” he explains. “They are overwintered indoors with a small amount of supplementary barley blend and the steers sold as yearlings. In 2017 our Continental cross Beef Shorthorn cross steers averaged 402kg and sold to average £860 compared with the Angus cross Beef Shorthorn cross steers at 410kg and £954.

“The herd’s health status is equally important in order to minimise costs and add value and its vital we keep it that way,” he says. “The pedigree herd has been closed since 2009 apart from buying in stock bulls secured from reliable high health status herds. We are members of a CHeCS scheme, accredited for BVD and heading towards Johne’s 1 status.”

He adds: “We are joining SRUC’s Farm Accounts and Benchmarking scheme which we’re planning to use to more clearly identify areas for potential cost cutting. It will also be useful to see how Mountbenger compares with other like-minded businesses. Benchmarking is for the future together with our Beef Shorthorn genetics which are already giving us a head start towards gearing our business for improved efficiency.”