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Away-wintering Cattle Delivers Profitability and Management Benefits on Stirling Farm

An upland beef and sheep producer near Stirling has successfully boosted his suckler cow net margin by £2000 following a decision to away-winter his cattle.

Alastair Robb, who runs the 868 hectare upland Townhead farm in partnership with his wife, Elizabeth, took the decision to collaborate with a lowland Fife farmer after investigating options as a member of the Stirling Business Improvement Group (BIG).

The BIG programme involves a network of 22 groups established around Scotland by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), with support from the Scottish Government’s Skills Development Scheme to improve livestock farming businesses.

The groups have been harnessing financial baseline monitoring and benchmarking figures to improve members’ competitive performance as well as allowing producers to investigate opportunities to collaborate and exchange information.

Townhead, which is six miles south of Stirling in the Fintry Hills, is comprised of 147 hectares of permanent grass and 721 hectares of rough grazing.

The beef side of the business includes 65 Limousin and Aberdeen Angus cross cows which go to the Limousin bull to produce suckled calves. The Robbs also run 1150 Blackface ewes of which 500 are crossed with Bluefaced Leicester tups to produce mule ewe lambs and the rest are kept pure. All wedder lambs are sold store through both local markets and the couple have also diversified into wind production, with two 12KW windmills.

“Alastair was encouraged to trial the concept of collaborating with a lowland farmer to off-winter cattle after visiting a farm in North Yorkshire on the Stirling BIG trip during the autumn of 2011,” said Stephen Whiteford, Stirling BIG group facilitator.

“During the visit the group were hosted by two farmers who had entered in to a collaborative partnership. One of the farmers was a large scale arable producer with a large suckler herd and the other was an upland beef and sheep producer.

“Due to his high input costs for wintering cattle, the upland farmer was incurring considerable losses by his suckler enterprise. Faced with the possibility of having to disperse his herd, he challenged himself to find an arable farmer with a suckler cow enterprise who would be willing to winter his cattle.

“In return, the arable farmer would increase his supply of dung and would be able to put his cattle to the upland farm for summer grazing.

“The mutually beneficial agreement allows the upland farmer to maintain a profitable suckler cow enterprise whilst the lowland farmer benefits from improved efficiency of his arable and suckler cow enterprises.”

After witnessing the success of the simple collaborative partnership in Yorkshire, the Robbs were inspired to investigate the opportunities at home to reduce wintering costs in a similar way.

The Stirling BIG group were invited by the Robbs to visit Townhead last summer and a review of the suckler herd was undertaken. A full enterprise costing for their suckler herd was produced as well as a technical analysis of the herd performance.

The benchmarked information was then provided to the group members who used the data as an aid to help them come up with various recommendations for the development of his suckler enterprise.

The group recommended the Robbs trial the off-farm wintering of cattle during 2012/13 with the proposal being to send the in-calf cows away at the beginning of November and bring them back at the beginning of March to calve.

An agreement with a farmer in West Fife who had available shed space was put in place, whereby the farmer would supply silage and the required labour for the four month period at a cost of £10/head per week.

The Robbs supplied straw for bedding and any supplementary feeding - in this case extra silage was purchased instead of concentrates.

The result was an over-wintering cost saving of more than £2000 for the Robbs. One key area where savings were made was on the reduced amount of concentrates required because the cattle were in-wintered.

“This would have been a larger saving were it not for the fact that we had to buy in more silage than expected for the cows when they came home this spring, due to the exceptionally cold, wet weather conditions which delayed grass growth,” said Alastair Robb.

“Transport costs were quite high but for biosecurity reasons we felt it was a worthwhile investment to ship the cattle to a farm which does not have stock, rather than a more local farm with stock where there might have been a disease transfer risk.”

The Robbs are planning to repeat the off-wintering of their cattle again this winter and confident further savings can be made, perhaps by reducing straw costs by renting a slatted or cubicle shed for the 2013/14 winter.

A further major benefit of the off-wintering was it allowed the Robbs to have more time to focus on the overall management of the farm during the winter as a result of not having to feed and check the cattle each day.