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Borders Monitor Farm Reaps Benefit of Herd Management Improvements

Herd management changes at the Borders monitor farm - part of Quality Meat Scotland’s network of monitor farms around Scotland - have yielded numerous benefits to the enterprise.

Brothers Neil and Keith Thomson, who farm a total of 1,600, mainly arable acres, over three units near Kelso, run a suckler herd of 120 predominantly Limousin cross suckler cows.

Keith Thomson deals with the day-to-day management of the breeding herd. Sires are Limousin with progeny finished and sold live through nearby St. Boswells auction mart.

Since becoming monitor farmers in 2007, the Thomsons have been encouraged by the community group of local farmers to tighten their calving period, condition score breeding females and identify and cull the poorer performing cows. In addition, bull calves are now castrated, instead of being finished entire.

By taking bulls out earlier, the calving period has been reduced from 17 to 10 weeks. The community group set a target of 90% of the herd to be calved in the first two cycles. Although not yet achieving this, the 2009 calving saw 96% of the herd calved by the end of the third cycle, compared with 91% in 2007.

“The benefits of the tighter calving definitely out-weigh the negatives,” said Keith Thomson. “Average weaning weights are much improved and the cattle are more even. And while there’s still some variation in size and weight in the young stock, it’s far less than before when there were late-born stragglers whose dams we struggled to get back in calf.”

Early in their term as monitor farmers the brothers started to condition score their cows, batching them into three groups – “fit”, “moderate” and “thin along with moderate first calvers” – and fed them accordingly to get them into ideal condition for calving.

“We had serious calving difficulties in 2009, with a bunch of over-fat, bought-in heifer replacements,” explained Keith. “This certainly emphasised the importance of having females in the right condition at calving!”

The Thomsons have recently joined the Premium Cattle Health Scheme and will be screening cows for Johnes. The cows are vaccinated against Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD), with bought-in replacements tested prior to vaccination.

The purchase of a weigh platform in 2008 enabled the Thomsons to record calf weaning weights and to monitor growth rates of finishing stock.

“The weaning weight and growth rate information has helped us identify the cows which produce the poorer calves,” said Neil Thomson. “With OTMS finished, there’s now a decent price for cull cows, which certainly makes it easier to cull under-performers. Coupled with the removal of the pre-96 cows, this has given us a much younger herd.”

It was decided in 2008 to castrate bull calves. Comparison of bull versus steer performance figures might be expected to show a significant reduction in the 2008 calf crop. However, the benefits of the recent herd efficiency and productivity improvements were revealed when the figures were analysed.

On average - the steers were eight days younger at finish (457 compared with 465 days), spending 17 less days on the finishing diet (259 compared with 276 days). Their lifetime daily weight gain was just 0.04 kg lower than the bulls (1.21kg/day compared with 1.25kg/day), finishing at 590 kgs liveweight compared with the bulls at 618 kgs liveweight.

On 13th June, the Thomsons are holding an Open Day on their farms. All, farmers and non-farmers, are welcome. There will be a number of working demonstrations of farming activities which will be of interest to farmers, and informative to non-farmers, keen to learn more about how their food is produced.

For more details about the Borders Monitor Farm, including the dates of forth-coming meetings, please contact facilitator, Donald Dunbar.

Telephone 01835 823322 Email Donald.Dunbar@sac.co.uk

General information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings can found by visiting www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms