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Outwintering youngstock shows benefits for two contrasting businesses

 

With debate ranging from reduced wintering costs to land fertility, 75 farmers from across Scotland tuned in to the recent Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) webinar ‘Getting to the Root of Outwintering Youngstock’ to hear the experiences of two farmers’ winter management systems.

Held on Tuesday 23 February, the webinar, which was recorded and available to watch on the QMS website and YouTube channel, was chaired by John Evans, QMS Cattle and Sheep Specialist. John set the scene reflecting that as the beef industry continues to look at ways to reduce costs to become more sustainable, grazing stock outdoors all winter has several potential advantages if planned correctly.

“Outwintering can offer a range of benefits for farm businesses including reduced wintering costs, a reduction in labour, dilution of fixed costs, animal health, adding fertility to the land and potentially allowing a farm to carry more cattle without the capital investment in infrastructure.

“Obviously not every farm may be suited to outwintering their entire stock, but whether it be introducing brassica crops such as kale into the rotation or deferred grazing on hill pastures, farmers can begin to cut the costs and labour associated with keeping cows and youngstock, which can have a significant effect on their bottom line.”

“Looking at calf registration figures, native breeds have increased by 48.2% over the last ten years. The native breeds are more suited to these forage-based systems and potentially more suited to outwintering and I believe these figures show that real change is happening in the Scottish beef industry with more farmers exploring a shift towards low input beef production.”

Guest speakers included Duncan Morrison, a young farmer who, five years ago, secured the tenancy at Meikle Maldron, near Torphins, Aberdeenshire which he runs alongside his family farm at Upper Ingliston, Inverurie. For Duncan, outwintering cattle has allowed him to establish a low input system to continue to work away from home with his fencing business, as well as reducing initial investment costs in machinery and equipment.

“From day one I have outwintered the cows,” says Duncan. “With limited shed space and the aim to keep input costs low, I attended a number of QMS grazing group meetings to learn more about outwintering cattle on forage crops and have never looked back.”

With just over 100 pure Aberdeen Angus, Aberdeen Angus cross and Stabiliser cows, Duncan has this year, for the first time trialled keeping 38 weaned heifers out over the winter, which will be kept as replacements for the herd.

“I have recently managed to secure some more land through a contract farming agreement, however with shed space limited, outwintering youngstock will allow me to continue to increase the herd size without sourcing alternative winter housing.”

David Aglen, Farm Manager at Balbirnie Home Farms, joined Duncan as guest speaker.

Eighty miles south, and arguably a contrasting business with over 2,900 acres, Balbirnie Home Farms, near Freuchie, Fife, began outwintering youngstock three years ago after the decision to change the livestock policy to help economic growth of the large farming enterprise.

“For us, it was an economic decision,” explains David. “Cattle are capable of harvesting the crop, processing it and fertilising the fields, so we saw the opportunity to cut back on investing large amounts of money on equipment to do the same job for us.

“We run over 170 Simmental cross Shorthorn cows and five years ago took the decision to move away from an intensive based system and focus on outwintering.

“We started the process by transitioning the cows, and the youngstock followed two years later.”

Prior to outwintering, Balbirnie Farms housed youngstock on an intensive barley beef system, which David says provided strong output, but poor return on investment due to increasing costs of bought-in feed, bedding and equipment.

Both Duncan and David agree that they are continuing to learn and develop their systems each year and that outwintering calves has required more attention to detail compared to cows.

 “Although this is my first year of wintering calves on kale, I have quickly learned it is a completely different ball game compared to cows,” explains Duncan.

David and his team also found the transition to outwintering younger beasts tough but continued to persevere with this year’s entire batch of youngstock out grazing kale.

David says: “Calves need luxury quantities of kale in front of them to ensure they keep thriving. Each year we have adapted the system to improve the areas we found were challenging the previous year with youngstock.

“We started mob grazing our cows with their calves during the summer and found this has helped with the calves acclimatising to the electric fence and strip grazing of the kale once weaned.”

Overall financial savings trump growth rates

At Balbirnie, the calves are wintered as one group, any under 300kgs at weaning  are not put onto the kale. They are introduced to kale from November and come off mid-March when they are strip grazed on rye cover crop for a short period before going to grass from mid-April.

“We stopped feeding calves creep and although growth rates may not be as high at weaning, we have a more uniform batch which are putting on 0.7kg/day on average whilst being outwintered.

“Costs of feeding the calves are now 75% lower compared to when we housed them, so for us although growth rates may be slower, the overall gross margin for the livestock system has improved massively.”

He adds: “One of the real benefits we have seen since outwintering the calves is the improvement in health. We have stopped giving treatment for pneumonia and calves are looking much healthier.”

For Duncan, his aim is to continue to outwinter his breeding replacements going forward and despite the weather causing some challenges this year and making a few mistakes, he is positive that he can adapt the system and improve for future years.

“We weaned the calves and introduced them to a hybrid brassica, Red Start in the middle of November 2020.

“I decided to use the Red Start, which is a mixture of kale and forage rape as it’s slightly leafier compared to kale and is quicker to establish. Like everything, I have a bit to learn about growing it and this year I sowed it perhaps too early.”

With the aim to reduce his mature cow size, Duncan hopes that outwintering replacement heifers will allow them to grow naturally to reach the target weight for bulling in June and calving at two years old.

“The first few weeks after we weaned the calves, we had a lot of rain and I was feeling sorry for them, but as the weather improved, and the calves acclimatised to the system, they are improving week by week. 

“I have aspirations to sell highly functional breeding stock and therefore feel like testing the resilience of the cattle from a young age is a great way to accelerate the breeding programme.  If a heifer can thrive outside in her first winter then she will go onto be a hardy cow on other farms”

Both farmers agree that soil condition, climate, shelter, and breed all play a role in successfully outwintering cattle, especially calves.

“At Meikle Maldron most our land is sandy loam, free draining and has suitable shelter belts which makes it easier for outwintering,” highlights Duncan. “Cows are bomb proof compared to calves and can withstand a bad spell of weather with less shelter, but I have quickly learnt it’s important to make sure you have a plan B for youngstock if you don’t have suitable shelter and the weather breaks.”

David adds that although not every farm may have suitable soil conditions or shelter, farmers should look at opportunities to collaborate with neighbours, or farmers from different areas that may have lighter soils which can allow outwintering.

 “Balbirnie has a lot of land which is sandy silt loam, so I fully appreciate the benefits our land offers for outwintering without causing too much damage. However, after seeing the continued improvements outwintering is making to the business’ bottom line, as well as animal health I would encourage farmers to think out the box and look at ways to collaborate.”

With the aim to move towards regenerative agriculture at Balbirnie, David highlights how collaboration and outwintering can not only be a benefit to livestock farmers, but to arable farmers looking to improve soil health.

David concludes: “Our arable land up until now hardly ever saw livestock and the fertility of the fields have suffered. Since introducing stock back onto the fields it has improved our soils greatly.”

Although it might not appeal to all producers, John Evans notes: “All farm businesses are different; it’s about playing to our strengths and developing a system which suits the cattle and the land. It is very common for youngstock to be wintered off farm in someone else’s shed, outwintering on another holding is an obvious evolution of this form of collaboration.

“With the right setup and a well thought out contingency plan producers can take a proactive step towards a lower cost and sustainable beef production model,” concludes John

The recording of the webinar is available to watch via the QMS website and YouTube channel - www.youtube.com/QMSmootube and watch ‘Getting to the root of outwintering youngstock’.