Scottish Borders livestock farmers Ian Richardson and his father David have gradually been building up numbers in their specialist beef unit with a target of 500 suckler cows.
They farm 1,650 acres at Upper Samieston, near Jedburgh where they run 440 suckler cows alongside almost 1,000 breeding sheep and 250 arable acres which they manage with one other man and Ian’s wife Georgina when she is needed.
The aim is to sell most of their calves store at six to seven months old off their dams to maximise profitability. The ideal is to sell as many as possible in October.
They are using Charolais, Aberdeen Angus, Limousin, British Blue and Simmental bulls, using the Angus, Blues and some Limousins for breeding replacements and putting the Charolais and Limousins bulls onto them.
David and Isabel Richardson took the opportunity to expand their farming operation in 1987, selling their farm near Dalbeattie in south west Scotland to buy the larger 500-acre unit at Upper Samieston.
As well as the suckler herd, they have 600 ewes producing Texel cross finished lambs and breeding ewe lambs. They also gimmer 350 Cheviot ewe lambs.
Ian farms in partnership with his parents and they now run 1,000 acres at Upper Samieston while renting a further 530 acres on a five-year, short limited duration tenancy, taking on a further 150 acres of annual grass lets.
In 2014 they decided to invest at Upper Samieston, putting up two new cattle sheds and a straw shed which is also used for lambing. For ease of handling, the two new cattle sheds are fitted with eight calving pens between them, each including a calving yoke which has made a huge difference in handling the cows.
They also renovated the bungalow Ian’s grandparents lived in which is home to David and Isabel, while Ian, Georgina and their sons Thomas, six, and Adam, five, now live in the farm house.
All but 40 cows calve in spring from mid-March to May and the calving period is as tight as possible during this time. Bulls go out about June 10 each year, for a strict period of 11 weeks. This concentrated calving period is a busy time with more than 100 cows calving from March 15 to the beginning of April in 2017.
On the last Monday in October a batch of 160 of mainly Charolais-sired but also Aberdeen Angus and Limousin sired suckled calves are sold off their dams through the ring at UA’s Stirling mart with further batches of 50-plus marketed throughout the year to reduce haulage costs.
“We aim to sell them off their mothers because we don’t have enough space for them and because they make us the most profit then. They cost us virtually nothing to graze through the summer.
In October 2017, the calves peaked at £980 for a 232kg black Limousin steer which was the show champion and averaged £830 for the 120 steers and 40 heifers sold. Upper Samieston led the trade at 318.5p per kg for a 270kg Limousin cross bullock and 301.5p for a 272kg Charolais cross heifer.
For the last five years the Richardsons have had the champion calf on the day. A handful are selected as potential show calves receiving no special treatment other than a wash and a blow dry the day before the sale and they often go on to be successful, particularly in the young farmers’ calf rally at Stirling.
In October 2017, 70 of the 160 calves sold to farms in the Borders. All the calves are sold before the focus turns to calving which begins in mid-March.
With increasing numbers of cattle and potential workload, reliable management aids are uppermost and the Richardsons have used Roxan’s Alpha cattle tags since 2010 to identify cattle and pair up cows and their calves quickly, ordering more than 400 at a time. They have also used Roxan’s Tagfaster slaughter and twin tags for a similar period on their sheep flock.
“We had a bad experience with our previous tags. The stem was snapping and we had to replace up to 80 tags one year. We decided to try Roxan which was local to us based in Selkirk. We have to replace very few tags now and, if we do, the tags are put in the post and delivered to us the next day. In 2017, out of 413 calves born, we probably didn’t need to replace half a dozen.
“We use large primary tags and the secondary tag is a small button. The colour coded tag is blank and the colour matches the sire with the mothers management tag written on by me. We can easily identify the calf’s dam and sire,” he added.
“The Angus calves are all tagged with a red management tag so we can pick them out regardless of which bull they are off. We also freeze-brand all the cows, which is a huge help if they lose their tags,” said Ian.
“We don’t have a lot of manpower on the farm so it has got to be easy. We select the first calves to be sold when they are still on their mothers in the field where there is more space and we can spot the mother and her calf easily. The large hand written management tags enable us to match the calf quickly with the mother’s freeze brand.
“All calves get dressed in the two weeks prior to the sale then split from their mothers and loaded on the morning of the sale. The calves are then drawn and sorted into sale lots by the very capable team at United auctions.
We have a very tight timeline and we have enough to do without having to re-tag calves. It is also increases stress for us and the calves.”
“They are excellent tags for retention and reading,” said Ian, who has been tagging calves, mostly himself, easily and fast within 24 hours with the Roxan tags for a number of years. The cows and calves are then turned out to grass.
“Previously, we would have had to replace up to 30 tags out of the 160 calves. Last October we only had to replace one. It reduces our workload if we don’t have to single out calves to replace their ear tags.”
Another management priority is that the cattle must be easily handled, with the Richardsons having a strict policy on temperament.
Bulls are mostly sourced privately but occasionally bought at sales, and while David and Ian do look at growth rate figures, they find judging calving ease by eye more effective. Particularly with Charolais, they avoid heavy-boned bulls and those which are too strong in the fore-end.
The herd has been built up gradually since 2001, buying in very few females to maintain the herd’s health status and breeding replacements using the four-way cross to maintain hybrid vigour. None of the cows are more than 50% Angus. Blue, Simmental and Limousin cows are put to the Angus bull and most of the Angus cross go to the Charolais bull.
Because calving is at two years old, first and second calvers are all run with the Limousin bulls and then the Richardsons decide which way they are bred. Occasionally heifers are purchased if the opportunity arises, as long as they are health accredited.
“The health status has to be right – we vaccinate all cows and heifers against bovine viral diarrhoea and test all first and second calvers for Johne’s,” said Ian.
The calves are also DNA tissue sampled under the Scottish Beef Efficiency Scheme which records data on the calf and dam and assists in the efficient development of suckler herds.
“We rent a shed from a neighbour where there is room for up to 40 cows if needed that are identified as later spring calvers at scanning by the vet. There were only 18 identified as third cycle this year so we topped them up to 40 but they will come home to calve.
We would like to increase cow numbers to 500 - this year we calved a further 20. The ideal is to sell as many calves as possible in October.”