Farm Manager Drew Guthrie

Beef Shorthorn lies at the heart of a sustainable low input high output suckler enterprise which has an essential role to play in Buccleuch Estate’s hill and upland farming business based at Bowhill, Selkirk. “Overall, Beef Shorthorn is making a significant contribution to our current targets and is definitely here for the future,” says farms manager, Sion Williams.

We’re using Beef Shorthorn to produce a fertile, low maintenance, robust suckler cow with good temperament and performance traits, and the native genetics have also provided us with an opportunity to develop a closed herd, which is strategically vital to optimizing herd health.”

Sion’s objective is to maximise output per cow which in turn will contribute towards achieving his targeted 10% return on capital on the 9,000 SDA acres at Bowhill. This portion of the estate farmed in hand carries a 460 cow enterprise split in to three spring calving herds – 230 Beef Shorthorn cross sucklers put to the terminal sire, 50 Angus cows to Beef Shorthorn to breed replacements and the remainder a native pedigree herd; it also stocks complementary flocks of 4,500 breeding ewes and grows over 220 acres of cereal and forage crops contributing to the livestock unit’s virtual self-sufficiency.

“We are focused on getting in to the top third of QMS benchmarked hill and upland units within the next two years and we are heading towards that target. The main Beef Shorthorn cross suckler herd farmed at Kirkhope, which until recently suffered a massive tick problem, is approaching 90% calves reared, the Charolais cross calves are achieving 1.1kg DLG to weaning at six months and the cows are lasting for an average 10 years.” Those performance achievements contributed towards Buccleuch Estate receiving the Beef Shorthorn Society Morrisons Suckler Herd of the Year Award 2014.  

The herd’s variable costs are minimal – cows forage on rough hill parks which stand below hills up to 1,700ft for the 6.5 months season and housed for the remaining year on a sole grass silage, straw diet plus minerals, Sion explains. “We are continually making variable cost savings, for example, we’ve recently reduced forage costs by 40-45% by moving from big bale to clamp. However we are now focused on reducing fixed costs – labour, depreciation, machinery, and so on by increasing stocking rate. We currently stock one cow per acre and between 220 and 240 cows per cattle man; our target is for one cow per acre inbye and 280 cows per man.”

Farm Facts The Buccleugh Estates
Livestock: 100 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cows, 300 commercial suckler cows put to Charolais bulls, 100 Aberdeen Angus/Angus cross cows put to Shorthorn bulls, 1,300 mule type ewes and 2,500 Scotch Blackface ewes.
The farm: Bowhill Estate runs to approximately 8,000 acres, including 6,000 acres of grouse moor and 2,000 acres of grassland with kale and spring barley for feed.
Other business interests: Bowhill House and Estate are open to the public and the Buccleuch Estates incorporates a portfolio of seven other associated businesses.
Contact: Farms manager Drew Guthrie +44(0)7733 121185
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Despite the unit’s overall scale and each person’s responsibilities, attention to detail is paramount and innovation is introduced wherever appropriate to improve efficiencies. For example, each breeding sire is named on the progeny’s passports to help analyse his performance. EID record weights, movements and vet treatments are made across each herd. Plate metering is used on one block this year to determine grazing dry matter value as a trial to improve pasture quality and stocking rate.  

Beef Shorthorn already had a presence at Bowhill when Sion arrived in 2004. “The suckler herd carried a mix of genetics – native and Continental cross: the Beef Shorthorn crosses were proving to be hardy, functional suckler cows, able to adapt to the hill unit’s harsh environment and thrive on forage alone. They also had a bigger pelvis and were more suited to putting to the Charolais; these cows were ultimately producing a better product for the store market. Consequently, we decided to step up the Beef Shorthorn cross numbers to potentially move towards breeding replacements adding value to the products produced making the most from our high health status.

“We breed our own replacements from Beef Shorthorn bulls selected within the breed’s top 10% for milk, calving ease and growth EBVs. These heifers are sufficiently grown for bulling at an average 400kg at 14 months in order to calve at two years. Introducing them to a TMR diet has enabled us to reduce age at first calving by 12 months which has brought huge benefits to cash flow – with an average 12% replacement rate, we’re now avoiding £40,000 in annual lost productivity. These heifers go on to reach an average 550kg to 600kg mature weight – the smaller the cow, the less she costs to keep, and we’re culling at 10 to 12 years. We don’t carry any passengers. We put the bulls in for just nine weeks to achieve compact calving, and any failing to scan in calf are culled.

“As far as motherability is concerned, then our Beef Shorthorn cows are fantastic. Since they’re run on hill parks and see just one man on a bike daily, then they could be flighty, however they have a naturally quiet temperament which is crucial to our overall management and to their progeny, and they certainly look after their calves; they have a plentiful supply of milk which is reflected in weaning weight – an average 388kg at six months.

Stock health is a high priority and the entire cow herd is in the SAC Premium Health Scheme. “If you don’t know your disease issues, then how do you not know they are contributing to other issues and ultimately the bottom line?” says Sion who is also committed to a closed herd for biosecurity purposes. Bowhill’s sole cattle purchases are stock bulls from herds of known health status.

The Buccleuch Estates

Meanwhile all Charolais cross steers and heifers together with Beef Shorthorn cross steers are sorted by weight, breed and sex at 12 months old and marketed in a novel private sealed bid system. “We have a database of finishers and offer them a nine hour window to make a bid on a p/kg basis. For three years it’s proved to be a clean and tidy system; we are able to retain control of our herd’s health status and marketing arrangements - no commission or haulage costs. We’ve also found a worthwhile farmgate sale value for Beef Shorthorn cross heifers surplus to requirements.”

Sion adds: “While reduced payments are going to introduce further pressure to the system, I am confident that we will be able to manage the new challenges. We have in place the tools and an accompanying cash flow forecast and budget against which herd performance will be monitored to continue to achieve a sustainable enterprise.”

The Buccleuch Estates