Driving down variable costs on any unit, is never an easy task, but you can cut them back a fair whack on a beef unit by altering the breeding policy to introduce an element of Salers blood.

That’s what has been achieved at Edston Farm, part of Benson Wemyss Farms, just outside Peebles, now managed by Craig Balmbra.

Over the past two years, the business has abandoned its previous breeding programme, reliant on a Charolais as a terminal sire to bull 240 suckler cows, which were calved indoors. Now, with the introduction of pure and crossbred Salers females and Salers bulls, vet bills at calving time are virtually non-existent and feed costs have been halved, argued Craig. “Our Salers and Salers cross cows are out wintered on the hill from November through to mid-March and all they receive is cow cobs -no straw or silage- yet they calve outdoors no problem,” said Craig, who instigated the introduction of the Salers to Edston. I’ve calved 230 cows since I came here in 2006 and I’ve not had to get the vet out once. I have had two dead calves but one was still born and the other had it’s skin over its nose.

I’ve also calved 55 two year-old Salers cross heifers, to a Salers, and only assisted two as a precaution. Furthermore, I’ve not used a third of the feeding I would have had to use, under the previous policy. “Salers are the equivalent of the Blackface sheep breed.

They calve themselves and, as a result can be farmed with reduced labour. The calves don’t have to be sooked either – they’re born small and are up on their feet almost immediately and within days soon start to get a bit of shape about them,” added Craig, who previously managed blackface sheep at Glenkirk, for the Marshall family. “When I first came here, there were 120 Limousin, Hereford and Belgian Blue cross cows to calve inside to a Charolais – and the majority has to be calved and sooked. Some Charolais calves seem to go to sleep for two days after they’re born and, being calved inside, we had some serious disease problems. “We also had some problems with fertility calving to a Charolais because most of the cows has to be calved. But fertility is not a problem with the Salers cross cows which seem to come to the bull easily- one of our new young bulls bulled 48 cows, recently, and he got all bar four in the first turn.”

Importantly, while Salers cross cows and their calves are proving easy to manage, they also sell well in the market place -and, to repeat buyers. In August, the business sold 45 nine and 10-month-old bullock and heifer calves at Lanark to average £400 per head, or 112p per kg, which was good going considering the depressed trade at the time following the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Surrey. Limousin cross calves out of Salers cross cows are also proving popular. For example, in May, 2007, Edston sold 33 Limousin cross Salers bullocks at St Boswells to average £502 per head, or 154p per kg at 310 days of age.

On average they weighed 326 kg, having gained 1.05 kg per day from birth, from a diet based on adlib whole-crop barley at weaning and up to 5lb of concentrates per day, a month before the sale. No concentrates were fed at weaning. Only a third of the herd is bulled to a Limousin. The main aim at Edston is to concentrate on Salers to breed replacement females. At present, the unit at Edston which comprised 1400 acres rising to 1500ft above sea-level and made up of Edston, Edderston, Standalane and Glack farms, is home to 160 Salers and Salers cross cows, with the aim to upsize numbers to nearer 250. This would allow the business not only to breed it’s replacement heifers but also to breed pedigree bulls and heifers, plus cross-breds for the sale at Castle Douglas. Obviously, a large number of Salers and Salers cross heifers have already been bought in, with 30 purchased privately from the Girvan family, at Gateshaw, Morebattle and a further 16 from the Firth herd, through St Boswells. However, the farm has also been retaining many of its Salers cross heifers from the Limousin, Belgian Blue and Hereford cross cows.

Edston has also bought several Salers bulls and pedigree females privately from the Girvan family; from Sandy Welsh, who dispersed his Mossfennan herd, from Broughton, Biggar; and a bull from Willie and Jennifer Davdson, Poldean Moffat. “We’re looking to breed quality females both for the commercial and the pedigree herd to allow us to eventually breed quality bulls. Therefore, we aim to buy bulls to breed good females – and if we can breed a good bull that’s a bonus. It’s just like the tup trade,” said Craig. It may be some years before Edston will sell large numbers of breeding heifers, but for this year’s sale at Castle Douglas, on Saturday, November 3rd, the firm had six 15/16 or pure heifer calves up for grabs. That’s if there will be time – as there is only Craig, shepherd Iain Brown, and David Jones, who is involved in the farm’s livery business to get the work done. While all work together when needed, Craig is in sole charge of the cattle, while Iain attends to the sheep.

This is made up of the 800 Blackface ewes crossed to a bluefaced Leicester, which this year produced 250 Mule ewe lambs to average £54 through Border Livestock Exchange and 800 Mule ewes tupped to a Texel. Meanwhile, David manages a livery and cross-county course for novice and advanced riders, at Edderston, which has 66 fences, a competition course and water complex. With only three staff, all enterprises have to be easycare at Edston and what breed or cross other than the Salers could be easier maintained at such low costs and yet still produce some healthy returns into the bargain? Reduced calving bills add to profit.

By Patsy Hunter Pictures Niall Robertson Scotish Farmer