This feature is courtesy of Patsy Hunter / Business and Technical Editor, The Scottish Farmer
Photo credit: Rob Haining
Performance on a commercial basis is proving key to overall productivity and more importantly profitability at Firth Farm, Melrose – home of the AgriScot ‘Beef Farm of the Year and to Iain Livesey, his wife Sarah and Iain’s parents, Rob and Kath.
No strangers to the show and sale ring, the family has always had an eye for Salers cattle, having secured top prices and championship tickets at numerous events with entries from their Cleuchhead herd.
Over the years, the Liveseys have not only produced a former record priced Salers bull at 11,000gns – when Cleughhead Kingpin, sold at Castle Douglas in 2016 – but also some of the top priced bulling heifers at £1800. They’ve also secured many of the fancy tickets at both the Royal Highland and the Great Yorkshire Shows.
It is, though, the breed’s ability to live and indeed thrive in tough conditions, combined with family’s management skills, that ensures this enterprise actually makes money.
“We’ve always liked the Salers. as they are a breed of cattle we believe are sustainable,” said Iain. “They’re easy to look after, with good feet and legs and their unique selling point is, their ease of calving, prolificacy and longevity.”
Such is the productivity of the Salers herd on their 300ha unit based in the Borders, the barren percentage of the family’s 100-cow pedigree unit is always less than 5% – and that’s calving the heifers at two years of age in the spring within a six-week period, with cows having an extra three weeks.
More impressive is the fact that calf mortality is virtually non-existent. “We start calving at the end of March and we rarely have any bother, with in excess of 70% calving within the first three weeks for the past three years in succession.
“We can count in one hand the number of yeld, too,” said Iain, who added that heifers are bulled at 15 months of age at 420kg-plus.
Fertility has improved over the years by achieving a strict culling of empty or late calving cows, monitoring body condition and reducing the bulling period to six weeks amongst the heifers. Bulls are always semen tested to guarantee that half of the equation.
“It would be rare for us to have any more than four empty females at scanning, which is mostly down to the breed – the Salers is renowned for it’s strong maternal traits, producing lightweight, easy-calving calves which are therefore easier on individual cows, enabling them to recover quicker and return to the bull,” said Iain.
“We virtually never interfere with calving cows and most years we only assist two or three heifers with a bit of a pull.”
Calf weights are relatively low, with last year’s heifers producing calves averaging 37kg, with second calvers calves’ 40kg and cows at 41kg.
Commenting on calf survival, Iain added: “We have not lost a calf at birth since the spring of 2017 and with one set of twins each year since, we have had more calves than cows on the ground by the end of our last two calving seasons. It would be very uncommon for us to lose more than two or three calves in total during calving.”
They did, nevertheless, have some near losses in 2018, having experienced a rotavirus outbreak in calves at around seven-days-old, with three badly affected, but no mortality. As a result, cows are now vaccinated against rotavirus.
The family also make a point of taking data of all newly-born calves, which are tagged and weighed at birth and put into an individual pen with their mothers for at least 24 hours. They are also dehorned using electric dehorners in an IAE calf crate, which enables one person to easily work with the calf safely, before putting individual cow and calf units out to grass.
The Liveseys also score the mothers on temperament, feet and udders. “Our aim is to produce natural breeding cattle that can look after themselves without too much interference,” added Iain.
“We look to breed cows with good feet, udders, fertility and temperament, and a high number of live calves born in a tight consecutive time period, which is the foundation of a profitable beef farming enterprise. This ensures more calves to sell, and, a larger selection of replacements for the herd.”
He added that selecting for milking ability, good udder attachment and strong hard feet are some of the key traits for breeding low maintenance, long lasting cows.
Iain also halter breaks all heifer calves after weaning in order to pin point any temperament issues early on and pick out any potential show or sale females, which he feels is highly beneficial.
Outwith the family’s own recording, they also rely on an independent technician for back-fat scanning bulls, weight recording, eye muscle area, rib fat, and intramuscular fat – factors which can determine the value and eating quality of a finished carcase, recorded within Breedplan to create EBVs.
The theory being that more accurate data is recorded as the technician sends the data to Breedplan himself, and cannot be tampered with by breeders.
The technician also measures scrotal circumference, which gives a direct link to maturity of heifers – an important tool for maintaining fertility when heifers calve at two.
Calved heifers are kept separate for a year and on slightly better grazing before joining the main herd as second calvers thereby reducing the risk of bullying from older cows, allowing them grow on, develop and still come to the bull.
Calves are weaned in the back-end and fed 1% of their bodyweight in urea treated wheat or Maxammon-treated wheat, which is being used for the first time. Therefore, weaned calves at 290-300kg are fed 3kg of the home-produced wheat plus silage, which in February goes up to 4kg when they reach 400kg.
Both heifer and bullock calves are sold the following year, either as bulling heifers at the breed sale Castle Douglas, or stots at Thainstone. Over the past six years, the heifers have averaged £1270, while last year the bullocks cashed in at £2 per kg at 575-580kg – down 20p per kg compared to previous highs, but still better than finishing them.
“We consider ourselves more breeders than feeders, so have designed a system more tailored to our strengths. Currently, we are happy selling store and letting the finishing part to the professionals,” added Iain.
The Liveseys have also been selling cow and calf outfits through Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre, in May, which is proving popular, either with steer or heifer calves at foot, with sales of up to £2600.
Breeding cattle are also sold privately, either at shows or through social media, which has proved a phenomenal marketing tool for the business on the back of regular photographs and updates of the what is happening on farm, particularly when preparing stock for shows and sales.
One regular such sale has seen a joint arrangement with the McLean family, from Mull, who buy easy fleshing, quiet, home-bred Cleuchhead bulls at a set price and in return, the Liveseys purchase their resultant cross-bred progeny in October, which are housed in a rented neighbouring steading until spring turnout.
These steers are also sold through store ring at 18 months in Thainstone, with the heifers sold as bullers at the breed sale at Castle Douglas, in November, where they regularly attract a premium.
Iain added: “I think it’s important that more farmers can collaborate like this to create a supply chain that involves upland farms playing more of a part on the production of seed stock and achieving a hi health herd on a national level.
“Ultimately, we are looking for a high quality herd with every animal working to earn its keep. Consistency is very important to us, as we believe having a herd of almost identical cows is far more impressive than having one spectacular cow.
“Therefore, we are particular about the type of cows we are looking to breed from, and focus on easy fleshing females with balance throughout and no real extreme attributes,” he said, adding that the family is constantly assessing cow performance to pinpoint the bottom 10% of breeders each year, before selling them on, mainly to cross with Charolais bulls.
It is a policy which is obviously bearing fruit as not only is the business constantly weeding out the bottom end of cattle to streamline the herd, it also provides a consistent level of performance.
Family business – Iain and Sarah Livesey and Iain’s parents, Rob and Kath, who have a 300ha tenancy at Firth Farm, Melrose, comprising in-bye grazing ground and 50ha of winter wheat grown for feed and bedding. A neighbouring steading is also rented during the winter to house and feed bought in store cattle.
Livestock – 100 pure-bred Salers cows all of which are hi-health, home-bred and calve at two years of age, producing heifers for home-bred replacements and to sell at Castle Douglas, and forward bullock stores sold at Thainstone.
Some 60 Salers cross suckled calves by home-bred bulls are bought from a farm on Mull, wintered in a rented shed and sold either as forward stores at 575-580kg, through Thainstone or breeding heifers at the Castle Douglas sale. Also 1000 bought in Scotch Mule ewes all of which are tupped to a Texel and progeny sold finished off the farm.
Diversification – Selling Portayards – mobile sheep handling systems imported from New Zealand twice a year. USP: 10cm higher hurdles stopping sheep jumping with sheeted top panel to protect dogs legs when jumping over. Also manual hydraulic lift pump is a popular feature. Grant aid south of the Border has resulted in a spike in sales recently.
ON THE spot
Best investment: “Our stock bull Drumlegagh Brandon, purchased from Irish breeder, John Elliot, as a twin-born bull calf at £1800. The late Willie Davidson bought the other twin-born bull calf. Brandon produced 10 crops of spring-born calves and never missed a beat, with the result £120,000 worth of breeding bulls have been sold from him and a large percentage of the Cleughhead herd carries his genetics. He was a long good carcase bull, breeding cows with exceptional udders and feet and his genetics have been consistent producing many of these key traits in his progeny.”
Where do you want to be in 2030: “Hopefully, with double the number of Salers cows and the breed to be as popular as the Aberdeen-Angus is at present, thereby ensuring increased demand for Salers bulls and females.”
Most inspirational farmer: “Jim Logan, Pirntaton, because I admire his enthusiastic attitude and I think he understands the importance of the link between pedigree breeding and commercial reality. I have also learnt a lot from Gordon Gray, Selkirk.”
Other interests: “Sarah likes to drag me away on holiday to Mull! – but then, she does come from there. Also skiing, shooting and avoiding coronavirus.”