Herd improvements help increase Fort William mixed farm’s margins

Farming in one of the wettest parts of the UK brings with it a few challenges, but a herd of pedigree Limousin cattle have adapted to the climate and are helping to improve margins at the Cameron family’s Strone Farm near Fort William.

Strone is part of Lochiel and Achnacarry Estate. It runs to 1,200ha and rises to 2,800ft above sea level, while a few fields border the picturesque Caledonian Canal.

Becoming a Monitor Farm

In 2016, it was selected as the Lochaber Monitor Farm, one of nine monitor farms that have been established around Scotland in a joint initiative by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds.

The aim of the programme, which is funded by the Scottish Government, is to help improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of Scottish farm businesses.

Malcolm Cameron has worked for the estate since 1969 and got the chance of the tenancy in 1990 with his wife, Eileen.

Malcolm and son Chris were keen to take part in the Monitor Farm process. Having previously been active in groups in Argyll, Chris believes it has made him question everything he does and given him a better understanding of where improvements can be made.

Chris Cameron said: “We were on a development journey with the farm anyway, but this has opened my eyes to new techniques and I feel my personal development has been one of the biggest benefits of the process so far.”

The farm, which gets a massive 3-3.5m of rain a year, is stocked with 50 pure Limousin cows and 520 North Country Cheviot ewes.

Malcolm bought his first cow in 1993 from the Anside herd and a second a few years later from the Greenwell herd. The whole herd can be traced back to these two foundation females.

Malcolm Cameron added: “We find the pure Limousin cow is very adaptable, she calves easily and even if not on the best of grass will maintain her condition and get back in calf.

“She may not have as much milk as a cow grazing on better pasture, but the calves have the genetics to grow on when they are weaned.”

Breeding goals

The family have deliberately avoided any extremes in the breed and carefully select bulls on their maternal traits – such as ease of calving and milk.

Although, Chris is quick to point out that they must be pleasing to the eye too. He has 12 of his own Camerons prefixed females mixed in with the Stronefield herd.

A plus point for the Limousin, according to the pair, is that the cast cows are worth good money at the end of their useful lives. They also sell a few bulls naturally from home, with the best going for £3,500.

The family may sell a few breeding heifers in the future, but as Malcolm and Chris have been keen to expand the herd at Strone, all the heifers are currently retained.

The rest of the calves are sold store at Dingwall at around ten months of age when they average 350kg liveweight.

Dealing with commodity prices

Chris Cameron said: “The price was seriously back in October at 228p/kg, compared to January when they were 280p/kg.”

He puts this down to the price of straw which has jumped from £26 to £40 per big bale and said: “We get hit twice when a commodity like straw goes up in price.

We have to spend more to manage our herd and buyers are reluctant to spend as much on their calves. I calculated it costs me 70p in straw for every kg in calf weight.

“Our philosophy is that if we are going to the expense of housing cattle, then we have to make sure we can meet the market specification. Our calves have the genetics to grow and are efficient at converting feed.”

Despite advice from the Monitor Farm Group, the Camerons continue to calve all-year-round, which they believe best suits their system and they are still able to keep individual cow’s calving index under 370 days.

An advantage of operating a year-round calving system is that the Camerons need fewer bulls, so can afford to spend more when they do invest in a bull.

Less than 50ha of the farm is suitable for cutting silage, so the family have to manage it carefully. The dry cows can make use of a further 50ha or so of marginal land, but none of the cows go to the hill, which barely supports the sheep flock. All cattle are housed from October through to May.

Following advice that has come from the Monitor farm meetings, the Camerons now bull heifers four months earlier at 15 months. They are also weaning spring-born calves and managing them separately to allow cows more time to recover before calving again.

In recent years, the family have managed to rent some improved grassland near Inverness, where they can graze a batch of cows, and this has made a big difference to the farm’s bottom line.

Chris Cameron said: “Sheep and cattle were vying for the same small area of good grass at home. So we used to put the sheep to the hill after lambing; however, we were losing over 60% of our lambs to foxes and eagles.

Since we’ve moved the ewes and lambs to a rented lowland farm at Fort William, we have weaned 97% of lambs, instead of 37%.

This year, for the first time, the Camerons finished the lambs at Fort William by weaning early, housing in a shed which came with the farm. The results have been very positive.

“This year, we sold 220 lambs averaging at £70 per head,” Chris explained. “We calculated feeding costs at £25 per head, but the store price was £35 per head, so we made an additional £10 profit per lamb, and we had the benefit of freeing up grass for flushing ewes so we can expect an improved scanning next year.”

As part of the programme, the Camerons and other local farmers have established a business group to share key performance indicators (KPIs), using AHDB programme Farmbench to compare and contrast farm efficiency figures.

Chris said he finds this particularly useful, not only comparing with other farms but using figures for his own farm as a benchmark to improve.

He is currently exceeding the suggested KPI for gross margin for a west coast suckler herd by £85/head at £335/head.

“Farmers in Lochaber are genuinely scared that they won’t be able to continue to farm,” he said.

“Their businesses are unbelievably fragile, and they are constantly being told to cut costs which leads to them not investing in their farms and the usable land shrinking, therefore compounding their issues.

“Farmers like us have limited options so it is great having help in finding ways to improve our systems.”