A tight grasp of financial performance is key to a successful future for Moffat-based Alisdair and Emma Davidson who run 360 cows across 880 hectares, along with 500 ewes.
The couple, who took on full management of Poldean farm in 2017, said they have spent a lot of the last 18 months reviewing income and expenditure to ensure the business is fit for the future.
“Our physical performance is good and we know we have a herd management system which suits our farm, but if we’re not profitable all of that means nothing,” said Mrs Davidson.
The passion and dedication of the couple were recognised when they were announced finalists in Scotch Beef Farm of the Year award in November last year. The aim of the award, which is run by AgriScot and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and sponsored by Thorntons Solicitors, is to showcase excellence in the production of cattle in Scotland and raise the profile of the dedication and stock management skills behind the production of Scotch Beef PGI.
For the Davidsons, the aim is to build on the business developed by Alisdair’s parents, the late Willie, and Jennifer who remains a partner in the business today.
“We’ve got a great foundation here to build on at Poldean. Our focus now is to expand cow numbers further and maximise output and efficiency from the land and labour available,” explained Mr Davidson.
He added: “We currently only employ one full time member of staff and the system we operate has been adapted and streamlined to make this possible.
“Emma and I are also very aware of our key strengths. Emma is good at managing data and on the financial front and my strengths are in livestock and grassland management”
Alisdair says that it has been development of the system over a number of years which means they can manage at such low staffing levels and selecting the optimum breed for their particular system has been vital.
“We run a Salers-based herd and achieve a 98% in calf rate with85% calving in the first six weeks. The breed’s maternal traits are key to being able to run a large number of cows with relatively low labour input. The herd is calved outside in early summer, with just 11 cows requiring assistance at calving in 2018,” he explained.
A strict culling policy as well as careful selection of homebred replacements is central to maintaining the herd’s easier management system.
“We cull anything that causes any issues, be that through temperament, calving difficulties, poor mothering or udder quality. On top of that we only bull our heifers and first calvers with Salers bulls to retain replacements, putting the remainder to Charolais bulls to breed our main output, Charolais cross store cattle,” said Mr Davidson.
“This means we’re keeping a high genetic turnover in our herd, by only keeping replacements from the youngest generations within the herd,” he added.
A slight shift in policy in the last couple of years has seen the Davidsons add a Red Aberdeen-Angus bull to the sire line up for the second calvers, with the intention of adding some hybrid vigour in to their retained heifers.
“The main aspiration here is to increase the natural fleshing of the cows and their offspring as we look to maximise growth from grass under a rotational grazing system,” said Mr Davidson.
This couple have recently begun rotational grazing at Poldean, something they believe could help them control costs further in the future and boost growth rates.
Mrs Davidson explained: “The value in making the most of our grass is something that you can’t put a price on. We’ve only made our first steps towards rotational grazing this year and have spent time and money installing 20 extra concrete water troughs to enable larger fields to be split, with another 20 set to be put in place next year.
“We’re grazing the cows and calves in fairly big mobs for much of the year, with the only challenge coming during the bulling period when we want to keep cows in smaller batches.”
The Davidsons say their first season trial with the system has been a success and is something they believe can help them increase cow numbers further without the need to take on extra ground.
“We’re reducing sheep numbers due to uncertainty in the sheep trade and those mouths will be replaced by more cows, with the initial aim being to increase to 400 cows and then see where we can go after that,” says Mr Davidson.
When it comes to marketing the couple sell all their store cattle at nine to ten months old through Wallets Mart, Castle Douglas, with regular buyers keen to secure their Charolais cross steers and heifers.
“We’re using French Charolais bulls as opposed to UK-bred Charolais as the French type tend to suit our cows better,” explained Mr Davidson.
“They’re a bit thicker set and have less bone than UK Charolais and produce great stocky calves when crossed with our Salers cows. The buyers certainly like them and regularly achieve E and U grades with our cattle.”
New bulls are imported from France on a regular basis with an agent selecting potential bulls and sending the couple videos of them before they decide which to buy. They’re all screened for all the major diseases before leaving France and then go in to quarantine on arrival at Poldean to ensure they don’t bring any disease issues in to the herd.
Calving from mid-May onwards to meet grass growth, the Davidson’s are considering bringing calving forward to early May if paddock grazing can be used as a tool to generate extra grass growth sooner in spring.
“As we calve outside, we can’t bring calving too early or we could be caught out by the weather. While outside calving comes with some risks it is far better for both cows and calves than calving inside, with much lower disease challenge outside and cows more relaxed around calving with plenty of space to find their own spot,” says Mr Davidson.
With less than 5% calf mortality and less than 5% of calvings requiring intervention it is clear outdoor calving is working well for the couple with an innovative home designed calf catcher used on an ATV for calf tagging in the fields. “We designed and built it ourselves and honestly couldn’t calve outside without it,” added Mr Davidson.
The Davidsons are not afraid to spend money on testing, advice or infrastructure if the potential gain to their business outweighs the cost. Mrs Davidson said: “Investing in the right things allows us to work smarter and as my late father- in- law always said: ‘We like to work hard not make work hard’.