By Murdoch Duncan,

WITH THE harvest behind us, the last load of malting barley has left the sheds and all that is left of it is a handful of bales to collect and wrap.

So, we took some time last week for the ‘tidy up’, hiring an air compressor to blow down the dryer, combine, balers etc before putting the machines put away for the year.

Now, our attention is turning to preparing of our cattle courts for winter housing. A few improvements are to be made and the last couple of days have been spent having some fun using a mini digger and dumper to remove an old feed pass from three of our bull pens.

We hope to house all of our cattle over the next fortnight, weaning the calves as they come in – weather dependent. Once the cows have settled, we plan to put them back out onto stubble fields adjacent to the courts simply to help with the demand on straw – all the more important this year given the continued increase in straw price.

Ever looking at ways to become more efficient and cut cost within our business we took the opportunity this month to purchase ammonia injection equipment that came up for sale at Alastair Sinclair’s roup at Stirkoke Mains Farm, Wick, Caithness. This was a keen spot by our stockman Bruce!

Having the injector will now allow us to wrap and treat all of our own straw in-house, plus during harvest we can bale-off end rigs behind the combine, treating them straight away and ensuring timely injection for guaranteed quality.

Last year, we were fortunate to secure buying a neighbouring farm which was the final jigsaw piece enabling us to link up all of our home farms. We plan to put in place a new bridge on this farm in 2018, once we have more time having completed the new shed erection.

This bridge, once in place, will save time and reduce much of the travelling we currently do on public roads. We have also been upgrading the fencing on the new farm this month in order to put sheep onto the grazing land over winter.

The second half of this month is going to be a busy one. Our cows are due their TB test, plus BVD vaccination and PD scanning. Adding into that, it includes my birthday – hopefully I'll get a chance to celebrate that at some point!

Back in July, taking semen off our own bulls, we synchronised 14 cows with myself and our stockman, Bruce, carrying out the AI. For some healthy competition, we decided to split the 14 and AI seven each. It was Bruce’s first attempt and my first in more than 12 years when I last worked as the north relief technician for Genus. S, a little out of practice, I was a bit nervous about the results.

The cows were scanned last week, giving us an overall 65% success rate which we were very happy with. Bruce's first attempt had an excellent 60% and I had an extra cow that held giving me a 70% success rate – thankfully for me, or I would have received some stick for a poorer result.

Of the 14 cows, nine held to AI and another four held to the first cycle with the bull. The last cow was empty after a further two cycle,s with the bull but being older was not unexpected. She will now go.

We undertook the synchro and AI as a trial this year but following the results, we will now aim to do the same with a larger group next year helping us to further tighten up of our calving pattern.

My parents had a visit to Grantown-on Spey-at the end of October and bought three shearling Cheviot tups from Robert MacDonald, of Castle Grant Home Farm. Having been pleased with the quality of purchases we made from Robert last year, we were keen to secure a private sale for the tups this year.

The tups will be ready to put to the ewes during the last few days of November with lambing from April-beginning of May. It suits us to lamb at this time as we will have finished sowing the spring crop and the bulk of the calving will be by, freeing up our time for lambing. Our original foundation flock of North Country Cheviot ewe lambs was bought in 2015 from Joyce Campbell, Armadale, Sutherland, with the NCC tups coming from Johnnie Campbell, Bardnaclavan, Thurso.

We had another successful trip last weekend to Wallets Marts, Castle Douglas, for the Salers sale. We bought 11 bulling heifers – six from Rob Livesey, Cleuchhead, Melrose, which were out of Luing cows crossed with the Salers (my father has been keen to try the Luing cross for some time, so will see how they do); and five from Colin McClymont, Cuil, Newton Stewart. We have bought a number of heifers from the McClymont family over the years and they have always grown into well conditioned cows.

The 11 averaged out at £1429 per heifer, which we were pleased with as the sale increased in price getting up to around £1850. These 11 will go with our own home-bred heifers once weaned for next year's bulling. The Salers is continuing to rise in popularity with farmers seeing the potential in the breed. Our own herd is now made up of two-thirds Salers and Salers cross.

Hopefully, the current trend of settled weather here in the North-east will continue over the coming winter months to let the cows back out onto the stubble and allow us to get ploughing underway.

* Murdoch Duncan farms in partnership with his parents an 1800-acre mixed beef and sheep unit in Aberdeenshire. There they run 330 suckler cows and 350 ewes, alongside growing 700 acres of combinable crops.