Traditionally, Scottish suckler calf producers wean Spring calves in October or November when weather conditions begin to deteriorate and shed space becomes available.

John Scott from Fearn Farm, near Tain, along with other members of the Sutherland Monitor Farm management group, including host farmers Jason and Vic Ballantyne, have opted for a new strategy to balance cow condition with calf growth.

On the recommendation of Trevor Cook, a well-known veterinarian and farm advisor from New Zealand, Mr Scott has seen success with weaning calves earlier in September when calves are 155-165 days old.

“We have been using Trevor Cook in an advisory capacity for several years now since we met him at a QMS grazing conference at Airth castle,” said Mr Scott. “One of the things he suggested was to overhaul our wintering strategy for young stock and weaning early was part of this proposal.”

Creep feeding calves was also stopped at Fearn, with fodder beet being introduced as the primary winter feed source along with limited silage.

“Our aim is to finish as many cattle off grass and forage as possible in their second summer,” said Mr Scott. “At present, two thirds of our steers finish off grass whilst the remainder are brought inside and given some home grown cereals and silage in the second winter.”

Once weaned, calves are brought inside for a week to settle on silage and then put onto a grass rotation until mid to late November when they go onto fodder beet for the winter.

“Weaning calves four to six weeks younger means that although calves are lighter at weaning, they cruise through the winter before hitting the spring grass and that’s when they really start to motor - their compensatory gain is very impressive,” said Mr Scott.

“When the bull goes out to bulling heifers, they are very similar or, in fact, better in weight to those reared in the old regime of weaning later and creep feeding. This is a key indicator of how well the system is working,” he added.

Cows are dried off inside for a week post-weaning and then put back outside to start on their winter feeding routine, beginning with poorer quality silage/hay/straw or standing grass that needs tidied up having become unruly through the summer.

Once scanned, cows are batched according to scan results, body condition and age. This allows priority to be given to groups such as 1st calved heifers, those scanned for twins and older cows.

By weaning calves younger, another benefit Mr Scott has seen is relating to cow condition.

“Weaning early gives cows more time to pick up condition before going into the winter which means there’s little, if any, ‘catching up’ on condition to be done when the months get colder,” said Mr Scott.

Fodder beat is instrumental to the system at Fearn, however, Mr Scott commented: “There’s no reason why calves couldn’t be brought back and fed concentrates following grass rotation post-weaning, this should not be a limiting factor to farmers considering early weaning without fodder beet.”

The change in weaning age has also led to easier management at Fearn farm.

Mr Scott added: “The weather is nicer for weaning in September and this method allows us to put extra kilograms on from grass prior to the winter. We are moving wires instead of filling bags; therefore, straw and machinery requirements have dropped considerably.”

Sutherland Monitor Farmers, Jason and Vic Ballantyne who farm at Clynelish near Brora in east Sutherland, first weaned calves at approximately 155 days old in 2014.

“2014 was also an exceptional year for grass growth, so we were able to graze calves until 5th November and avoid creep feeding calves,” said Vic Ballantyne. “With six weeks longer grazing than usual and no other supplement, calves were 24kg heavier.

“In more recent years, calves have been weaned at approximately 155 days and housed. Calves are put onto a ration incorporating the best quality home grown silage with adlib grain beet and treated for parasites,” she added.

The greatest impact noted by the Ballantynes is in the younger, smaller calves.

Jason Ballantyne said: “The calves had more space to feed, resulting in good growth rates. Whilst we had fewer heavier calves at weaning due to the pecking order, the overall average was higher the following spring.

“This year we achieved our heaviest ever sale weights, 380kgs at 10 months old and sold 10 days earlier,” he said.

At Clynelish, daily liveweight gain for the last 10 years has averaged around 1.1-1.2kg no matter what age they are weaned. The difference has been the bottom 15% of calves have improved and this has led to better average prices at sale time.

The Ballantynes have also noticed the same benefit on cow maintenance as John Scott.

“Weaning calves early has management benefits at Clynelish Farm,” said Mr Ballantyne. “It allows us to get cows and calves off the grass fields early to ensure we have grass to flush and tup ewes in November,” he concluded.

For more information about the impact of the monitor farm programme, visit