Big might be beautiful in many livestock operations but for Fife beef farmer, Laura Arbuckle, it's modest sized, fleshy cows producing smaller calves with with an abundance of vigour and genetic potential to grow, that help make ends meet.

Laura who farms the 300-acre Lower Luthrie unit in partnership with her parents, Ian and Grace Arbuckle, has always been passionate about breeding beef cattle since her childhood, and as a result, has been working at home full time for more than 18 years. She also now makes most of the business decisions while her father takes more of a back seat.

However, in contrast to many of the younger generation who often look to make their mark, Laura has no plans to make any drastic changes. Instead, she is able to reap the benefits of her and her father's long-term fruitful breeding decisions based on several decades of producing milky, easy-calving Aberdeen Angus and Simmental cross females. Add to that the huge number of practical skills her father has taught her over the years, and Laura and her nine-year-old daughter Hannah, who is just as keen on the farm, believe Lower Luthrie can continue to produce quality beef cattle sustainably for years to come.

"Our cattle are so easy to work with – we can deal with most things ourselves and rarely need to get the vet," said Laura who pointed out that the Aberdeen-Angus cross Simmental and Simmental cross Angus cows make ideal females with plenty of milk and growth potential for their progeny.

Such has been the marriage of these two beef breeds at Lower Luthrie, that there are few if any problems with fertility and, as a result, even fewer calving issues.

"There have been more than 11,000 calves born in the time I have been here in my lifetime, and during that time, we've only had the vet out nine times to caesarian a cow. By using home-bred, easy calving sires, our cows and heifers also produce calves with plenty of vigour which are up and quick to suckle.

"I'd far rather have a lot of live calves that are keen to get to their feet than big dopey calves that have been difficult to calve and need help to suckle."

While the female part of the herd has been closed for well over 60 years, Laura was the main instigator in breeding home-bred bulls for the business, after graduating from SAC Edinburgh with an honours degree in agriculture, in 2001 – the same year foot-and-mouth devastated so many livestock units throughout the south of Scotland and the North of England.

"We always used to buy in stock bulls, but after the huge national losses that occurred as a result of foot-and-mouth, the most obvious way to protect our herd which had been built up over many, many years, was to breed our own bulls," said Laura, who purchased a Simmental female from the Moffats at Innerwick; two Limousins from the Dick's Ronick herd and two Aberdeen Angus from Angela McGregor's Newcairnie herd, all privately. The herd also joined the SAC Premium Health Scheme about a decade ago in a bid to improve the health status of the herd.

Needless to say, stockbulls are naturally reared at Lower Luthrie and therefore cost a lot less to produce than previous bought in boys. Laura has also bought in frozen pedigree embryos and used AI extensively over the years in a bid to introduce new genetics, with the emphasis very much on easy calving.

Relying on modest-sized, fleshy cows, has also helped reduce input costs, as depending on the weather, they are mostly outwintered on foggage, silage, brock carrots, feedblocks and minerals in the sheltered fields located on this good grass growing unit which rises from 200-500ft above sea-level, on the outskirts of Cupar. However, while the cows are mostly outwintered, they are brought in to straw bedded courts just before calving in April, for ease of management.

"We've got a really good set up here, with self-locking yolks, calving cameras and a calving gate, so I can see and hear exactly what is happening in the calving shed from the kitchen, without having to go out to the shed and disturb them.

"The cameras are the best thing I have ever bought as I now get a far better sleep and so too, do the cows as they are not being disturbed on a regular basis. They also help reduce the stress involved at calving, but, even if I do have to calve one, there is no real problem, as all of the cows are quiet. Any with any sort of temperament problem are culled. Temperament is so important for safety – calm cattle allow me to work away quietly meaning less stress on the cattle and myself. If it is a stress free environment, both cattle and humans will perform better."

Most cows do calve themselves – albeit under the watchful eye of the cameras – with less than 10% requiring some help calving and most of these are either badly presented, breaches or heifers which are assisted with a final pull, just to be on the safe side.

Individual pens for newly calved cows and their offspring are not used on a routine basis at Lower Luthrie, as most are put out to grass within a couple of days. Instead, newly born calves get their naval's sprayed with iodine, are given a primary ear tag and are left to bond with their mother in the main calving shed. Provided all is well, calves are then given a colour coded management tag depending on the sex and breed, and dehorned before being walked about half a mile with their mothers out to a grass field. Bulls are also rubber ringed at this stage.

While the cows are part in wintered, heifers, which all calve at two years of age are all kept out at grass right up until the point of calving to a Limousin.

"We've calved all our heifers at two years of age for as long as I can remember, and by outwintering them on foggage, silage, feed blocks and minerals only, they get the exercise for ease of calving. We also find calving them to a Limousin is the best sire to use, as they calve with few if any problems and come to the bull easily enough the next year provided they get the best quality grazing fields after calving," said Laura.

Having previously operated a mixed spring and autumn-calving herd, the family now calve all 200 cows and heifers within a nine-week period from beginning of April onwards. Such is the breeding potential of the herd, that last year only six were yeld, all of which were culled and sold through United Auctions.

Even more impressive is the fact that with 40 heifers retained ever year for breeding to ensure a young herd, most years about 150 calves are sold off the farm.

In previous years, these would have been finished at 18-20months of age often off home-grown and bought in feeds going direct to Scotbeef and ABP, Perth. However, when the family got the option to buy the original 630acre farm in 2017, they sold off 300acres for forestry and now sell all the calves straight off their mothers in the back-end, thereby reducing reliance on bought in feeds and concentrates.

Last year was the first year of the new system, and the April-May-born calves were sold over three suckled calf sales at United Auctions, Stirling, at the end of October, early November, to average £630 at 258kg.

Admittedly, end prices may not be that fancy, but it has to be remembered that input costs are minimal, with no concentrate or cereals fed to the cows or heifers, and calf creep feed only introduced at the end of July. And, although some straw is bought, most is traded with a neighbouring arable farmer in exchange for the dung from Lower Luthrie.

The Arbuckles have also reduced their reliance on artificial fertilisers and instead rely more on cattle manure/slurry and clover. Last year, only 10t of fertiliser was bought, mostly for the silage ground, of which 80 acres are set aside for a first cut of good quality pit silage at the end of June, with a further 50 acre shut off for a second cut put into round bales in September.

With only Laura and her father working on the farm, all silage work is done by contractors, but Laura also makes sure the cattle do their own fair share of the work, as straw bales are strategically placed in a cattle court for them to roll out, thereby reducing their reliance on machinery and manpower.

Farming can be difficult for all, but it doesn't have to be – some of the simplest, low input policies, often relying on more traditional methods can be the most financially viable.

And, being female does not have to be a hindrance.

"Dad has always encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do and being female certainly has not held me back from being a farmer. Farming is not all about brute strength anymore as so much now can be done with modern technology and machines. Beef cattle farming not only suits Lower Luthrie but is also pleasurable and makes money," concluded Laura.