Few would perceive the Aberdeen Angus as able to be out wintered on some of Scotland’s wettest, poorest ground, but then many underestimate the hardiness of their cattle and indeed those who farm at West Lethans and Sheardrum, from Saline, Fife – Willie Shaw, his two sons, Calum and Alister and daughter Isla.

It’s a policy which is bearing fruit for the family too, as not only are costs kept to a minimum, but the cattle are healthier and fitter for calving inside in March and April.

“Cows and in-calf heifers are definitely better for being out wintered as they’re getting the exercise and are therefore fitter for calving in the spring,” said Willie, who is celebrating 30 years at West Lethans having previously rented a 5000-acre extensive hill unit in Lochaber.

“When we bought the 500 acres at West Lethans we were able to produce more from the farm than we ever did from the 5000 acre hill unit,” he added pointing out that the family moved south with their herd of 40 Aberdeen-Angus cross Shorthorn commercial cows and 1100 Blackface ewes.

Productivity has more than trebled too – initially by ploughing, liming and reseeding much of West Lethans, before then buying the neighbouring 320 acres at Sheardrum and 100 acres at Powmill with additional renting of 2000+acres and sheds for housing young stock during the winter.

Such has been the increase in productivity over the past 30 years, the family now farm 240 Aberdeen-Angus cross cows and 2600 ewes, producing scanned lambing percentages of 180%+ and 850 ewe hoggs of which 500 are put to the tup.

Add to that the construction of three sheds at West Lethans, and all cows can be calved inside and the triplet-bearing ewes and hoggs lambed in sheds.

“We like the Angus because they're native and they do attract a premium even when selling stores. They're that bit quieter than some of the other hill and upland breeds and crosses and they grow just as well as the continentals. You'll struggle to get anything better to improve an Angus cross cow, so we stick with the one breed of bull with the cows becoming more and more pure bred with each generation. ," said Willie who initially used the same Salers bull on his 40 cows for 10 years to produce replacement females

“If the progeny are all Angus, you maintain the uniformity which helps improve the quality of the females. We normally keep 40-50 of the best Angus cross heifers and by bulling them at 14-15 months to calve at two years we can still sell those that have failed to hold to the bull as forward stores.”

As a result, big, stretchy bulls are purchased to ensure growth rates and ease of calving. In the past these have included bulls from Blelack, Belhaven, Tonley and Kilmaluag.

“We aim to buy bulls that will suit our system so we look for bulls that are up off the ground, with plenty of stretch and bulls that can walk.”

It might appear a simple system, but it is certainly working as heifers calf at two years of age and barren rates are minimal. Most years there are only 10-12 yeld cows, which can be offset by up to 15 sets of twins every year.

“You actually save on feeding if you look after the heifers that wee bit better to bull them at 400kg at 14-15months rather than having to feed them a second winter before they calve,” said Willie.

While cows and heifers are out wintered until the end of January, either on rough grazing alone, or silage, depending on condition, they are brought in to straw-bedded courts for calving from March through to May. Newly calved cows and their calves are not generally put into individual pens as most are quick to get to their feet and suckle. All calves' navels are however dipped in iodine at birth.

Inside, cows and heifers are only fed silage and there is no creep feeding for the calves which are only introduced to concentrates a month before speaning and coming inside for the winter.

Calves are sold as forward stores mid-October the following year at 18-months of age through United Auctions, Stirling, which two years ago resulted in the stots and bottom end of the heifers average £1135 or 220p per kg. Last year, with the fall in the beef trade they averaged just over £1000 per head.

It's an impressive set up and very much a successful family enterprise. In addition to the farming business, Calum who is better known for his world-class shearing abilities and was part of the winning machine team at the World Championship in France in July 2019, has his own shearing run in the summer and also shears in New Zealand during the winter.

Alister also shears during the summer and winter, taking the wool off the bellies of lambs. And, Isla, who established the Maree pedigree herd of Aberdeen Angus in 2015 at West Lethans works full time as a fully qualified chartered surveyor with Galbraith in the sales and valuations department based at Stirling Agricultural Centre, Stirling.

FARM facts:

Family business farming 2500 acres rising from 820ft to 1200ft above sea-level of which 950 are owned. Business relies on 240 Aberdeen-Angus cross cows all of which are bulled to an Angus bull.

Heifers calved at two-years of age.

Progeny in wintered first winter and sold as forward stores mid-October following year as 18-months of age through United Auctions, Stirling.

Sheep : 2600 ewes made up of 800 Blackfaces of which half are bred pure to breed replacements and half crossed to the Lleyn to breed Lleyn cross Blackie females that are crossed to the Texel, with the female from this cross bred to Beltex rams. Small flocks of pure-bred Lleyns, Beltex and Texels to breed stock rams.

Lambing March/April with only hoggs and triplet-bearing females lambed inside.

All lambs out with replacement females, finished off grass or rape.

Cropping – All grass with rotations every five years back into grass. Silage done by contractors with straw for bedding provided by local arable farmers in exchange for the dung produced.

ONTHE spot

1. Biggest achievement – Being able to buy West Lethans and Sheardrum and then being able to rent additional 2000 acres without any handouts or inheritance money

2. Biggest regret – Not being braver to take out a bigger loan to invest in more land in the early years

3. Best advice – Go for it if you really want to farm and have the finance to rent or buy ground. And, borrow as much as you can to get the best farm.

4. Where would you like to be in 2030 – Have enough ground to be able to split it up for family.

5. Favourite restaurant – Garvock House Hotel, Dunfermline – they always have the best steaks