Forget quantity – smaller amounts of superior quality silage goes a long, long way when it comes to increasing growth rates and reducing costs of production.

Add to that home-grown crimped barley and a handful of soya, and East of Scotland Grassland Society silage competition winners, Robert and his parents David and Ann Black, can finish their young bulls at 13-months of age with limited bought in concentrates.

The first-time competitors, from Drochil Castle Farm, West Linton, had their silage put forward when their mid-May harvested crop produced a D Value of 77 with a 31.7% dry matter and an ME of 12.3 MJ per kg of dry matter. Crude protein worked out at 162g per kg of dry matter.

In doing so, not only did the Blacks win the beef section, but also the award for the best new entrants, having stood second at AgriScot in November 2019, with a sample from the same crop.

“That’s the best silage we’ve produced in terms of ME, although two years ago we harvested silage with higher protein levels,” said Robert.

“Better quality silage lasts longer because you don’t need to use as much of it and it drives intakes,” he added pointing out that last year’s Stabiliser cross bulls were finished on a 50:50 ration made up of the winning silage and crimped barley split and 300g of soya per head per day. More impressive is the fact they gained 2kg per head per day on this ration.

Furthermore, they produced some pretty impressive results at the abattoir with the majority killing out 343kg deadweight with U and R grades at 13 months of age. All were sold through Highland Meats.

Heifers retained for breeding were wintered on silage only and were gaining a kg per day, while those being fattened were finished on an 80% silage 20% crimped barley diet, said Robert who works out the rations himself.

And, because the silage is of such high quality, less is required, with the result being feed supplies rarely run dry. Most years, the family grows around 100acre of silage, which although shut off during the winter months, is given a cwt of nitrogen during the first week of March and grazed by in-lamb ewes to take off winter growth.

All silage fields are shut off from April 1 and given a further 2cwt of a 27:6:14 with Sulphur fertiliser during the first week of the month. However, in contrast to most producers who look to mow their grass six weeks after fertiliser application, the Blacks aim to cut at five weeks, provided the weather is suitable, to ensure maximum quality.

David cuts the grass with an ordinary mower with no conditioner, and Robert’s cousin, James Brown, who runs his own contracting business comes in 24hours later to harvest it with a self-propelled forage harvester. The additive Biotal is used to reduce wastage when the resultant silage is of such high quality when the pit is opened and less is required.

Thoroughly rolled in the pit, a new cling film sheet is used every year followed by a black sheet, and green net cover on the top, all of which is then weighed down with old tyres.

Outwith the silage, the family has also been able to tightened up their calving such that only 3.4% of the 100+ suckler herd was barren last year, with the remainder calving within a nine-week period outside in May. Notably, 95% of those cows bulled produced live calves and that's out wintering most on the dry, hill ground with access to poorer quality second cut grass silage, taken from topped fields.

Only in-calf heifers and second calvers are in-wintered to keep a better ‘eye’ on them, and fed an ensiled straw and undersown Italian ryegrass mixture, which works well at Drochil Castle.

Robert added: “We were bulling most of our cows with an Aberdeen-Angus bull and keeping the best of the heifers as replacements, but they were getting too big and were requiring too much assistance at calving.

“We needed to bring our cow size down a bit and by bulling all our cows to the Stabiliser, the heifers are slightly smaller, more fertile, easier fleshing and calving and require minimal assistance. Our Stabilisers are also calving at two-years of age and can be out wintered.”

This compares to previous years when the family looked to produce silage in bulk by harvesting in June/July and buying in 50-60tonnes of pellets to feed young stock and sheep during the winter.

Such has been the change in livestock and cropping, that concentrate feeds have been cut out completely amongst the 1000 strong ewe flock too. Having previously relied on breeding Scotch Mule females to cross to the Texel to produce home-bred replacements, most of which were lambed inside March/April, the family is now lambing all their ewes outside late April/May.

They’re also growing more forage crops to include turnips and hybrid rape for wintering ewes on and finishing home-bred lambs – although most are finish off grass – which is proving cheaper and easier to manage than feeding concentrates.

David added: “It’s costing us about 8.5p per ewe to winter our ewes on turnips and all we have to do is move the electric fence on a daily basis, while our in-lamb hoggs are costing 5p per head per day on hybrid rape.”

Add to that a later lambing, and reduced lambing percentages, and life is a lot easier with the farm business itself being more profitable due to reduced input costs and concentrates.

As it is, Robert and David can now do all the work themselves instead of employing a full-time person and having to rely on extra assistance at lambing time, as was previously the case. And they still have a decent lamb crop about to be born with scanning percentages working out at 180% amongst the lowground ewes; 140% further up hill and 110% amongst the ewe hoggs.

“We had an intensive system with a high scanning percentage with weaning percentages that didn't quite match," said David.

"It was fairly intensive lambing Blackfaces, Mules and Texel crosses inside in March/April to produce replacement females and finished lambs. Now we have a simpler, self-contained, commercial system, which although busier in April, has allowed us to reduce our feed and labour costs. We also grow everything ourselves and do all our own reseeding to include alternative forages such as chickory and plantain.”

And, by breeding all their own replacements for their ewe and cattle units, they have also reduced the cost of buying in breeding heifers and gimmers, while also reducing the risk of buying in disease.

“We are looking to cut out bought-in concentrate feeds by relying on forage-based, easy-keep, self-replacing cattle and sheep which can go anywhere on the farm. Long-term, we hope to reduce our costs of production further and have breeding stock to sell from the cattle herd and the ewe flock,” concluded Robert.

FARM facts

• Family business: David and Ann and son Robert farming 1200acres at Drochil Castle, West Linton, which rises from 700-1500ft above sea-level and part of Wemyss and March Estate. Some 600 acres of ploughable ground with the remainder made up of mostly white Molinia hill ground.

• Livestock: 100 suckler cows all of which go to Stabiliser bull to breed replacement females with remainder sold finished off forages with all males sold as young bulls at 13months of age. Ewe flock of 1000 ewes previously relied upon Blackfaces bred to Bluefaced Leicester rams to breed replacement Mule ewes to breed to Texel which also bred replacement females. This breeding flock however is in the process of being altered to an entire white-faced flock bred from Aberfield and Highlander rams bought from Kevin Stewart, Sharpitlaw at the Innovis sale. Outwith breeding females for replacements, remaining lamb crop finished off forage crops.

• Typical lowground rotation: Hybrid rape; barley undersown with Italian ryegrass; Italian ryegrass for two years; and barley undersown with perennial ryegrasses.

ONTHE spot

• Best investment?: weigh bars under the cattle crush for weighing fattening cattle every month and cows and calves at weaning.

• Where would you like to be in 2030? Rotationally grazing livestock and selling performance recorded breeding stock from Stabiliser cattle herd and white-faced Aberfield/Highlander ewe flock.

• How are you preparing for the future?: More reliance on forage crops, improved performance from grass and reduced use, if any, bought in concentrates.

• Most inspirational person in agriculture: Robert: Donald Brown, beef nutritionist and David: Dairy farmers Alister and Colin Laird, Blyth Bridge.

• Favourite restaurant: David: Old Bakehouse, West Linton; Robert: Fazenda, Edinburgh.