Producing even crops of well-fleshed calves from home-bred replacement females is proving a winning formula for the Stirling family, who run a profitable beef suckler cow herd on their 1500-acre upland unit on the outskirts of Carrbridge, in Strathspey.

Since introducing the Simmental as a maternal sire to breed milky and fertile females, and the Limousin to produce growthy progeny for the store ring, the family has found that they are now breeding more uniform batches of calves for sale through Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre.

As well as producing strong sale averages for both spring and autumn-born calves each year, the Stirlings no longer vaccinate cattle for pneumonia and they believe this is down to keeping the herd closed, apart from buying in stock bulls at United Auctions’ Stirling Bull Sales.

“We have been using our own replacements for the past 10 years now which not only gives us a more even herd of cows, but improved temperaments as we know exactly what we are breeding with,” said Tom, who farms in partnership with his dad, Lockhart and employs local lad, Sean McFarlane.

“Health status is important too and touch wood, we haven’t had to vaccinate for pneumonia for a while, although we do vaccinate against BVD and test each year for fluke. It’s also much easier when it comes to selecting a stock bull for the one type of female.”

The family has been at Auchterblair for the past 73 years and Tom is now the third generation to farm the securely tenanted unit on Seafield Estate. It rises to 850ft above sea level and includes 450 acres of arable ground, with the remainder rough grazing and hill.

Lockhart’s wife Wilma, and Tom’s wife, Paulina, keep on top of the bookwork, while children, Maya and Brodie, are keen to give a helping hand during busy times.

Home to 220 beef cows, the farm also accommodates 1100 wintering sheep each year which helps utilise the rough ground and hill, while 150 acres of spring barley is grown for home use, with around 200 tonnes sold on for feeding.

Despite farming near to the Cairngorms, Auchterblair is well-known in the area for being home to productive farming land, with tremendous barley yields of three tonnes per acre achieved most years. Most of the field work is done in-house and the barley crop also means the family is fairly self-sufficient when it comes to livestock bedding and feeding, with only protein balancer from Harbro and minerals from Norvite bought in.

The majority of the cows are Simmental cross Limousins and the herd is split calving, with half calving throughout March, April and May to the Simmental, and the other half calving from September onwards to the Limousin.

“Most of our cows were previously bulled to the Charolais but we were getting into calving difficulties with big calves,” said Tom. “We needed a breed that could still produce the growth rates, so we switched to the Simmental for hybrid vigour and haven’t looked back since.

"The Simmental and the Limousin cross works well as you get the milk, shape and good mothering characteristics in the females. We also reckon our Simmental and Limousin sired stots sell just as well through Thainstone as the Charolais cattle did, with good daily liveweight gains achieved.”

Last year, the family’s three consignments sold in the spring saw yearling stots level at £1020, or 223p per kg at an average weight of 456kg, while yearling heifers cashed in at £1000 at 455kg.

Of the 75 autumn-born calves sold between two lots in October, stots averaged 448kg and levelled at 248p per kg, while heifers averaged 420kg and cashed in at 249p.

Over the years, the family has purchased some tremendous stock bulls at auction, with the majority bought from local breeders in the north-east.

Limousin bulls which have bred well for the herd include the 7500gns Anside Mercury, from the Irvine family, Braehead; Clury Leader, purchased from neighbour and relative, Walter Cruikshank; and Elrick Galaxy, from Mike and Lisa Massie, near Ellon.

Current Simmental bulls include Islavale Junior, purchased privately off farm last year from the Stronachs, at Keith, and Dellfield Marshall, from the Grant family, Druid Temple, Inverness.

The most recent purchase is a Limousin, the 5000gns Dyke Phantom, bought at Stirling last October from Jimmy and Donald MacGregor. He has some great breeding behind him, being a son of the 7000gns Dyke Triumph, out of a Claragh Franco-bred daughter.

“Conformation and feet are at the top of our list when picking a bull but we also pay close attention to the calving ease and beef value figures after we have visually studied the bull,” commented Tom.

“When selecting Simmental bulls, we look at the milk figures for breeding replacements. The temperament is crucial too and we try to avoid bulls with big shoulders so we don’t end up having calving problems.” Temperament is a major factor when it comes to selecting females and they keep the milkiest of heifers for breeding with.

Most of the spring calving cows are out-wintered on turnips and straw, and come inside just before calving time, as do the autumn calving cows which are turned back out to grass once when calved, before returning back inside at Christmas.

“The cows do well on the neeps but this year has been a nightmare as we are now into our sixth week of hard frost and snow so we have had to supplement them with silage due to the neeps being frozen,” said Tom, adding that temperatures have been as low as -11° C.

“We tend to feed the younger spring calving cows silage and straw outside, rather than the neeps just so we can give them an extra boost on the run up to calving. All the youngstock and autumn calves are fed a home-grown mix through the diet feeder and we try to buy in as little straw as possible.”

The autumn-born calves are kept with their mothers for as long as possible to avoid mastitis and are weaned off them in early August. They graze on silage aftermath with barley available in hoppers, before being brought inside just two weeks before sale day.

Spring-born calves, which are weaned in November, are also sold as yearlings and are fed a home-grown mix of good quality home-grown silage and barley, and soya from Harbro. Soya is also fed to the autumn calving cows on the run up to bulling, which Tom said had helped improve fertility.

Looking ahead to the future, Tom remained fairly positive about the beef suckler industry but is always looking to adapt and change to make the herd more efficient.

He concluded: “Going forward, we are trying to focus on fertility and increase efficiency to maximise labour costs. We have made several improvements to the farm steading over the years which have given us more spacing for housing and better handling facilities.

"It’s crucial that everyone in our industry does their bit to promote Scottish beef – after all it is one of the most sustainable products out there.”