There is no doubting the dairy industry’s reliance on hi-tech has bolstered production, and much of that applied science is now helping to boost levels of efficiency at Bielgrange – last year’s AgriScot Beef Farm of the Year, owned and managed by Niall Jeffrey and his father Angus.

One of the first farms to sign up to the UK’s Agri-Epicentre ‘satellite experimental trials’, this mixed beef and arable unit just outside Dunbar, is witnessing the benefits of heat detection collars and Ritchey Beef Monitor weigh crates.

Such equipment is however dependant on a ‘satellite base station’ – provided by the UK government’s Agri-Epicentre funding – located in a situation where animals walk past it on a regular basis, enabling recorded figures of each animal to be logged and analysed.

“Technology saves on labour as we can now do double the amount of work with the same number of staff,” said Niall, who was already using EID tags and was originally approached by Marks and Spencer’s to do trial work on how to increase technical performance in his cattle.

“The information we are getting now from the electronic collars will help improve performance, cow health and overall fertility of individual animals, but a lot of the results have yet to be translated into a format that is easier to understand,” Niall added.

“The collars are already identifying the animals that are, for example, drinking less, ruminating less or moving less, perhaps due to ill health, therefore enabling the farmer to treat an individual animal before it shows physical signs of ill health and further loss of production.”

With the Beef Monitors recording actual weights of individual animals every time they go to drink, finishing cattle can be shed off to another pen manually once they reach their optimum weight. Workloads will be reduced further too with the introduction of an automatic shedder in the near future. This in turn reduces the number of times cattle have to be handled, moved and weighed, on the run up to finishing, and the amount of stress put on animals at such times.

Such weigh crates can also highlight if there is a problem with the feed ration, or the overall health of the cattle, as the monitors reveal any real change in normal behaviour.

“Before we had the Beef Monitors, we would weigh our cattle every month, but the weigh crates weigh them every day and we can then shed them off to a separate pen once they reach a specified weight,” said Niall.

Cattle images can also be taken from the Beef Monitors, with a conformation camera located above it recording the shape of the animal and therefore potential grade at slaughter.

New software has also been developed for easier understanding of the figures, with a coloured management report available at any one time of the animals that are achieving above average target weight gains in green, with those that are below average, in red. Animals that are hitting average weight gains are coloured orange.

It’s a system which has been welcomed by the processing industry too as dedicated abattoirs linked up to weigh recordings on such farms ensure improved management of future supplies.

According to Scotbeef’s Willie Rowe, the information recorded rewards the people using it as it helps farmers produce the cattle to the actual specifications in demand.

“As many as 80% of beef farmers don’t weight their cattle, but this thing records weights of individual animals every day, ensuring cattle are put away to slaughter bang on target, instead of costing a lot more to reach weights 10-20kg more, which are not required," he said.

Backing up these statements, Niall added: “By not weighing, you could potentially be losing thousands of pounds. By tracking animals on a regular basis, you identify animals underperforming and get rid of them, but you also need to know your costs of production to produce a kg of beef,” said Neil who said that a Ritchey Beef Monitor costing in excess of £4500, would be paid back within three years, due to the cost benefits.

More impressive is the technology that will soon be able to measure the amount of methane produced in the same Beef Monitor crates, hence encouraging producers to improve feed efficiency levels.

In all the business is home to 540ha and is made up of 300ha of lowground at Bielgrange, where most of the arable crops are grown and 240ha further up the hill at Weatherly, which is home to 250 Aberdeen Angus cross sucklers. Most of the cows are bulled to Aberdeen Angus bulls, with a handful crossed to a Hereford, to breed home-bred Black Baldy female replacements for the family's contract farming enterprise at Halls Farm. All bulls are bought privately and selected on figures.

Instead of concentrating on growth rates and ease of calving, Neil looks for bulls with a good maternal self replacing index, to breed future females while bulls selected as terminal sires are chosen for their feed conversion efficiency. Outwith replacement females, all progeny is finished and sold through Scotbeef. Most cows produce seven calves and are then finished off grass.

At Halls Farm, the boys contract farm 160 Aberdeen Angus and Hereford cross suckler cows, which are crossed back to an Aberdeen Angus, again producing replacement females and forward stores for Dovecote Park.

Both herds calve from March to May in a mixture of indoor and outdoor accommodation and are then moved to grazing fields from mid-April when they enter a rotational grazing system for the first half of the summer to utilise grass growth as much as possible.

Those calved indoors are moved to individual pens and then into larger pens of 10 to 12 as they calve down. They stay in their same age groups until they are weaned too. Most years barren rates vary from 5-10%, with 60% of the herd calving within in the first three weeks.

Heifers calve at two years of age, with calved heifers going onto the best grassland fields to ensure they continue to grow well and come to the bull early enough for calving the second year.

Calves are EID tagged at birth and weaned outside with the assistance of an electric fence before being 'housed' outside on a straw-bedded corral and fed a ration of bruised barley, dark grains and sugar beet pulp twice a day. They are then grazed from April to July before being housed from August onwards to finish around 16-18 months. Bullocks on average are killed at 680kg to produce R4L carcases while heifers are taken to 570kg liveweight and all are normally away by Christmas.

"It is cheaper wintering calves outdoors on straw because you don't have to build a shed for them," said Niall who also pointed out that since he adopted this policy, he no longer has to routinely vaccinate the calves for pneumonia as they do appear healthier being outside all the time.

At present, only Aberdeen Angus cows wear electronic collars as the satellite base station is located at Bielgrange. Similar to those used in the dairy industry, such technology allows the Jeffreys to monitor herd fertility, as the collar not only records conception dates but also any cows that have reabsorbed, from which gestation length and calving dates can be worked out. It also therefore identifies those that have not held to the bull and so can be culled rather than feeding them all winter in the hope of a calf being born.

Such collars do away with the need for scanners to identify those in calf and those barren too.

Add such technology to the arable enterprise which already relies upon satellite mapping for all inputs, and levels of efficiency are well and truly on the up at Bielgrange. Niall has high hopes for improved crop monitoring not only in his arable fields but in grassland fields too, with the use of a drone. However, as always, it's analysing the data from this Agri-Epicentre farm and the 27 others doted around the UK that takes the time, but there is no doubting such information will become invaluable in increasing productivity on all livestock farms.