Few farmers are able to make money from suckler cows without the basic payment, but their odds of success are far greater if they include a mixture of continental and native genetics, calve heifers at two years instead of three, and are able to wean in excess of 92%.

These were just a few of the findings of first generation farmer, Steven Sandison, who has built up an ever expanding livestock enterprise completely from scratch at Millburn, Orkney, after visiting 100 of the top livestock farmers across five countries as part of a Nuffield Scholarship, in 2015.

Steven, who farms with his wife Lorraine, and their young family, left full time employment in 2005, to work with his own 20 cows run on just three acres. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears, he now runs 100 cows and 150 breeding ewes on 380 owned acres with a further eight acres rented.

In a bid to maximise returns, Steven always strived to wean the highest number of offspring and as the first monitor farm on Orkney, in 2012, produced 89% at weaning for 100 cows to the bull over a nine-week period.

This compares to what has always been perceived as the national target of 92% – a figure believed to be 10% above the Scottish average of 82% set in 2015 and one which convinced Steven to push for Scholarship.


Millburn Farm, Orkney, home to Steven and Lorraine Sandison and family

Millburn Farm, Orkney, home to Steven and Lorraine Sandison and family


"I had always been trying to achieve the 92% target and when I was told that 89% was not good enough and that I was underachieving I was keen to find out what the best producers were doing. Either that or those who set the 92% target were in cloud cuckoo land," Steven told delegates attending last month's online British Cattle Breeders Conference.

For his study, Steven met 70 of the best and most successful commercial cattle farmers across the UK and Ireland – all of which had been recommended to him – and discovered that the top seven of the group boasted scanning and calving percentages of 95% with a weaning rate of 93% over a 9.5week calving spread.

Getting down to the nitty gritty however, only six of those seven lead farmers were able to make money without financial assistance, with the seventh only breaking even.

This compares to the bottom seven of the top 70 recommended farmers which scanned at 91.5%, calved at 86.5% to produce a weaning percentage of 84% over a 28-week calving period. In contrast, only one of those farmers broke even with the remainder all losing money.


Weaning percentage for the past five years at Millburn has averaged 93.4%

Weaning percentage for the past five years at Millburn has averaged 93.4%


"When I say these farmers were in the bottom seven, they were still doing a great job and had been recommended to me by industry specialists. They were as they were well known names in the industry – so where does that leave the vast majority of farmers," Steven questioned.

One of the biggest differences he discovered was that 62% of the beef farmers who calved at two years of age were able to make a profit before any subsidies and that was with an 89% weaning figure, compared to just 36% who weaned 87% when heifers calved their first at three years. However, those who were making money with three year olds were those farming the traditional native breeds that are out wintered and with minimal inputs.

Steven also found that cow type can make a difference, with those farmers visited working with a mixture of continental and native cross-bred cows weaned the highest number of calves at 89%, had the shortest calving period at 11 weeks and brought their heifers into the calving herd at 2.1 years.

Management also has a huge part to play, with one enterprise encountering colossal differences with a change in staff/farm manager. Other management procedures adhered by the 70 top farms Steven visited in the UK, saw 84% routinely treat their cows for liver fluke; 80% used EBVs; 78% vaccinated for BVD; 77% improved the diet post calving and 74% treated the navels of calves at birth.

"Unfortunately, I did not ask about colostrum, purely because I assumed, wrongly, that each producer would be ensuring that each new born calf receives sufficient amounts. I really wish now that I had enquired as to how they check the health of new borns when colostrum can make such a difference," said Steven.


Simmental and Salers cross cows at Millburn

Simmental and Salers cross cows at Millburn


More impressive however is the fact that having delved into the pros and cons of different cow breeds, management systems, age at first calving and EBVs, weaning percentages and profit margins have improved amongst Steven's Salers and Simmental cross cows which are crossed back and forth to either a Simmental or Salers bull.

He has also introduced protein to the diet of his cows pre calving which has improved calf health.

"I heard that feeding cows protein before calving could make a difference, but I was always worried they would become too fat and end up with calving difficulties, but having seen big strong continental cows fed protein, calve without any issues in Norway and Sweden, I decided to give it a go," said Steven.

In doing so, he has not had any issues with cryptosporidium amongst his calves.

Since attaining his scholarship, Steven has also seen improved performance in his spring-calving herd which between 2016 and 2020 yielded a scanning average of 94.2%, with 93.8% at calving and 93.4% at weaning.

Between 2019 and 2020, 66% of this productive 100-cow herd calved within the first three weeks, with 29% in the weeks four to six, with just five outwith that period.

He has also been actively looking to reduce cow size which averaged 718kg in 2014 and 705kg in 2017 and increased the percentage weight of calves sold at weaning at 230days from grass only. In 2014, calves weighed on average 323kg, whereas in 2017 they levelled at 324kg from a smaller cow.

And, although heifers weighed lighter at 572kg, and produced smaller calves of 296kg at speaning, they boasted a higher percentage weight of calves reared at 52% compared to 45% amongst the cows.