THE FARM which will play host to this year's Scottish Beef Association's Beef Event is in expansion mode – which goes against the trend of a reducing suckler cow herd in Scotland.

Robbie Milne, his wife Barbara and son James, who farm at North Bethelnie, in the heart of Aberdeenshire, near Oldmeldrum, have spectacular views from the top of their hill land but they also appear to have the vision to up their cow numbers from about 340 currently to nearer 400-head.

To this end, fewer cereals are being grown and fewer cattle finished, though the Milnes are constantly monitoring the market to see whether selling as suckled calves, long-keep stores or forward stores will be the way to market their stock. Last year's crop were sold mostly has forward stores.

This essence of adaptability is one of the reasons why this successful beef unit has had the confidence to expand and it is all based around a fairly simple breeding and feeding programme, where efficiency is the key word.

The vast majority of the herd is centred around the Saler breed and its crosses and it is testament to both the breed's resilience and the Milnes' husbandry of them, that last year the herd achieved a calving percentage of 95% at weaning – which is well ahead of the national average. Indeed, if such were achieved on an industry-wide basis, then the national herd could be deemed to have a much reduced carbon footprint – which will be one of the main discussion points at the Beef Event.

Just nearing the end of their calving stint for this spring, James reflected: "It was a good year last year, but we've had a few more problems at calving this time, so the percentage will be down by the time we finish calving. We've had to assist only 10 out of 184 calves born so far in the batch being calved at the moment [by the end of April] and we've had two dead calves – one still born and the other a particularly big calf."

While the vast majority of the cow herd calves in the early spring, there's also a smaller batch in mid-summer and the heifers are calved down in November. Last year's heifers had only one assisted calving out of 41 – with 64 heifers due to calf in November this year and 28 more going to the bull this spring.

But the Milnes' philosophy is quite simple: "We spend more time watching than helping," said Robbie. "The aim is to get calves on the ground without any assistance. The new Farmer's Eye camera has been a great benefit – it's become compulsive viewing!

"We try to avoid intervening and disturbing cows while they are calving, but keep a close watch to make sure the calf is up and sucking. We keep away if they are doing OK to allow them to bond and don't isolate them in a pen after calving to avoid handling after calving, except for tagging."

The family first started with Saler crosses 19 years ago and were one of the first in the North-east to buy into their mothering and easy calving abilities. The first batch were bought from Malcolm Hay, Edinglassie, Glass and now bought in replacements either come in via private purchase or from the breed sale at Castle Douglas.

In recent times, the entire herd has become either almost pure Saler, or hybrids of Angus or Shorthorns – some heifers from the favoured terminal sire cross, the Charolais, are also being looked at. However, the heart of the herd will remain Saler and the Milnes are still buying in stock as well as breeding their own replacements with the view to expansion.

"Cows are here simply to put a calf on the ground," pointed out Robbie. To that end, the Milnes favour calving the heifers at 2½ or three, rather than the industry trend to calving at two. "We are aiming to be more selective in our heifer replacements and we like them to get to at least 450kg before bulling. If they don't make that weight with the rest of the batch, then maybe we don't want them."

Also, the Milnes weed out heifers with temperament issues before putting them in calf. By calving heifers in November, they think that this gives them a better chance of slipping in to the main spring calving herd, which starts spitting them out from January to mid-February. A smaller batch begins in April and finishes by the end of June.

Culling is strict: "We may allow a January cow or heifer to slip into the April calving herd if they prove not in calf. But they only get one more chance. If they fail to breed a second time, they're down the road after scanning. If there are any found not to be in calf in the April herd, then they are culled too. We don't carry passengers."

To carry the herd and its expansion, the Milnes recently stopped growing barley and the farm is now all grass, with an additional 500 acres of rough grazing rented near Huntly.

The breeding programme seems to work. A batch of store January-born Charolais cross heifer calves sold at Thainstone in February weighed on average 449kg and levelled at £990 (£2.20per kg) while April/May-born steers hit 377kg to make £952 (£2.52 per kg) apiece. Also, a recent sale of finished Charolais crosses – which hit the target weight of 334kg dw at just 13/14 months – cashed in at £1165 per head – while 410-day-old Angus crosses hung up at 286kg dw and made £1105 (an average of £3.87 per kg).

That success for the Angus might now prompt more use of the black bull, which the Milnes feel might be easier on the cows – and certainly on the heifers – and also reduce feed costs and the need for de-horning.

The bull stud at North Bethelnie currently stands at four Salers, five Charolais and two Angus and, quite unusually for a commercial herd, the Milnes travel to France to get the kind of Charolais they want, though they're also not averse to buying in markets. But it is the type of bull they are after and one 'not overcooked' that comes within their scope – the latest purchase from across the Channel being Luther, which is 'not the biggest bull in the world' and Laser, a Saler bull was bought at CD in 2017 for 7500gns.

Just as the breeding policy is simple, then so is the feeding regime. Cows are wintered indoors on silage, draff from the nearby Glengarioch Distillery and straw. Protein in the form of soya is introduced three weeks before calving and continued after to encourage plenty of milk for the growing calf, both inside and out of the cow. A straw for dung agreement with a neighbour helps keep feeding costs down too.

A routine pre-calving vaccination with Rotovec helps keep scour at bay, though the Milnes report that this spring has been an easy one in this respect due to the better weather and the fact that most of the cows were able to be turned out with their calves six weeks earlier than last year's troubled time.

That also means that the farm is looking in fine fettle for the forthcoming SBA's Scotland's Beef Event and a 'must do' for visitors will be the farm tour by tractor and trailer. From up there you can almost get a bird's eye view of the whole of Aberdeenshire!