Operating a closed herd operation based in the Borders, near Berwick-Upon-Tweed, has paid off for mixed tenancy farmer, Fiona Skeen.

She works alongside her son, Graham, who will be the third generation of the family to Berryhill Farm, Duddo. With an outstanding breeding programme and young stock management for her Angus cross suckler herd, Mrs Skeen implemented a closed herd system 12 years ago to minimise the risk of disease.

Making the change to a closed breeding herd can be an effective management policy for keeping infectious diseases out as it helps minimise biosecurity risks. In the past, Mrs Skeen had bought in Belgian Blue dairy calves but this exposed her herd to problems.

Her now-retired farm vet, Stuart Renton, of Renton, of Swan and Partners, included Mrs Skeen’s herd in the blood testing for the National Herd Disease Status in 2007/08.

They received two positive results for Johne’s, both of which were from replacements bought in from a dairy. This prompted Mrs Skeen and Graham to consider changing their approach following further discussions with their vet.

“At the same time, there was another dairy where we also bought replacements, but we were confident that they had a very high herd health status. It was only when the farmer retired – that we decided to stop buying in completely.”

Mrs Skeen acknowledged that being closed can sometimes be challenging, particularly when a calf is lost, but she added: “Buying in replacements presented too many problems and I was no longer prepared to take the risk of introducing new disease to the herd.

"We have tested every cull cow for Johnes since 2008 and have not had a positive result since.”

Last year delivered Berryhill’s best-ever autumn scanning result, with just two out of 77 not in calf. This was matched by the latest spring scanning results which showed that 105 out of 110 were in calf on a nine-week bulling programme.

“We used to have a prolonged 12-week calving block in the spring and autumn, which has gradually been reduced by 8-10 days each year,” she explained.

“I’m disappointed if we don’t get 80% to calf in the first three weeks, as having a shorter period has advantages. I find problems tend to happen at the end of calving and so reducing the timeframe helps eliminate issues.”

Operating a spring and autumn calving system means they can afford to keep their cows on. “Having dual calving is very beneficial – it provides greater flexibility with more opportunity to get a cow in calf, really suiting us and the way we operate,” she added.

The herd at Berryhill is mainly Angus crosses and produce high health calves

The herd at Berryhill is mainly Angus crosses and produce high health calves

The Skeens' business is built on selling store cattle, so ensuring calves get off to the best start is critical. Consequently, dams are vaccinated with Bovilis Rotavec Corona in mid-February to protect the calves against rotavirus, coronavirus and e-coli.

Calves are also vaccinated with Bovilis Bovipast RSP to protect against pneumonia, which can be an issue among youngstock.

The herd has been BVD accredited through the Scottish system for the past seven years, with vaccination and blood testing being routine for 15 years. To maintain their accreditation, 10 spring calves will be blood tested to ensure they remain disease free.

To limit infection during housing, calves are also grouped in no more than 18-20 calves per shed, and are then turned out to grass in April.

Biosecurity measures go hand in hand with a rigorous vaccination programme and Mrs Skeen relies on her vet’s expertise when keeping up to date with herd health protocols.

Cows are in-wintered, mainly on home-grown forage and in a tight calving pattern

Cows are in-wintered, mainly on home-grown forage and in a tight calving pattern

“Our vets have been instrumental in us adopting a much more preventative approach over the years. Stuart Renton encouraged us to become a closed herd and started me on BVD testing and vaccination.

"When he retired about eight years ago, he handed me over to Iain McCormick, from Galedin Vets. Iain shared Stuart’s philosophy and encouraged me take the next step of becoming accredited.

“The Spring herd have completed their pneumonia and Bravoxin10 vaccination programmes, and were weaned and housed by mid-November. The autumn calves have had their first doses and second doses, and all the cows and older cattle have had a Bravoxin booster.

"Autumn cows have also received their BVD vaccination before going to the bull,” she pointed out.

“It’s very difficult to be a ‘true closed herd’ unless you opt for AI,” admitted Mrs Skeen. “We prefer to use bulls, so in this instance we purchase from farms of a known herd health status and that the animals have been on a vaccination programme which mirrors ours.

“When the bull enters the herd, he goes into quarantine and is vaccinated if need be, to be in-sync' with the rest of the cattle.”

Mrs Skeen uses alternate blood lines having privately purchased her first Aberdeen-Angus bull from the local and highly regarded Wedderlie herd, which has been breeding since 1914.

She also uses the Borewell herd, which is located eight miles away. That was established around 18 years ago and has built a solid reputation during this time.

Buying privately can present fewer problems and has helped to develop a close business relationship, she argued.

“Trust is incredibly important when it comes to livestock management. They have always helped me to choose a bull which will suit my herd," she said.

"As I’m keeping my replacements, ease of calving and ease of milking are incredibly important, so I know they’ll point me in the right direction.”

With 30-40 heifers to choose from, Mrs Skeen has detailed records of them and their mothers. They bull at 21 months as this delivers significantly bigger calves at weaning.

Store steers are sold privately at 14-15 months. A large number of the surplus heifers are now sold for bulling, which helps keep the cash flow right.

“I prefer to go direct with our cattle, although we do sell a lot more sheep through the ring. We’re fortunate because of all the measures we take, we have buyers who keep coming back to us because of the steady temperament of our cows. I’ve found this also has big impact on reducing labour on the farm,” said Mrs Skeen.

“Temperament is the most important factor – it’s my cardinal rule which I consider above all else.”


Disease? Not on my farm!

As an ambassador fo that programme, Mrs Skeen joins fellow beef and dairy farmers from across the UK who are passionate about promoting proactive, preventative herd health.

“The ambassadors are all passionate about being a ‘disease free’ farm. It’s great to learn from my peers and their different systems, and to be able to talk about a range of important issues, particularly at a time where there’s high pressure scrutiny coming from all angles.

"It’s never been more important for us, as farmers, to understand the true value of managing disease on-farm.”


• In less than a year and a half, the Skeen family will have been farming on the Ford and Etal Estate, Northumberland, for 100 years

• The 750-acre farm has 220 arable, with the rest a mix of beef and sheep

• It's primarily and Aberdeen-Angus-cross suckler herd

• There are 100 spring calving and 70-75 autumn calving cows in the herd

• All calves are sold as yearling stores.