UTILISING poorer forage on hill ground that would otherwise be wasted during the winter months is the key to the Luing breed’s success at Torwoodlee and Buckholm Estates, near Galashiels. 

Whether bred pure or crossed to a Simmental sire, the hardy breed’s ability to produce a well-grown calf for the store market on very little input has meant its there to stay, particularly with new farm manager, Les Robson, at the helm. 

Having moved to Buckholm around this time last year, Les and his partner Linda, and son Stuart, are no strangers to the Luing breed having worked at the breed’s birthplace on the Isle of Luing for the Cadzow Brothers. 

The Scottish Farmer:

“There are very little costs involved in wintering the cows,” said Les of the 265-strong herd split between the two units, owned by James Pringle. They are wintered on a deferred grass system where the cows calve out on the hill, which rises to 1300 feet above sea level, from April onwards and spend the summer months in lower pasture before returning to the hill after weaning in November. 

“We’re working with a medium-sized cow here at Buckholm which weighs, on average, 653kg at weaning. That’s a good fleshy cow for this type of hill and they seem to suit the system, but I’m happy to admit I arrived to a good herd of cows,” pointed out Les, who has already increased breeding female numbers from 180 to the current 230 at Buckholm – of which 170 were bred pure and 60 covered by a Simmental – and aims to increase further to 300 cows between the two units. This increase in numbers is, this year, due to calving heifers at the age of two for the first time, which is something of a tried and tested method for Les. 

“We’ve got 41 calving as two-year-olds – something we did on Luing for 10 years and it worked fine when you take the strongest heifers of the group, which I’ve been doing by weight and size. This year’s 29 home-bred Luing replacements weighed 371kg at turnout in April and went to the bull as 15-month-olds weighing 430kg, while the 12 Sim-Luing heifers weighed 455kg at 15 months. 

“I’ve never had a problem getting them back in calf and find they’re more fertile at that age. They end up as better milkers as they’re not laying down mammary fat while growing,” pointed out Les, adding there’s an increasing number of bulls in the sale catalogue whose dams are calving at younger ages. 

The Scottish Farmer:

It’s this calving on the hill that is key for the females however, and, for the most part, they’re left to get on with it themselves, with Les and fellow team mates, stockman Andrew Johnston, and shepherd Paul Charlton, only having to calve three of the 180 running on the hill last spring. 

“I realised on Luing that if the cows are outwintered, they develop a better muscle tone and are therefore fitter, which helps a lot at calving. It helps too that we walk the calved cows off the hill every morning to in-bye fields, where the calves are tagged, dehorned, castrated and weighed, and left to graze these fields for the summer,” he added. 

While the majority of the heifer crop is kept for breeding, particularly as Les looks to increase breeding female numbers, bullocks are sold as forward stores in the autumn, at around 18 months of age, having spent a winter on slats and a summer on grass. During their winter inside, they’re fed a TMR ration of silage, barley, dark grains and minerals, and Les estimates the bullocks are gaining between 1kg and 1.2kg per day, with some up to 1.5kg. The latest batch of Luing bullocks, which were sold off-farm via Harrison and Hetherington’s St Boswells centre, last back-end, weighed in at 520kg and realised £1050, while the Sim-Luing stots tipped the scales at 550kg and averaged £1130 ex-farm. 

Utilising the slurry produced while the calves are inside during the winter brings about its own reward as spreading the slurry on the silage fields cost just £11 per acre, much cheaper than any bought-in fertiliser. The team did, however, apply 200t of lime last year to improve the soil pH and will continue to sample in coming years, as well as stitch in a bit of clover to further reduce future fertiliser costs. 

The Scottish Farmer:

While the two breeds go hand in hand, demand for the Sim-Luing female is gathering momentum and Les hopes to be able to offer some breeding heifers in coming years as, he points out, it’s all about getting your fingers in another market to spread what you have to offer. He also intends to phase out the 35 autumn-calving cows at Torwoodlee and replace with a spring-calving herd of 70 Sim-Luings, when numbers allow. 

Going hand in hand with the cattle enterprise is a flock of 900 ewes, which the team hope to increase to more than 1000 Cheviot and Cheviot Mule ewes. These are covered by Suffolk or Texel sires with any offspring not to be sold for breeding – which reached £120 for two pens of Texel cross Cheviot Mule ewe lambs sold through St Boswells – fattened off grass and sold through Farm Stock (Scotland), peaking at £106 for top draw lambs early in the season. 

The Scottish Farmer:

“I wouldn’t go back to continental breeds now, certainly not on the female side,” said Les, who previously worked with continental cattle near Brechin before moving to Luing. “The breed is getting there but we probably need to be looking more at estimated breeding values (EBVs). 

“Neil McGowan held a workshop last summer looking at maternal EBVS to build on cow classification for bull’s mothers. That classification is a valuable guide to bull buyers and prevents breeders keeping a bull just because he’s a good calf.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Following on from the success of last year’s sale, where 10 bulling heifers cashed in to average £1407, there will be 12 bullers (pictured above) on offer from Buckholm and Torwoodlee Estates at this year’s sale on Friday, February 9. These include six by Dirnanean McHardy and a further six by home-bred bulls.