Forget high tech machinery and intensive breeding and rearing cattle systems, a low input, forage-based enterprise can be significantly easier to manage and more importantly, profitable.

That was the good news story from fourth generation Aberdeenshire beef farmer, Duncan Morrison, of Meikle Maldron, Torphins, near Banchory, who has established an up and coming low-cost system from scratch.

The Scottish Farmer: The tenanted farm rises to 1000ft above sealevel therefore cows need to be hardyThe tenanted farm rises to 1000ft above sealevel therefore cows need to be hardy

Having lost his job as a farm manager, Duncan who farms with his wife Claire, looked into setting up his own business in 2016 following a trip to New Zealand where he discovered how low input farming systems work.

The couple now farm 650 acres split between three units made up of owned ground, tenanted and contract farmed, which is home to 250 Aberdeen-Angus and Stabiliser spring-calving suckler cows of which 50 are leased. However, with no savings to invest in the early days, the business has had to be lean and mean from the outset.

The Scottish Farmer: No concentrates are fed with the only creep feed being silageNo concentrates are fed with the only creep feed being silage

"Much of the UK beef industry is over mechanised, over staffed and under efficient when you consider only 44% of non less favoured area suckler farms recorded a positive net margin in 2022 and that included the £95 headage payment per calf," he told delegates attending the British Cattle Breeders' Conference in Telford, last month.

Instead, Duncan who farms the family's lowground home farm which is able to finish stock off rich herbal leys, another of similar topography and an hill unit that rises to 1000ft above sea-level, urged farmers to understand the type of ground/system they have and produce the 'perfect' cow for it.

The Scottish Farmer: Lowground farm is ideal for finishing cattle onLowground farm is ideal for finishing cattle on

As a result, he looked to produce fertile, easy managed and calved cows with good mothering ability. "We can't control the beef price but we can control our input costs therefore you invest in flesh not metal," Duncan said adding that £400,000 of machinery for a 100-cow herd doesn't stack up when labour costs are so high and so few suckler herds are able to make ends meet.

"British beef is amongst the most expensive in the world, so we need to make it work, but to do that you have to build a low cost system with less reliance on machinery and labour.

The Scottish Farmer: Duncan has experimented with tall grass grazing on thinner soilsDuncan has experimented with tall grass grazing on thinner soils

"Why calve inside when, if you have the right ground, they can be calved outside, and why trim feet when it costs so much on labour? Just cull out the problem cows that cost you money and concentrate on the minimal input females that can produce a calf and rear it themselves. If you get the basics right you are half way there."

Duncan calves all cows and heifers outdoors in the spring with the aid of two quad bikes and two tractors – double the numbers but only because of the distance between the farms. No supplementary concentrate feeding is provided only forages which with a 125-day winter and deferred grazing/round bales of silage works out at 72p per head per day.

The Scottish Farmer: Resilient calves breed resilient cows Resilient calves breed resilient cows

Cows and heifers are calved in the one group over two cycles. Once a calf is up and 'sooked' it is transported in an individual calf crate and weighing machine with its mother following alongside to a next door field. Calves are also tagged and recorded for ease of calving, vigour, and birth weight with figures taken on the docility of the dam and dam's udder and teats at the same time.

Cows and calves are also weighed at weaning, which last year produced calf weights of 40% against their mothers at 200 days, with the goal being 50% of the dam's weight at this time.

Calving outside has also been shown to be a lot healthier for the cow and the calf, with the business aiming to cut out pneumonia vaccines this year.

By mob grazing and relying more on red and white clovers, Duncan has seen the fertility of his grasses and soils improve to such an extent that no fertilisers or sprays are applied. Instead, he uses a plate metre to measure grass on a regular basis and moves individual mobs of cattle every two to three days at the height of the growing season.

With the home farm boasting productive mixed grassland, clover and herbal leys, the Morrisons are also able to finish their steers at 18-20months without concentrates, while the best end of the heifers are retained for breeding.

"Hardy calves born outside make for hardy cows," said Duncan who performance records under selective pressure. Any cows that prove temperamental, poor milkers or don't hold to the bull over two cycles are culled.

Duncan has also discovered that leaving his male Aberdeen Angus calves entire, they can be finished solely off techno forages at 16 months of age.

"If you select the genetics/animals that don't work you are culling them out before they cost too much money. We take out cows that cost labour, money and time which also means cows that don't hold to the bull. Breed choice, cross-bred or pure-bred is not important but type is crucial and Aberdeen-Angus and Stabilisers work for us. We need fleshy, resilient cows here. Our average cow at weaning is 649kg and calves bred from these cows are proving easy to finish.

He added that the couple has also discovered that while compensatory growth has been on the go forever is completely under utilised when bulling heifers achieved exact same weight out wintered compared to similarly aged stores in wintered.

"Invest time understanding your business instead of spending time in your business. Invest in flesh not metal. Lean and mMean and remember your system comes first with the cow second

" We have heard so many different opinions regard technology, and supplements, but I personally believe, a simple system with low fixed costs, low machinery costs, low fuel and reduced age to slaughter can be obtainable target on most farms on the road to reducing carbon footprint. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and there is a strong correlation between productivity, reduced emissions and profit," Duncan concluded.

Farm Facts

Farm business: Reliant on 650 acres over three units comprising owned, tenanted and contract.

Livestock: 250 Aberdeen Angus and Stabiliser cows calved outdoors in spring with no concentrates. Replacements retained for breeding with the remainder sold finished off home-grown forages only. Smaller flock of Lleyn ewes.

Grazing: Mob grazing during summer and deferred grazing with 125-day winter costs 72p per head per day.

Machinery: Two tractors and two quad bikes only because farms 20miles apart.