WITH CALVING in full swing around the country, The Scottish Farmer caught up with Alex Sanger of Prettycur Farm, near Montrose on the north-east coast.

How has calving gone?

It has actually gone reasonably well so far. We started off with a bit of an issue and lost a couple of cows which we think was due to very dry weather. They cows were on kale and I think they might have ingested some soil on the roots, as the dry conditions meant the whole plant was coming away when they ate it. I think this may have caused complications with the calves being stillborn pre parturition and unfortunately we lost the cows.

Since then, the rest progressed at pace with minimal intervention. Our official calving date is April 4, although we had one heifer calved 11 days early, luckily the calf is brand new and thriving. I am happy to say we had 78% calved in the first four weeks. As it stands we have only a handful left to go.

We try run tight calvings with our cows, last year we pulled the bull after nine weeks. Our aim this year is to shorten it further as the tailend cows are the ones you tend want to remove anyway.

Despite a tight bulling season we ended up with a remarkable scanning. Out of 135 spring calvers we had only five empty with a couple of them fairly suspect to begin with. We have used bulls with a shorter gestation period for some time now and we are getting cows back in calf pretty quick. I looked at our calving interval so far and it turns out to be around 353 days which I am pleased about.

In the spring calvers we have 30 heifers which we synchronised and use a short gestation AI bulls. The rest of the 100 cows are split into four bulling groups of different sizes depending on the field size and sire choice. We pull all but one bull out after nine weeks. The one we leave tends to not get on with the other bulls and it is easier if we leave him in the park. But the rest of the bulls are put in a field together. We spray vinegar on their backs to reduce the fighting and that seems to work.

How do you prepare your cows for calving?

We have three different calving batches from the 170 cows in total. The biggest group was the 70 we calve outside. Our fields extend down to the coast so we have good sandy dry ground for outwintering.

The cows were fed on 16 acres of kale from November which was drilled into a burnt off grass park in July. The kale is strip grazed and keeps the cows until the middle of March when they are moved onto a grass field for calving. The kale is supplemented with treated straw until the final weeks before calving when they go onto hay. Then a couple of weeks before the calves are due we put them onto a silage diet. This is all fed in 24ft feed carts and it has kept the cows in good condition all winter. I bought in hay at a reasonable price last year as I was advised that ammonia was going to be expensive for treating straw. I still have some left and it must have doubled in price, as they say: ‘it is better to be looking at it, than looking for it'.

We usually treat around 300 Hesston bales with ammonia but with plastic and ammonia going up in price I can’t see a lot of treated straw made this back end. The only issue with hay is you need space inside to keep it.

All the heifers were outwintered but they were brought in once they start calving to ease management. For the heifers this year we used the AI bulls Quaker Hill Columbus and Spring Grove Overhaul.

We also had a batch of 30 cows which are taken inside after we wean the calves at the end of October. These are the older cows or ones we think are better inside, particularly if it turned wet. But the weather this year has been good so the outside cattle look ten times better than the inside ones.

The housed cows get a TMR mix of straw, silage and minerals with 300g/day of Scottish oilseed rapemeal Neopro. After calving we put a bit more silage into the mix but they don’t get any barley. The cows and the heifers are housed in a 220 foot shed with access to calving pens if attention is needed.

I love reading and hearing about people who calve heifers or cows outside and never have to touch a single one, but the reality is nothing goes perfectly and you do need to help them on occasion.

After the cows are calved we will move them out to fields, if there is enough grass to do so. This year it was a bit delayed but once there is a bite of grass in the field out they go. I’ve seen a cow calve in the morning and be in the field by afternoon if the calf is suckled and roaded. This is great for keeping disease to a minimum and having space in the sheds. But the downfall is the cows then need to be handled again to be vaccinated and bolused. We give them all an IBR marker vaccine, Bovilis BVD vaccine and a Vetalis 250 day bolus and have used them the last two years on our vet's advice and got a good scanning results.

Alongside the spring calvers we also calved another batch of 40 cows and heifers in January. Some of them are also to AI bulls and we got through them in less than six weeks bar one. Originally the batch was calving in November and December. But we moved it to January and we may pull them into one group in April. The price of making silage to keep cows in milk through winter is getting too expensive so spring calving appears more profitable. If we do go to one big batch then we might take on a student during calving to help.

Who is all on the team?

On the calving side it is mainly myself and my wife Wendy. My son Ali, 25, is at home but he does more of the crop work during spring. We grow spring barley, winter wheat and a small amount of seed potatoes.

What sort of breeds do you work?

We are all pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle.

We started producing them in 1995, when we bought seven in-calf cows from the Fairoaks herd. Over the years we have built up the cow numbers to around 200 and now we are back around 170 at the moment as we are constrained a bit with land. It is a great breed with positive outlook supplying quality beef.

Where do you sell the offspring?

We sell most of the male stores through Thainstone. The last batch was sold last week with the top price of £1040 and an average of £980 which I am reasonably pleased with for cattle less than a year old.

We also sell pedigree bulls and heifers off the farm. Through embryo transfers I have some of the last TC Stockman 365 calves from Canada which we intend using on heifers this summer. I don’t tend to sell at the pedigree sales as we produce all our cattle mainly off grass so we are at a disadvantage in the ring. In the past we have sold to 10,000gns and bred a supreme champion of the Royal Highland and Great Yorkshire Shows with a nine-year-old cow Rosemount Justine Erica.

We have exported a reasonable number of heifers since 2006. Originally we had Estonian buyers, then cattle went to Romania, Spain and more recently to France.

How does the future look on the farm?

With having as many stock the farm is in great heart and complements the arable system and with fertiliser now at a premium its great having these fertiliser producers roaming the fields! We are blessed with a fairly kind climate in this part of Scotland, so hopefully it stays good. Perhaps I should be thinking about planning for retirement and succession, I am only 58 so not hanging my boots up yet but should be thinking of building of retirement home before the kids put me in one!

Any advice for someone young or new to cattle farming?

You need to love the job, it is not a get rich quick scheme. And remember to keep it simple.

Prettycur Farm profile

• Own 525 acres

• rent 150 acres

• Growing 165 ac of Spring Barley, 75 ac acres of Winter Wheat and 25 ac of potatoes. Rent out 30 acres for carrots

• All region 1 ground classed at 3.1. The land rises from sea level to 150 feet.

• annual rainfall 26 inches per year

• Aberdeen Angus heifers 40, cows 160, stock bulls 5 and young bulls 14