Focus on achieving strong grades reaps rewards

QMS - Farm of the year.''Pic shows finalist James Gilchrist of West Meikle farm in East Lothian.
QMS - Farm of the year.''Pic shows finalist James Gilchrist of West Meikle farm in East Lothian.

Fast finishing and good grades are key to the profitability of the beef enterprise at the Gilchrists’ family farms near Dunbar.

James Gilchrist, his father Jim and brother David, farm 1300 acres in total at West Meikle Pinkerton and Newmill, where they run 170 cows and 1,300 ewes as well as 400 acres of wheat and barley and 120 acres of silage.

James Gilchrist was surprised they were chosen as one of the final four in the 2014 Scotch Beef Farm of the Year award run by AgriScot and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), as his mum had sent in the entry without telling him!

The award assessors were particularly impressed with the cows on the farms, the majority of which are pure Limousin.

Mr Gilchrist explained that the herd started 20 years ago when the family moved from Dophinton to Dunbar and his father gave each of the boys a Limousin cow as a gift.

Mr Gilchrist said: “We had about 20 cross cows but a few years later we bought 10 more pure cows and have kept all our heifers and used Limousin bulls to build the herd up to the current numbers. The plan now is to breed out the remaining cross cows and have 170 pure Limousin females. We like the Limousin because of its shape and the fact it kills out so well.”

Weights range between 380kg to 420kg deadweight.

“It is worthwhile achieving good grades because there is a premium of about 15p/kg on the base price. This year the bulls averaged £1450 per head, although that was back around £400 on 2013.”

Their careful management and health monitoring of the cows, through SAC’s Premium Cattle Health Scheme, results in a tight calving period, which means the bulls are all sold in two batches resulting in fewer trips to the abattoir.

The majority of the cows are spring calving, starting on March 10, with 20 calving in the autumn. Mr Gilchrist pointed out that bulls are only in for ten weeks. Heifers are synchronised and AI’d with an easy-calving Limousin bull; the success rate over the last few years has been around 70%.

However, this is the only time the Gilchrists select sires for ease of calving.

They believe in developing a big pelvis in their cows, which comes from using bigger framed bulls. They also like decent birth weights and growth rates for the animals which go through the finishing unit.

The Gilchrists sell a few bulls at Stirling and at home on a regular basis under their Pinkerton prefix and have sold to a top of 3500gns.

Because they employ no staff except from an extra hand at lambing and harvest, it is important to the Gilchrists that cattle and sheep work slots in around harvest and silage. They have found efficiency has improved since they took advantage of the Land Management contract in 2011 investing in electronic software so that now all cattle are electronically tagged.

Around 140 of the Texel cross ewes lamb in February take advantage of the early lamb market in May and the remainder of the ewes lamb in April with lambs finished off grass from August through to November and sold at Lanark and Stirling.