Innovative farm plays B&B to other cattle

STEVEN and Elaine Murray of West Preston Farm, Kirkbean, Dumfries, hosted a Luing Cattle Society open day. Neil Ryder reports on how the couple over-winter their cattle and sheep, while working with the RSPB to provide winter grazing for thousands of geese.

Having selected a breed that can out-winter on their low-lying coastal grazings, Steven and Elaine Murray have decided to use their buildings to ‘bed and breakfast’ other farmers’ cattle, providing valuable additional farm income.

Last Saturday, the couple welcomed visitors to West Preston, a beef and sheep farm where the management was heavily influenced by the RSPB’s neighbouring Mersehead coastal reserve.

They have been involved with the Luing breed for some time, trying them for the first time because the small, tenanted farm they started at Rockcliffe, Dalbeattie, had a lack of buildings, meaning cattle had to be outwintered.

Having tried a range of breeds and crosses with varying degrees of success, they started the Rockcliffe Luing herd by buying bulling and in-calf pure heifers and putting them in the Simmental, only to lose all their stock in the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The same year, their Rockcliffe tenancy came to an end and they moved to Mrs Murray’s parents’ farm at Cowcorse, Kirkbean.

In 2003 the next-door farm – West Preston – came up for sale. The Murrays learned that the RSPB was interested in buying the farm to add to their Merseland reserve so, after discussions, Mr and Mrs Murray bought 89 hectares (220 acres) and the RSPB the remaining 81ha (200 acres). The land is mostly sandy with some peat areas and is prone to drought.

This worked well, as the RSPB did not want the farmhouse or buildings. The steading at West Preston was set up for finishing cattle and not for cows, so it was decided to increase the cow numbers and to rent the shed out for B&B cattle during

the winter. The income from this was also helpful when budgeting for a bank loan,” Mr Murray told visitors.

“The loose housing is used to finish bull calves. Initially we had a range of crosses as well as pure Luing calves and found that, on our system, the Luings were performing as well as any of the crosses – so we decided to use only Luing bulls from then on,” he said.

“Here at West Preston we run about 120 Luing cows, about 50 bulling heifers and the same number of heifer stirks. We calve in April and May. Our yearlings graze away as part of a heather regeneration project on a large Scottish Natural Heritage reserve near Gathouse on Fleet.

“This is hard land and we do not expect these yearlings to put on any condition, if anything losing a little. They need a little time to put on condition when they come back to West Preston, which is why we calve heifers at about three years,” he said.

Replacements

“Apart from any kept as herd replacements, we sell in-calf heifers through the Luing Cattle Society sale in Castle Douglas each February. Our heifers are not the very top, but we aim to sell good lots and, hopefully, provide something for everyone. Bull calves are finished entirely on a low-cost ration and sold through Galloway Primestock. Last year these finished over an average of 438 days and levelled at 318.8kg deadweight.”

Mr Murray said machinery on the farm was kept to a bare minimum with major tasks being carried out by contractors. Pit silage is made for the B&B cattle with any additional grass taken as hay or haylage depending on conditions. Out-wintered cattle are strip grazed on kale and supplemented by haylage, hay or straw.

There are also 120 Easycare sheep on the farm. Both Easycare and Wiltshire Horn tups are used to retain the breed’s natural wool shedding characteristics, as fly strike is a major risk at Kirkbean early in the year. Lambing has been put back from April to May, which has worked well.

When asked about his plans for the future, Mr Murray said: “I think we are at about the number of cows we can cope with, bearing in mind the type of land and location

” Also we do not want to take more land away from West Preston, as I think that would stretch things too far. We may increase the sheep a little, as we think we could run a few more with the cattle.

“We are just five years into breeding the Luings and need at least another generation to stabilise characters such as type. This will take another five to 10 years. Simply, we just want to get better and better.”

 

Farm facts

  • Farm owned since 2003, when the 170ha (420-acre) original unit was split between the Murray family and the RSPB’s large Merseland coastal reserve
  • 120 pedigree Luing cows, plus 50 each of bulling and stirk heifers, and 120 Easycare sheep, all of which remain outdoors all year round
  • Heifers sold in-calf through Luing Cattle Society sales, with February’s consignment of 26 head averaging £1,882 and including two sale toppers at 2,100gns apiece
  • Bull calves finished for beef and, after taking out feed costs, worth an estimated £200 a head more than if sold as 14-month-old stores
  • Extensive set of buildings with slatted floors and large above-ground slurry store used to ‘bed and breakfast’ other farmers’ cattle during the winter period
  • Good working relationship with the RSPB
  • Short swards are grazed bare by the time the barnacle geese leave in May, but are well fertilised by the geese droppings and recover well in June billion, had been paid out.

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