A hobby that turned into a booming beef enterprise

Arron and Carol Cruickshank started their beef rearing enterprise in Dumfries with 35 dairy calves. Twelve years on and they’re finishing 500 head a year, with ambitions for further growth.

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When Arron and Carol Cruickshank started their beef rearing enterprise it was initially a ‘hobby business’ alongside their other jobs. At the time Arron was self-employed, working for local farming businesses and Carol was employed as an NHS administrator and clinic coordinator. They both had farming backgrounds and with cattle dealers on Carol’s side of the family she knew of the potential opportunities that calf rearing could offer. Meanwhile, Arron’s father Willie had taken the decision to slow down and sell his own suckler herd, so the couple bought their first dairy cross calves using existing housing on his farm to rear them.

“We bought 35 calves and the business grew from there as opportunities came up,” explains Arron. As their workloads grew they both gave up their other jobs to work full-time in the business. “We started off buying black and white bull calves which worked really well. They were cheaper to buy than beef crosses and finished in a similar time. There was absolutely nothing wrong with them, however they’re now quite scarce because so many dairy farms now use sexed semen.” Instead, all their calves are British Blue or Aberdeen Angus crosses sourced from three local dairy farms.

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Every fortnight a batch of 20 to 30 three-week old calves arrives from the dairy farms. They start off in calf pens in the farm’s two existing sheds, supplemented by a third new shed built a few years ago. Another recent investment was automatic feeders which mix and dispense milk to the calves which it identifies by their collars. “The machine knows how much each calf should have,” says Arron. The calves are given just milk for the first few days, giving them time to settle in and get used to the machines. Then blend is introduced alongside milk, with quantities gradually increasing as the calves are weaned automatically by the machine. “It reduces their milk by 0.2l per day until they are fully weaned,” explains Arron. “Once fully weaned they are on 18% blend ad lib.”

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The right blend

The blend of choice for the Cruickshanks is ForFarmers Cattle Blend 18 which Arron and Carol have been feeding from the start. “We use it right through to finishing and it works really well for us,” explains Arron. “It covers all ages and feeding just one ration means we only have one product to store.” They add homegrown barley to the diet from 14 weeks of age, and by this stage calves have moved to a second site and bigger pens. This combination is mixed with silage to create a total mixed ration in the winter and during the summer months the blend is phased out temporarily. “We zero graze during the summer and they just have grass and barley then,” he continues.

Zero grazing is a recent change introduced last year, motivated primarily by cost. “It makes a big difference financially having them on grass through the summer as we then don’t need to feed blend,” says Arron. “They just have grass, home-grown barley plus some SelcoPlus mixed together with the grass.”

SelcoPlus has been on the farm’s order sheet for around seven years having been advised to try it by their account manager Yvonne Shaw. “As it’s a moist feed it helps bind everything together to make a nice mix. The cattle really love it,” says Arron. “If we ever run out for a few days we can really see a difference with intakes. Like every cost on the farm there have been times I have questioned the extra spend, but I believe it’s still good value.”

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Keeping an eye on progress

The animals are finished at 20 to 24 months of age by which point they weigh around 720kg. By the latter stage they are in the farm’s biggest pens and Arron regularly weighs them to keep an eye on their progress. “We sold some store cattle this year when trade was good and we had a shortage of silage, but generally finish everything ourselves here.” Everything is sold to ABP at Perth.

The farm is currently 220 acres of grass at home plus a further 130 acres of rented ground which is used for growing barley (60 acres) and grass (70 acres). The leys are a standard silage/grazing mix. “They sometimes have to do both jobs for us,” Arron says. “We always take three cuts of silage and a fourth if possible.” They soil test and spread lime accordingly and re-seed on a rotation between grass leys and barley crops. This means that every field is re-seeded around every six years.

In the future Arron has his sights set on further growth of the business. “I’d love to get up to 1,000 head,” he concludes. “That’s our ambition, but we would need to get some more land and maybe sell some stores to make that possible.”

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