Suckler herd sensation in only four years

Four years since going it alone with his beef suckler herd, Dumfries farmer Paul McMeeken believes he has produced his ‘best calves yet’.

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When Paul McMeeken visited a local landowner to enquire about a smallholding for rent, little did he know that the visit would result in him fulfilling a lifelong ambition.

He explains: “I came to see the landlord about a house, steading and 7 acres for rent, and instead walked away with 200 acres.” Paul had previously worked as a cattleman and a long-distance livestock haulier, alongside 18 years as a nightclub DJ.

“It was my childhood dream to run my own farm, but I also had a passion for music so I’d DJ for five nights a week and spend the days running about after cows. I saved all my money to buy my own cows,” he says.

He bought his first heifers from Dumfries market and initially kept them with a previous employer. But his fledgling herd grew to a size that he needed to arrange his own holding, hence the visit to the landlord.

Four years on and his suckler herd now stands at 76 cows which are mostly Hereford Friesian crosses, with some Angus Friesians and a few Limousin Friesian. All were sourced from local dairy farms. “I prefer these crosses as they are a milkier beast and do a better job for their calves.”

He currently has two Simmental stock bulls but until recently has also used Limousin and Angus bulls. “Generally I prefer the Simmental though as the calves are bigger and gain more kilos, but the Angus is useful to put to heifers for an easier first calving.”

The herd calves in the spring (mostly April and May) in his two cattle sheds, but Paul is keen to turn them out as soon as is practical, usually within a few days. They then graze through the summer until they are weaned in November. “I put a bale of straw out in September and then they go onto silage while the calves are still with them.

“The calves learn to eat the silage and together with creep it means they don’t have such a big growth check when they are weaned.”

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He initially started to offer creep feed as early as June. “I have now reduced that to September which is soon enough. In my first year I was so keen to have the best calves I started much earlier than necessary. I soon realised that I was just costing myself money!”

In September 2023 he switched to ForFarmers feed and in particular Burnswark Blend 16 & Flakes on advice from Executive Ruminant Specialist Yvonne Shaw. “This is a specialist feed designed to encourage frame development, maintain rumen health and improve feed efficiency,” explains Yvonne. The blend is fully pelleted, mineralised and screened. Flaked beans and flaked maize are added to provide a balanced supply of starch, sugars and digestible fibre. “Burnswark is available with either 16% or 18% protein to promote muscle growth and it contains vitamins, minerals and key trace elements zinc, cobalt and selenium.”

Paul says: “This crop of calves looks amazing. The main thing is the shine on their skin – I have had so many compliments from other farmers saying that they look the picture of health.”

But the gains are not just cosmetic, he stresses. “They have grown well and gained kilos. The 46 calves I sold in January averaged 401.95kg which is my best yet. The top pen was four Limousin bullocks which averaged 430kg and made £1340 per head so £3 per kg which is pretty amazing.

“Yes, the trade is good just now, but the beasts went in looking really well which definitely made a difference.”

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Smaller calves are kept a little longer and like the first lots will also be sold through Castle Douglas sales. “The majority are away in January and February and the rest in May or later in the summer.”

The Burnswark blend is fed from pre-weaning to market day, he explains. “I started with two bags morning and night so about 1.5kg per head per day, then increased to three and then four bags twice a day.

“Three weeks before the sale I added another bag twice a day, just to give them a last push before the sale.”

Alongside this they always have adlib home-grown silage. “I make the best silage I can, but I am limited by the grass as the pastures are old. I also think it is very important to keep them clean and dry with fresh straw every day.”

Mc Meeken Barr Hill

Paul now rents a total of 300 acres of grass and runs a firewood business alongside the cattle. He also offers grass keep for sheep over the winter months to help with cash flow. Meanwhile his cows leave for another farm for the winter as he only has enough housing for the calves.

“The cows are kept on a bed and breakfast basis elsewhere and it works well. It is a good option for me with straw prices as they are.” Paul has help from his sister Claire, who combines feeding the calves with a part-time role as a receptionist for a local farm vet practice. “It is particularly helpful at calving time to have an extra pair of hands.”

Spurred on by his success Paul is committed to continual improvement and plans to reseed fields as funds allow and improve his stock. He says: “Above all I just want to keep going and keep enjoying farming.”

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