By Debbie James

Running a high ratio of bulls to cows is key to achieving a compact calving block at a Pembrokeshire beef farm.

Mark Reynolds, who farms part of the Dale Castle Estate and National Trust land with his parents, Russell and Debbie, calves 68 per cent of the 90-cow suckler herd in the first three weeks.

In 2020, 65 cows calved in the first three weeks.

“It was our easiest calving and we didn’t lose a single animal at birth,’’ says Mr Russell, who employs a part-time worker, Richard George, and is supported by his wife, Gemma, and their children, Daniel and Millie.

The entire herd calves in six weeks.

Mr Reynolds says running four bulls with 90 cows might be regarded by some as a high ratio but this is needed to keep the calving period tight.

“The bulls don’t cost a lot to run, the biggest cost is getting them to 18 months and the breeders do that for us,’’ he says.

Since the calving period was tightened there have been fewer mortalities.

“When you are calving six or seven a day you are out there all the time but when you only have one or two there is a danger you can take your eye off things,’’ says Mr Reynolds.

Limousin bulls are used on cows and an Aberdeen Angus on heifers.

The main characteristics the Reynolds look for in a bull’s estimated breeding values (EBVs) is how easily his calves will be born and how fast will they grow.

“Calving ease and 200-day and 400-day weight are important, we want calves that are going to grow,’’ Mr Reynolds explains.

If cows calve without assistance they are much more likely to get back in calf in the first cycle, he adds.

The herd is predominately a British blue dairy cross with a small number of Herefords and Limousins.

The Reynolds’ prefer to buy first-cross dairy heifers, selected for their milkiness and temperament, instead of breeding their own.

“My own Limousin suckler-bred heifers wouldn’t be the right temperament to keep as replacements,’’ says Mr Reynolds. “The heifers we buy are often bucket-reared and are easy to handle.’’

Compact calving herds need sufficient housing to enable cows and calves to be housed if poor weather delays turnout.

“We are fortunate to have a lot of buildings but it you don’t and you get very wet weather in the spring you can run into problems,’’ says Mr Reynolds.

Cows and calves are turned out within two or three days of calving but will be rehoused if needed.

From early August, calves are offered an 18 per cent protein coarse mix made up of flake maize, sugar beet and cereals and once they are consuming 2kg a day they are introduced to a 16% protein home-mix of barley, oats, sugar beet, molasses and a protein pellet.

“We don’t push the Aberdeen Angus as hard as the Continentals because the home-mix is high in starch and they would be prone to getting a little fat on this, we make good quality silage so the Angus calves get 1kg a day of the mix,’’ says Mr Reynolds.

Average daily liveweight gains of 1.2-1.5kg are achieved from birth.

Post-weaning, calves continue to have access to the creep feeders for two weeks, to provide continuity, with the amount of feed in these gradually reduced.

Compact calving results in higher average weaning weights and less weaning checks in bigger calves.

Calves are weaned in two batches in November and December, at eight months when they weigh 400-450kg.

At weaning, calves are vaccinated with Rispoval, their backs are clipped and they are housed until the following spring.

Calves are sold at grass in the summer, at 12-18 months, through a local mart or private sales.