Duncan Morrison: An interview with a former YDP winner

Duncan Morrison news piece pic
23 November 2017

Duncan Morrison is a former winner of our Aberdeen-Angus Youth Development Programme who has went on to build a successful herd of pedigree Aberdeen-Angus. We spoke with Duncan recently to get some insight into his personal background and journey to where he is today, along with his thoughts on the Youth Development Programme.

What is your general background in the world of cattle breeding?

"I was brought up on the family farm near Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. We specialise in suckler cows which are a mixture of Angus and continental type cows, they are put to the Angus bull with all progeny finished on farm. I graduated SAC Aberdeen (Scottish Agricultural College) with a degree in Agriculture and from there I worked as a stockman on a farm with 180 Simmental cows. From there I moved to the 200 cow Glenbervie Angus herd where I worked as a stockman again. I really enjoyed working with the Angus cows there and found them to be so easily managed and simple. After working with Glenbervie, I took a job managing a 400 acre farm with 100 suckler cows, however I unfortunately ended up being made redundant and decided to go self-employed.’’

"I purchased 49 spring calving cows from the farm I managed and ran them on seasonal grazing before gaining a tenancy of 226 acres Meikle Maldron, Torphins in November 2016. Amongst these cows there were 4 pedigree Angus cows and the rest were a mixture of Angus X and continental. My cows are outwintered on deferred grazing and turnips before calving outside on grass from March onwards. Calves are sold as stores through Aberdeen & Northern Marts as I find it is the quickest way to turn over cash. More recently I have been fortunate enough to privately purchase the remaining cows from the Bridgefoot herd near Kemnay. This takes me up to 63 cows in total with 14 pedigrees, there are also a number of heifers which I would like to take through to breeding, as I would like to increase the Angus numbers going forward.’’

Could you tell us a bit more about your current work?

"Alongside the farm I also run a fencing business, specialising in agricultural stock fencing. Initially this started off as a means of building cash, which is essential for any new business. Since then it has taken off and takes up a good segment of my time. Going forward, I’d like to be able to be on the farm full time, that is my goal. Working off farm is quite good for your mindset as you don’t have so much time to deal with problem cattle and complicated systems, so it focuses your mind on trying to create a system that suits. What I look for is simple cows that calve on their own, calves that get up and suck unassisted and a herd that is easily managed in general.’’

"My cows are all rotationally grazed through the Summer, so they are now really in tune with what I’m doing and are pretty easy to move from one field to another. I try to have as large management groups as possible to aid grass utilisation and cut down unnecessary work. Cows are either rotationally grazing grass or strip grazing deferred grazing or forage crops. I try not to supplementary feed where possible, simplicity is key for me as I don’t own a tractor, everything is done with a quad bike, electric fences and a dog!’’

"The long term plan is to try to increase cow numbers overall, I believe the farm could handle 100 cows if it is operating at full pelt. From there, I want to try to increase the proportion of Angus cows as they are more economical to keep and more suited to my farm. I will be AI’ing the best of my pure cows to try to get the best genetics I can to improve my overall herd performance, ideally I’m looking for a cow with moderate mature weight, good feet and udders which is going to calve easily with a relatively low birth weight calf which will grow well.’’

After winning the Youth Development Programme, where did you travel to for your period abroad?

"I was fortunate to win the YDP final in 2014 so I decided to travel to New Zealand in 2016 as part of my prize. I had been there once in 2013 as part of the World Angus Forum youth team, and seeing the country then really got me interested in what they do. My time in New Zealand really changed my perspective. I learnt so much there and I try to implement what I can on my own farm at home.’’

Could you tell us a bit more about your time abroad, and what you found particularly interesting?

"My time in New Zealand totally changed my opinion on cattle and how to run them. I found the focus there is really on ease of management, many herds I saw had one labour unit per 400-600 cows, major calving issues are not tolerated, nor are poor structure or locomotion. Such is the nature of the industry at the moment, with dairy being very dominant, most beef herds tend to occupy the higher country on steeper terrain, so they select for cattle that thrive in this situation. This probably helps the market for bulls, as there is a high casualty rate amongst the bulls while working, in addition to the good market for bulls in to the dairy herds. New Zealand cows tend to be smaller than cows in the UK and the phenotype of the animal is probably less important there than it is here. Heifers nearly always calve at two years old, I only found one breeder who did otherwise.’’

"Almost all cattle in New Zealand are outside all year round, so it is important that they have the ability to look after themselves. It’s easy to say they have a better climate which makes that possible which is only partly true. I visited a herd in the South Island named Mount Linton Station where they run 2500 Angus cows and 45000 ewes. It is New Zealand’s largest privately owned station. There, the farm manager told me he budgets for his cows to lose up to 150kg of liveweight through Winter, there is no supplementary feeding whatsoever even in heavy snowfall. Even with this fluctuation in weight, the cows are expected to calve themselves and thrive through the summer and wean a calf over 50% of her own weight. At Mount Linton there was a focus on the rib fat EBV as it strongly correlates with fertility, a cow with a high rib fat EBV is more likely to recover and get back in calf after a hard winter than a leaner animal.’’

"Another big difference I found was that the vast majority of bulls were sold off farm, normally by an on farm bull sale. Sale bulls got no preferential treatment and were fed grass only and sold in their working clothes. It was quite refreshing to see breeders who were almost boasting how high up their farms were or how steep their ground was to prove their bulls were hardier and fitter than the next guys’, rather than being fed so they look like a bull they are not. The terrain and climates vary a lot, so buyers take great interest in the type of farm the bulls have come from.’’

"Figures were generally very important in New Zealand although I did find one or two people who were sceptical. It was interesting to see a lot of breeders try to improve IMF EBVs even though the progeny are not necessarily more valuable if they are heavily marbled. There was a feeling that this is the route the industry is going down and it was best to be ahead of the curve.’’

"Even taking cattle out of the equation, I was really impressed with many of the farms’ I visited business models, most were running a very tight ship with little or no fixed costs, running high numbers with low labour input without compromising on welfare, the majority of this was achieved by selective breeding.’’

How do you feel you benefitted from taking part in the YDP?

"I have hugely benefitted by taking part in the YDP. I have met some great people from all over the country and the world, many will be friends for life. I have learnt a lot about cattle breeding in a variety of systems and it takes you out of your comfort zone. I’ve done a lot of travelling with the YDP having attended various workshops, senior conferences, YDP finals as well as my trip to NZ. I only wish I could still be involved, but I’m too old!’’

What tips would you give to any young enthusiasts in the world of cattle farming now?

"My main tip would be to obviously get involved with the YDP! I’d also say that trying to travel and experience as many different systems as you can is really important. This doesn’t even need to be abroad, there is a lot to learn even in this country. You need to see things done in different ways, even with different breeds and then you can decide what suits you best going forward. I think the industry is changing, so don’t be afraid to do things differently and stand out from the crowd a little bit.’’

We can’t thank Duncan enough for taking the time to provide us with such an in-depth and interesting look at his past experience, current work, time in New Zealand and thoughts on the Youth Development Programme. Duncan is a fine example of how our YDP can help build for future careers and give some youngsters a magnificent platform.