The potential presented by a beef cattle enterprise based on native breeds was highlighted during a recent away-day visit to north Perthshire by Moray and Nairn monitor farm community group.
The group, including monitor farmer Robbie Newlands, travelled to Incheoch Farms in Glen Isla to visit the McGowan family, who run a 1,200 acre (485 ha) mainly LFA, upland livestock and cropping unit, ranging from 400 to 750 feet above sea level.
Robbie Newlands runs Cluny Farm near Forres in Morayshire with his wife Kirsty and his father, also Robbie. Their 1060 acre mixed unit is one of the national network of monitor farms led by Quality Meat Scotland.
The Newlands’ beef enterprise is based on an out-wintered, 170 cow, spring calving suckler herd of British Blue x Holsteins, purchased as bulling heifers. Charolais bulls are the service sires, apart from over heifers.
All progeny are intensively finished with bull calves kept entire and finished at approximately 14 months, yielding carcasses around 400 kgs dwt.
The McGowan family – Finlay, Judy, along with daughter Clare, son Neil and his wife Debbie - run a total of 220 home-bred cows, 60 of which are pedigree Simmental, plus a small pedigree Aberdeen-Angus herd.
The remainder, almost all pedigree Luings, are run commercially and this native, spring calving herd was a focus of the visit. Half of the Luing herd is pure, with the remainder crossed with Simmental bulls to produce Sim-Luings.
Both McGowan generations have worked on extensive, overseas cattle enterprises where female breeding selection is based on natural high fertility, ease of management (particularly at calving), the annual rearing of a quality calf along with the ability to thrive and produce on a low-cost forage diet.
This Australasian and north and south American cattle breeding philosophy has been imported by the McGowans into their Perthshire enterprise.
Their Luing heifers are bulled by an Aberdeen Angus to calve at 27 months old, having achieved their target bulling weight of 440 kgs – 65% of the herd’s average mature cow weight of 675 kgs.
“We like to treat our heifers so they feel as if they’re on holiday,” Neil McGowan told the group. “That way we hope they feel good enough to repay us when we turn the bull in. And it seems they’ve got the message – we run the bull with the heifers for just nine weeks and for the last three years they’ve all PD’d in calf.”
The heifers are scheduled to start calving six weeks after the main herd starts in early March. “We then bull them to bring them into the main herd in subsequent years,” explained Neil McGowan. “They’re currently making, on average, 18 days progress each year.”
This year, 86% of the McGowan’s Luing herd calved within the first nine weeks.
Unlike some other breeds which rely on the consultation of Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs), to indicate the breeding potential of pedigree stock, the Luing Cattle Society uses Cow Classification – the recording and scoring of what they regard as the important commercial productive and functional traits, in the breeding females. Included in this assessment are – age of first calving, calving interval, feet, locomotion, udder, teats and temperament.
Only bull calves from their very best scored cows are considered to be kept entire by the McGowans either for their own use or for sale. The large majority of the pure Luing males are castrated.
“The Luing breed was developed on the Isle of Luing by the Cadzows, to produce ‘a useful commercial steer from poorer ground’ for finishing on their farms in the east,” explained Neil McGowan.
“But it seems that this was forgotten in the years of cheap grain which encouraged store buyers towards continental-type cattle. Native-bred steer calves became pretty hard to sell and my father always had a notion that we were giving away a lot of potential in our pure Luing steers.”
In 2007, the McGowans decided that instead of “giving away” their pure Luing steers in the store ring, they would finish them and sell them deadweight to McIntosh Donald at Portlethen.
The 2006-born steers were finished in their second summer on clover-rich grazing supplemented by 1 kg per head per day of barley with minerals.
In 2008 the McGowans hosted a Luing Open Day, where the then McIntosh Donald Procurement Manager revealed the average performance of the McGowan’s pure Luing steers, compared to the average of the 40,000 other, mainly Continental cross steers, slaughtered at the plant in 2007.
Neil McGowan shared McIntosh Donald figures comparing the average performance of the McGowan’s pure Luing steers with the average of the 40,000 other, mainly continental cross steers, slaughtered at the plant in 2007.
The Luings had gained 1kg per day against the other 40,000’s average gain of 0.8 kg per day. The Luings had grossed £793 per head against £803 but had finished 151 days quicker at 590 days against 741 days.
“That made us realise that our store steer buyers had been getting a real bargain!” remarked Neil McGowan. “Since then some major retailers have started paying significant premiums for native-bred beef cattle, which has helped to give a boost to folk working with native breeds, who are unable to take their own cattle through to finishing, and have to sell them as stores.”
The next Moray and Nairn Monitor Farm meeting will be an open evening on 18th July 2012. For further information on monitor farms and detailed reports of meetings visit www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms