Traditional breeds of suckler cows which can be outwintered on
the hill are the key to profitable beef production for James Playfair
James Playfair Hannay with cows and calves
at Morebattle Tofts
“We require cows which can live on fresh air – and
produce a quality calf. The Aberdeen Angus and Beef Shorthorn have
a big role to play,” he says.
The 90-strong pure-bred Angus herd remains the ‘bread and
butter’ of the cattle enterprise for Playfair Farms.
“Everyone is grumbling that beef cattle are making no money
but I don’t think many could keep cows cheaper than I can
on the hill,” he says.
James is the fourth generation of his family to farm at Morebattle
Tofts and he also farms Clifton –on-Bowmont and more recently
Yetholm Mains on a contract farming basis. Playfair Farms operates
over 4,300 acres running 300 suckler cows and 2,000 principally
North Country Cheviot breeding ewes. Six hundred arable acres grow
malting barley and other cereals for home use as well as straw
A pedigree Aberdeen Angus herd was founded by James’s grandfather
in 1947 and when James returned to the farm after college in the
late 1970s he was so convinced about the attributes of native bred
cattle that he founded a Beef Shorthorn herd.
“When the continental terminal sire breeds came into the
UK there were some wonderful native-bred suckler cows. Now these
cows have all gone and we have the Holstein influence and the cows
are too thin skinned and hungry. The capital output needed to keep
them is too great which was fine when barley was cheap. I would
also question whether our land had enough body to carry these bigger,
heavier-boned continental cows.
“We tried different breeds of bulls on the cows but we found
that with our system the Shorthorn cross Angus cow was the best,
crossed to the Angus bull. The cow wasn’t too big and hungry
at up to 700kg and she weaned as big a calf as any of the other
crosses we had analysed and the decision was taken that we had
better buy some Shorthorns. We were also getting a lack of uniformity.”
At the time the Shorthorn breed was in decline, however several
females were bought combining Northern Dairy Shorthorns from Cumbria
as well as Beef Shorthorns from Parkfield and Ardbennie as well
as dual purpose Shorthorns from Ronnie Henderson, of Newton.
The purebred Shorthorn herd was established in the early 1980s,
under the Tofts prefix as with the Angus herd, and now numbers
60 cows and the additional 150 commercial sucklers which are Shorthorn
“We set out to produce bulls for our own use and we had
no intentions of being ‘big’ in the pedigree world
and going to Perth and winning championships,” said James,
who is the Beef Shorthorn Association’s vice-president.
However, at the Perth February bull sale this year the Tofts herd
achieved its highest prices yet for Shorthorns with Tofts Hector
making 8,000gns to a pedigree breeder and another bull making 5,500gns
for a new herd in Northern Ireland.
At the outset the breed’s genetic pool in the UK was small
and cows were identified in Canada for embryo production. Another
problem says James is that too few UK breeders performance record
their herds – both the pedigree herds at Morebattle Tofts
have been recorded for more than 20 years.
“We have been criticised for using certain bulls but I haven’t
used a bull where I haven’t seen a job for it to do,” he
As well as using the traditional Beef Shorthorn and Dairy Shorthorn
and Northern Dairy Shorthorn, bloodlines from the French Maine
Anjou and polled Shorthorns from New Zealand, Australia and North
America have been used.
“As a breed, while it is doing the job, we have to be more
selective – udders in cows need to be improved and feet and
legs are starting to become a problem. Breeders buy bulls without
seeing the parents. I have only used one bull which I haven’t
seen its parents – a New Zealand bred bull – but I
had seen its progeny.
“The Beef Shorthorn is a maternal breed and the challenge
is to breed good shaped cattle with an abundance of milk.
In 2000 the neighbouring farm Yetholm Mains was taken on in a
contract with the family who farmed it and this is where commercial
cows now run all crossed with the Angus bull.
Calves are sold either as yearling stores or finished off the
farm, both having a ready market with Marks & Spencer, Waitrose
They are fed a wholecrop diet, a mix of lupins and triticale with
minerals. Last year the steer calves averaged 13 months old producing
300kg carcases grading at R4L. Achieving this weight as soon as
possible improves turnover.
“Supermarkets have not been a great help generally in the
red met industry and for the MLC, high value meat doesn’t
seem to be of interest. When it encouraged producers to make beef
leaner the consumption went down – it seemed the MLC’s
purpose is to sell vast quantities of mince per hectare!”
The cows are outwintered on the dry white hill which runs up to
1,300ft – the farm is in the second driest parish in Scotland
with 23 to 25 inches of rainfall a year. Grass conservation is
assisted with a deferred grazing system. Calving is in May in hill
paddocks with weaning the following November when the calves are
housed and the cows stay out on the hill.
Through the winter the cows are fed 2kg a day of a barley and
mineral home mix ration. The only supplement they are fed from
then is a high magnesium mineral block.
In September and October prior to weaning the calves are creep
fed with a home-mix ration.
The aim is to calve the heifers at two years old and for each
to produce 10 living calves which when weaned off the hill must
be a minimum of 300kg.
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