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Beef Shorthorn - a Breed with a Future
17/07/08

Cumbrian marginal land farmer Tony Wood is convinced that the Beef Shorthorn is the key to survival since decoupling of agriculture for the family farm.

Tony Wood and his four year old son Jake with pure Beef Shorthorn cows and five to six week old calves
at Abbots Reading.

Abbots Reading

The family has farmed Abbots Reading, at Haverthwaite, near Ulverston, for 48 years and for the majority of that time there has been a suckler herd but it was Shorthorns that caught the eye of Tony and his late father Derek in 1994.

Now with more than 12 years’ experience of the commercial attributes of the breed, Tony believes the cattle have a solid future post CAP reform.

“I’m confident that if I can make a living with any beef breed it is with the Shorthorn, a traditional breed noted for its grazing ability particularly on marginal land and its ease of management in terms of input, handling and calving,” said Tony.

“In 1995 we were farming 150 acres and we had a bigger sheep flock. I wanted a breed which enabled me to keep my own replacements and one which had exceptional eating qualities – the Shorthorn is renowned for its marbling of meat with two of the best saturated fats which there are for a balanced diet.

“We saw how good the breed was at the Biggar family’s Chapelton herd near Castle Douglas in 1994 and invested in some foundation heifers the following year, even though we were in the heart of continental cattle country.”

Over the next decade the Woods began marketing their own Shorthorn beef, having it slaughtered at the local abattoir Aireys Butchers selling mixed freezer packs and to a local restaurant.

From small beginnings of selling four animals in the first year they direct marketed 56 in 2005 when the system had to come to an end with Derek’s untimely death and Tony had to re-think the farming operation.

As the business had grown, more land was taken on – renting 150 acres at Mearness from Lord Cavendish’s Holker Estates. All the land is in the Lake District Environmentally Sensitive Area.

Pure bred steers finishing on grass deer parks
on the Holker Estate.
Holker Estate
Working closely with the estate, pure bred bullocks are now run on the deer parks and finished at 24 to 28 months old for sale through the estate food hall alongside the famed Holker saltmarsh lamb. Last year the top weight off grass was 402kg deadweight.

A total of 80 animals go to the bull this year – 34 pure bred Shorthorns and six Highland cross Shorthorns are put to the Shorthorn bull with the remaining crossbred cows going to the Simmental.

“I used to run two Shorthorn bulls but I run one now alongside the Simmental which gives me options for marketing the cattle.

“The Simmental was chosen for its temperament, milking ability and ease of calving. It just seems to click with my cross-bred cattle.

“I have concentrated on getting my commercial cows right. I had some Highland cows which were crossed with the Shorthorn and I kept a batch of those heifers to put back to the Shorthorn, keeping the three quarter bred females.

“These cattle were bred to live outside and we used to outwinter 40, however cross compliance now means we have to house them at Mearness.

“They are just a marvellous cow – they are cheap to keep and healthy and they can be put to any bull. It’s all about cost and trying to run a low input system.

“We tried other cross bred continentals and we found when outwintering the cows that we were using three to four bales of silage less per week for the Shorthorn cattle than the other batches of continental cross cows.”

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Tony stresses the importance of ease of management from calving to handling of the Shorthorn and Shorthorn cross cattle as he has help from his mother Carol and other family members. Tony’s partner Sharon is a teacher and they have a four year old son, Jake and a baby daughter Molly.

Another testament to the Shorthorn’s ease of management and excellent temperament is that the steers on the deer parks are looked after on a day-to-day basis by the estate’s maintenance manager Graham Dobson who had no previous experience of cattle.

Longevity and fertility are other attributes of the pure and cross-bred dams, says Tony.

The cross-bred cows calve to the Simmental in March and April with calves introduced to creep feed in July in preparation for sale as suckled calves in October at seven months old with the first batch of Simmental bull calves from the crossbreds averaging £425 off their mothers in last autumn’s trade post the foot and mouth restrictions.

The pure bred cows calve from March to May but now Tony is aiming to tighten the calving period with the new system and for the first time Shorthorn calves will be fed creep.

The cattle are turned out in March in batches of about a dozen animals and are fed big bale silage ad lib and mineral blocks with around 1.5 kg of concentrate until the grass starts growing in May.

The pure bred bullocks are housed for the first winter, outwintered for the second on silage and blocks at the deer parks and finished on grass the following summer while pure-bred heifers not retained as replacements are sold in Carlisle at two years old as bulling heifers. Run commercially they have topped at 1,200gns

The cattle are run on an extensive grazing system with the minimum of fertiliser. Sheep numbers have been cut back to 75 ewes, which are Herdwicks and Herdwick crosses originally to complement the traditional beef marketing, to free up the ground for the cattle and extend the season.

Now that he feels his commercial cattle are in line with what he wants, Tony is now concentrating on his pedigree herd.

Foundation cows were purchased from Glenisla, Fingask and Loch Awe in 1996 and since then Marfen, Tofts, and Glenariff bulls have been used, two of which have been sold on and are still in use in other herds in their teens.

However, at the 2008 Perth February bull sales, Tony invested 8,000gns in the Beef Shorthorn champion – Chapelton Zodiac.

“I felt we have a few decent cows that can justify the expense. I look for an excellent top line and Zodiac’s is like a billiard table! He has power and length and will put some size into my cows, although I am not a believer in big cattle. On top of that he has a very a good beef value and will hopefully keep milk in the herd.

“I’ve got a ten year plan to continue to improve on my pure and cross bred cattle by which time Jake will probably be old enough to decide if he wants to farm.

“I’m confident that my heifers, both pure and crossbreds, are going to be a marketable product.

“Now that the pure herd is at this stage I will be keeping a bull each year but I have no great expectations about selling breeding bulls – it’s the heifers where I feel the potential is.”

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jennifer mackenzie
Article by
Jennifer MacKenzie