Milk to meat: breeding a functional suckler cow for the industry
“We are helping to breed a much needed functional suckler cow for the industry. That’s what Beef Shorthorn is all about, and that’s where the breed’s future lies,” says David. “And since we’ve tried and tested the breed and found it really does tick all the boxes, it’s a future we’re very confident about.
“The cows have proved to be docile, easy to manage, easy to calve and they make brilliant mothers; they’re suited to our low input forage based system, and they are proving to be profitable. So much so, we would now like to see Beef Shorthorn being one of the breeds embraced by all commercial suckler producers simply because it’s such a good fit.”
The Dickies know what it takes to breed a productive cow at Knockenjig, their all grassland holding based near Sanquhar. Synonymous with Ayrshires, until the couple dispersed their prize winning herd of 180 pedigree cows in 2009. “The time had come to move out of milk, future expansion wasn’t possible, the unit required refurbishment and we had no succession,” David explains.
“We really enjoy our livestock, so once things settled down we knew we wanted a few cows to establish a new enterprise focused on the commercial sector and it had to make money. We looked at the native beef breeds and Beef Shorthorn won hands down. We had done our research and found the cows were quiet and easy to handle – we wanted to farm animals that wouldn’t run a mile; we’ve set this unit up for one person to manage by themselves, so that meant cows had to calve themselves which we’ve found to be the case,” Rosemary explains. “The calves have a very strong will to live and as soon as they are on the ground they have one thing in mind, and that’s to get up and suck.”
Knockenjig Beef Shorthorn herd which today comprises 25 breeding cows and followers was established in 2009 with foundation family lines secured from Gregors – Foxglove Flake and Rosie Duchess families; Glengloy – Flossy and Lovely; Glenisla – Duchess and Margo and Mount Benga Tessa. “Our start up co-incided with the breed’s resurgence. We recognised that interest in the breed was genuinely increasing however we hadn’t realised where it was going to end up with the herdbook registrations growing by over 40% within the last five years. For us, our objective was and continues to be focused on breeding and rearing cattle for the commercial market and we’re finding a very ready demand for both bulls and heifers, whilst male calves not retained for breeding purposes are steered, reared to an average 550kg at 16 to 17 months and sold in to a strong store market which is being backed by Morrisons for its Traditional Beef Scheme.
“We’ve also been fortunate to sell bulls in to pedigree herds, and that’s been a real bonus,” says David. The Dickies enjoyed their best ever day, one that was ‘beyond their wildest dreams’ in Stirling 20 months ago when they sold three bulls by Meonhill Charlie Chaplin to a top of 12,000gns and average £9,520. In total, 14 Charlie Chaplin sons have sold for an average £5,806.
In addition, the family has embraced the beef showring. “We started showing again in 2011 over the next two seasons had some extraordinary beginners luck. We had reserve champion at Dumfries with K Margo, whilst Knockenjig Eclipse secured the male and overall reserve breed championships at the Royal Highland on his first outing in 2012.” Since then, the Dickies have turned out annually a four strong team to Ayr, Dumfries and The Royal Highland and invariably have returned home with a handful of red rosettes on every occasion. 2015 season’s haul included the Royal Highland reserve junior male championship with Knockenjig Hercules, a Charlie Chaplin son.
The couple have introduced the same selection and management criteria to their Beef Shorthorns as they had practiced for over 40 years whilst managing the dairy enterprises. “Conformation – good feet, legs together with plenty of length and potential growth, goes hand in hand with Breedplan data. Whilst that data is not the be and end all, it’s another tool which helps us to select more carefully for very specific traits, and if and when we invest in a new bull he would have to be within the breed’s top 10% for Self Replacing Index.”
The spring calving herd calves over a targeted nine week period and last year achieved 100% calves reared. Heifers are weighed at weaning at nine months, and again at turn out. “It’s important to get a measure of how they really are performing,” David explains. “This year they achieved our target 400kg average at 14 months in order to calve at two years. These heifers continue to grow on to a mature 800kgs by third calving.”
Herd health also continues to be a priority. Knockenjig is a member of the Premium Cattle Health Scheme. “Not only do we want a healthy herd, but we also want to be able to offer animals of the highest standard to beef producers who are becoming more aware of preventative herd health together with biosecurity.”
Knockenjig was among the first herds to be linear classified; VG or better status was awarded to the majority of females presented, including eight Excellent cows. “It was a really useful exercise carried out by a classifier, officially appointed by the society,” says David.
“He left us with the incentive to appraise our cattle even more critically, selecting females with strong maternal traits and good structural soundness. We will be looking for consistency within our cow families over three generations and hopefully those trends will be reflected in market value.
“Ultimately, we believe linear classification will contribute towards breeding a functional suckler cow that continues to meet with market demand.”