Developing a stratified beef enterprise – a focus on Beef Shorthorn genetics

Balnabroich, Strathardle, Blairgowrie, Perthshire fact file
5,300 tenanted acres heather moorland
480 acres rotational grazing
480 acres rough grazing
700’-1,500’ above sea level

Team A 30 pedigree cow Highland fold
Team B 30 Highland cows crossed to Beef Shorthorn
Team C 100 Beef Shorthorn cross Highland cows crossed to Angus or Simmental
Team D 17 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows

500 Blackface ewes
600 Scotch Mule ewes

 Lady Sally and Sir Michael Nairn with head stockman, Alex Smith

Lady Sally and Sir Michael Nairn with head stockman, Alex Smith

Stocking with native breeds was the natural choice for Sir Michael and Lady Sally Nairn when they decided to reintroduce cattle to Balnabroich back in 2010 after a long period when sheep had dominated the farming scene in Strathardle. The Beef Shorthorn cross Highland has since proved to be the preferred functional suckler cow within the farm’s stratified system; Balnabroich also is developing an upcoming pedigree Beef Shorthorn herd whilst top of the pyramid is a small pedigree Highland fold.

Despite its diversity, the stratified enterprise’s success is reflected in performance. Last year the four teams totalling 144 cows were scanned in calf, the vast majority calved over a six-week period and achieved 95% calved reared.

“Developing the stratified enterprise was carefully thought out and introducing Beef Shorthorn was a business decision, not an impulse one,” says Lady Sally. “We are breeding a functional suckler cow by crossing the Highland with the Beef Shorthorn and it works really well. These cows are perfectly suited to this country and to this altitude; they are demonstrating good hybrid vigour, they are retaining the hardiness of the Highland and can be easily outwintered at 800ft to 900ft just below the heather moorland in near to ranching conditions. They thrive on this land.”

 Team B, Highland Cows with their Beef Shorthorn cross calves

Team B, Highland Cows with their Beef Shorthorn cross calves

Head stockman, Alex Smith who has had a life-time’s experience with livestock comments: “I’d never managed Beef Shorthorn and Beef Shorthorn crosses until I came to Balnabroich in 2014, and they are the easiest cows I have ever worked with; they are docile and can be moved around without any trouble. Cows have sound udders, they are always very attentive to their calves which aren’t too big at birth, are very easily calved and have plenty of milk.

“The Beef Shorthorn Highland cross are medium sized cows averaging 650kg mature weight and are excellent foragers. We are aware of hill farmers who have introduced Continental breeds to their suckler herds and have found these cattle are less efficient - they are too big, and eat them out of house and home and tend to poach the land.”

The 100 head of Beef Shorthorn cross Highland suckler cows are what the Nairns refer to as team C and are run on rotational grazing system during the summer months. “We have 480 acres split in to 60 fields which enables us to maintain a traditional rotational grazing system and on a 14-year cycle,” Sir Michael explains. “We commenced reseeding in 2011 and so far, have completed 55% of the total area with a perennial ryegrass, timothy, cocksfoot and clover mix. Ours is a 100% grass system, with no other fodder crops grown. Our soils are quite acidic, necessitating Ca lime applications where we aim to achieve a pH of around 6.2. We analyze the soils every three years and working with our agronomist adjust accordingly to optimize soil health and pasture growth.”

 Team C, Beef Shorthorn cross Highland cows with their five- to six-month-old Angus sired calves

Team C, Beef Shorthorn cross Highland cows with their five- to six-month-old Angus sired calves

Selected crossbred replacement heifers for team C are sourced from team B, a herd of 30 pure Highland cows which run with a Beef Shorthorn bull.

These Beef Shorthorn cross Highland heifer replacements are introduced to an Angus bull at two years, while the cows are run with a Simmental bull. “Whilst we are aware of other breeders who put their heifers to the bull at a younger age, we prefer to wait until they are 24 months old. We are expecting them to last for 10 to 12 crops,” says Alex. Calves are weaned at 250 days when we expect them to average 210kg to 240kg. This year and for the first time, they will be immediately sold off the farm to finishers.

“Previously we had overwintered all these calves and sold to finishers the following autumn at an average of 500kg,” says Lady Sally. “However, in winter 2017/18, we were able to measure weight gain and compare this with feed, bedding and labour costs of calves housed at the farm and concluded that there was little net gain to Balnabroich in retaining them.”

 Balnabroich Team C, five-month-old Simmental cross calves out of Beef Shorthorn cross Highland dams

Balnabroich Team C, five-month-old Simmental cross calves out of Beef Shorthorn cross Highland dams

Sir Michael continues: “Consequently, we will free up valuable shed space in winter 2018/19 to house additional calving Beef shorthorn cows. We believe the decision to increase breeding cow numbers and to sell calves before their first winter is a sound one and a reflection of Balnabroich’s natural advantage as a breeding farm, leaving the fattening job to others better placed to take the cattle forward. As long ago as in the 1600s, Strathardle was well known for its cattle breeding and the village of Kirkmichael was an important cattle market. The lines of the old drove roads are still clearly visible. Our forebears clearly knew their business. In a world where so much changes so quickly, it is both humbling and salutary in 2018 to acknowledge their wisdom.”

Balnabroich Beef Shorthorn herd’s expansion was reflected in its purchase of six females in Longtown in September 2018. “We established the herd in 2012 with seven purchased heifers and our initial objective was to breed our own bulls to put over the commercial herd, however since then we have seen demand grow for the breed and ultimately we plan to breed heifers for sale in calf along with the odd bull. We will always strive to breed more Balnabroich Kermits,” says Lady Sally.

 Team D, a postion of the Balnabrioch pedigree Beef Shorthorn herd

Team D, a postion of the Balnabrioch pedigree Beef Shorthorn herd

The herd stepped in to the limelight at the Stirling bull sales in February 2018 when Balnabroich Kermit sold for 15,000 guineas, the sale’s second highest lot. “Our second claim to fame was winning the Scottish Club’s small herd award - we must be doing something right!”

“We have now reached a stocking level where Balnabroich can be regarded as a closed herd. We are striving for Johne’s Level 1. We are starting to embrace Breedplan data and we are also interested in linear classification. We also benefit from assistance from Glengloy’s former stockman, Bob McWalter who to us is a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge of the breed.”

Towards the future and Sir Michael says: “Government policy towards the agriculture sector in Scotland post Brexit is still unknown, but I would hope that quite apart from its role as a food producer, Balnabroich’s type of extensive livestock farming, its care for the environment, its employment of local people both directly and indirectly and its location in a less favoured upland area of the country will be seen as worthy of continuing support.

“We believe farming requires everything to be in balance to achieve a viable enterprise. We will be continuing with pasture improvement whilst growing the herd to 170 breeding females with the focus on Beef Shorthorn genetics. This combined with the two sheep flocks, is about where we should be for this business.”