Blue -Grey answers hardy suckler call:By Jeremy Hunt North west correspondent
THERE IS no better or more profitable way to keep suckler cows than out-wintering them, believes a hill producer who has been practising it for more than 25 years.
Bryan Hough grazes 100 cattle on exposed hill land up to 360m at Burn Edge Bent Farm, Grasscroft, Oldham. But cattle never come inside and rely on haylage fed outside from December until May. Cows calve in batches all year and even autumn and winter born calves thrive outside.
And as subsidy is withdrawn and incomes come under pressure, Mr Hough believes a return to hardy breeds and low-cost management could secure a decent return. “Keeping cows outside isn”t an easy option, but it’s the most economical. We save on buildngs and slurry collection, and have healthier cows.”
His herd includes 40 Whitebred Shorthorns and 20 pedigree Galloways, plus Blue-grey cows – produced by using the Whitebred Shorthorn on Galloway cows. It”s these hardy sucklers that are once again attracting renewed interest from suckled calf producers
. “The Blue-grey was one of the most popular suckler cows on hill farms and we’re now seeing a big demand for them. I only have to put one advert in and the phone is red hot,” says Mr Hough.
Galloway cows are also attracting renewed interest from German breeders, who bought his cattle prior to the export ban. “They’ve expressed an interest in Blue-grey cows and Whitebred Shorthorns. When the ban is lifted, I”m sure we”ll see a strong demand from Germany,” he says.
“The Blue-grey is a remarkable suckler cow. The demand is strong as more people realise she”s a cow that’ll look after herself and look after you,” says Mr Hough.
Cows due to calve are moved into pasture close to the steading and have access to a building at night. All calves are injected against braxy at birth, but apart from that receive no other treatment. Other cows remain on the hill and are fed in ring feeders alongside stone tracks constructed across the hill grazings.
Surplus bulls and heifers are finished off the hill at about 22 months old. Only occasionally are any brought inside for a few weeks of feeding on a coarse ration.
“We’re selling to a local abattoir at up to 330kg deadweight. Local butchers and restaurants clamour for the beef which has a wonderful flavour,” says Mr Hough.
The herd’s Galloway stock bull, Glenkiln Arthur, is now 12 years old. This 50% Canadian-bred bull, a past Royal Show breed champion, has passed on his scale and stretch to his pure-bred progeny. “Traditional breeds have to combine hardiness with shape and size.
“We don’t want them too big, but this bull has given us just the right lift in conformation. That’s being passed on to the Blue-grey cows and its making them a good commercial suckler.
“But keeping a suckler herd used to be a low-cost business, now it has almost become as intensive as keeping dairy cows. That’s where the money is being lost.”
The Blue-grey cow will comfortably suckle a big Continental-sired calf, says Mr Hough. “She has bags of milk and, if anything, carries too much condition. And unlike Continental crosses which might produce five calves in a lifetime, they will produce up to twice that.
“They go into winter carrying plenty of flesh and will withstand the worst weather.” Burn Edge Bent Farm has more than 1500mm of rainfall a year. “There’s no spring here until May and winters come early, but cows stay out.”
The farm doesn’t use any artificial fertiliser and makes all its own forage. The only costs are two loads of straw and magnesium syrup which is offered year-round.