It was work by the pioneers of progeny testing in cattle that sowed the seed of the genetics revolution that was responsible for huge improvements in livestock performance. And a man who was at the forefront of that work in the UK was Pat Bichan.
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Now in his 85th year and living near Stratford, he can recall a time when evaluating a bull’s progeny to identify its potential influence as a sire was considered almost “newfangled”. But it was back in 1953, with the setting up of BOCM’s Barlby Farm at Selby in Yorkshire, that Pat soon found himself at the cutting-edge of livestock breeding.
He certainly wasn’t short on experience or qualifications to be appointed the first manager at the Barlby bull testing station. Pat was born in Orkney – his voice still carries a distinct Orcadian lilt – where his family farmed beef cattle.
“But my father was something of an entrepreneur and, as a boy, I can recall the business he set-up supplying all the seed potatoes grown on Orkney to mainland growers,” says Pat.
He signed up for the army, but when the war ended he volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment and was eventually de-mobbed in 1947. After graduating from the University of Aberdeen he undertook postgraduate work in animal genetics with ABRO (The Animal Breeding and Research Organisation).
But by the early 1950s, improving livestock breeding and performance was a priority in post-war Britain and BOCM created the new bull testing station. “It was a very exciting time. Barlby Farm was deeply involved in assessing the early Holstein genetics and Friesian bulls from Holland. But the Dutch bulls of that time were disappointing and produced daughters with poor teat placement and bad udders.”
Barlby Farms also evaluated beef bulls and Pat can recall the many heated debates that took place as the first of the continental breeds began to be talked about.
“Most of the breeders of traditional beef breeds went bananas at the prospect of Charolais cattle being imported, but it didn’t take long for even the diehards to realise the continental cattle were going to have a big impact.”
By the late 1960s, BOCM recognised that dairy herds were getting bigger, and to reflect the need for research into feeding and management the company set-up the famous Knaptoft Farm in Leicestershire which ran five herds of 60 cows – each managed on a different regime. Pat moved from Barlby Farm to manage the new Knaptoft centre and stayed until 1972 when BOCM was taken over by Silcock.
After working in the farm management company of Jo Nickerson for five years, Pat decided to embark upon a new business based on the growing need for large farms to be set up in the Middle East.
“I decided to go and do a bit of buccaneering – that’s how I saw it at the time. There was a lot of potential business to be had out there and agricultural expertise was a very saleable commodity.”
He certainly had that in plenty and it was in great demand. The Saudi government, in particular, was investing heavily in food production and Pat found himself involved in some significant farming developments.
“With my business partner we set up and managed some big dairy units of up to 500 cows, broiler and laying units and even a sheep flock of 5000 ewes that was fed on alfalfa. The sheep were the native fat-tailed type; we did import some Border Leicesters from Australia but the Saudis thought they were more like donkeys than sheep,” recalls Pat.
“Farming is so very different now,” he adds. “When I look around I see so much land that is empty of cattle. I can only think that despite all the progress that has been made in terms of improving the performance of our cattle we could still end up being short of dairy cows and beef cattle to supply our home market.”
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