A SUCKLER HERD comprising animals bred out of modern dairy cows is finding favour on a Lancs hill unit, producing stores on a low-cost system.

That’s not to say the breeding of this herd is traditional of a commercial suckler herd, as the Aberdeen Angus x Friesians have been superseded by Limousin x Holsteins.

“We’ve had to adapt to Continental-cross cows, the Holstein influence and now the impact of single farm payment. But it’s made us even more convinced the grazing demands of sucklers can’t be underestimated.”

He currently runs 80 cows on his 330ha (800-acre) hill unit at Rooten Brook, Quernmore, with his son Michael. “Aberdeen Angus x Friesians were great wearing cattle and could produce tens of calves in a lifetime. They were easily managed and regular breeders,” he explains.

“Now we have switched to Limousin x Holsteins. This is a different animal to manage and meeting their forage requirement is critical,” says Mr Longton, who buys in about 10 replacements a year. “We want plenty of milk on cows and if we can find the right type of replacement we believe we can avoid them losing too much condition and get them back in calf.

“The purebred Limousin is not renowned for its milking ability, but Holstein genetics mean we”re dealing with high forage demands. To keep them milking and the flesh on them – as well as providing good grazing for calves – we believe turning them on to fresh grass regularly pays.”

Mr Longton uses a Charolais bull and has just bought a Blonde d’Aquitaine bull to use on a batch of Limousin x Holstein bulling heifers. Currently 50 cows calve in spring and the rest in autumn, but he is switching wholly to spring calving.

This year’s 50 spring-born Charolais-sired suckled calves have done well with an average sale weight well over 300kg. Creep intakes were about 0.4kg a day initially, building up to 0.8-1.35kg. “For most of the summer these calves were drenched with rain, yet they’ve done really well.”

In winter cows are housed in cubicles and fed big-bale silage. The spring calving block is spread over eight weeks through February and March. Cows and calves spend the first few days in a calving box and then go back into the cubicle shed, where calves have access to a creep area.

They are turned out onto lower lying pasture in mid-May and we start to move cows on to fresh grass every few days.

“A suckler cow has to do the job of a dairy cow and without much help. Put Holstein genetics into the equation and the better the quality of grass in front of her the more she will express her milking potential.

“Cattle do better on this farm than sheep and we”ve developed a grazing system that works well,” says Mr Longton, who also runs a flock of 550 Swaledale ewes. But there are no plans to cut cow numbers to cope with the impact of the SFP.

“Until we know exactly how we’ll be affected we’ll carry on. A panic exodus from suckler cows in the UK will leave the market wide open for beef imports.

“Before SFP, we only had 10ha eligible for the top rate, because we only have a small proportion of fell land. We”re not highly stocked, so I don’t think we will be much worse off.

“We might consider more land going into stewardship, but not until we see some concrete figures. We have run a low-cost system for many years and that’s probably going to be the most efficient way of future suckled calf production,” says Mr Longton.