You don’t have to look too far back into the pedigrees of some of the best-known Limousin herds to find the influence of one of the Nattress family’s Greenwell bulls. But Ian Nattress isn’t a man “chasing rainbows” simply to supply the top end of the pedigree market.

This exponent of Limousin genetics is determined to maintain a breeding policy fixed on the needs of the commercial buyer – and he’s spent almost 20 years sourcing young sires in France to ensure the family’s Greenwell herd never falters from that commitment.

Greenwell Farm, tucked away down a long driveway just outside Lanchester, County Durham, now carries the Greenwell herd of 50 pedigree Limousin cows, whose foundations were laid almost 30 years ago when the first three Limousin females arrived in the yard.

Their arrival was to be a life-changing moment for this traditional north country dales farm, where Ian’s parents, John and Jean, had started farming in 1966 with just 18 dairy cows.

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Sourcing herd sires from France has enabled John and Ian Nattress to develop a range of new bloodlines that have maintained their herd’s place at the breed’s top table.

But life wasn’t always peaceful here. This is coal country and an open-cast mine on the farm – in the days when the Nattresses were tenants – meant stock levels had to be capped because green acres were constantly being lost to mining. But with the same determination that John and Jean showed when they started off by milking a few cows and selling point-of-lay pullets, the family coped with mining’s inconveniences and gradually expanded the dairy herd.

With every blade of grass needed for dairy cows, there was little opportunity to try new ventures, but ironically it was the herd of milkers that triggered new beginnings for the Nattress family when John decided to AI some of his cows with a “new” French breed – the Limousin.

Easy calving and an obvious vigour among calves – sired by the breed’s UK trailblazer MMB Fanfaron – impressed the Nattresses, who decided to put their new Limousin crosses to the test by finishing the steers and bulling the heifers to sell with three-quarter Limousin calves at foot.

Here at Greenwell, the Limousin had found new and ardent supporters. By the time Ian was about to leave school in 1979, the family had been offered a French-bred cow with a bull calf at foot and two in-calf heifers – all from Northumberland cattle man Alan Henry. The heifers were by MMB Fidele and all three were in calf to MMB Fanfaron.

“We saw them as a side-line to the dairy cows,” says Ian. “In the mid-1970s it was pretty quiet in the Limousin breed, but by the time we came in, things were really taking off.”

Things are now very different at Greenwell Farm. The mining has finished and the scars on the landscape have healed. But the family’s success with their first Limousin bull sold at Carlisle in October 1980 quickly set a new course.

“He was a 15-month-old bull and he made 2500gns to the Durno family at Glenlivet, who were well-known suckled calf producers,” says Ian.

The Limousins still had to take second place to the demands of the dairy cows, but among the most important early purchases to strengthen the herd back in the early 1980s was Battleaxe Opal. This heifer, by Mistral, cost 3400gns and was bought at Carlisle from Devon breeder Peter Cullen.

There followed a “hefty investment” of 5000gns to buy maiden heifer Bedell Phillipa, who was out of a full sister to leading sire Bedell Maurice and sired by Dieter Jobst’s bull Frisson. She repaid her pricetag many times over and is behind a host of the herd’s best cattle.

Another notable foundation female was the Fidele-sired maiden heifer Burton Precautious, costing 2200gns from Peta and Mike Keeble’s herd dispersal and out of the herd’s top cow, Burton Milkmaid. Limestone Nanette was another early arrival who proved to be a tremendous brood cow. She still has a 13-year-old daughter in the herd that looks more like a six-year-old.

Despite having barely a dozen cows, the Greenwell herd was quickly making a name for itself and sold the Oakley Politician son Greenwell Asalot at Carlisle in 1986 for the top price of 5600gns. He went to the Newhouse herd of Drew and Bob Adam.

And it was an opportunity to join a bus-load of young Limousin breeders on a trip to France that sparked a new line of thinking in the way the herd should progress in terms of selecting future herd sires.

“We visited a small herd of 20 cows at Pompadour that was kept by a man whose main business was growing apples,” says Ian. “One seven-month-old bull calf really stood out and the breeder said he was prepared to sell him – but wouldn’t budge on price.”

The bull was eventually bought and, in early 1989, Daim – whose sire went back to the well-known French bull Pompiere – arrived at Greenwell.

Daim ran with cows that summer and, fortunately, semen was taken from him because when the bull was just 21 months old – and before any of his first calves had been born – he suffered a freak accident at turnout the following spring. He broke a leg and had to be destroyed.

“It was a tragedy to lose him so early, but he certainly took the herd in a new direction,” says Ian. “He gave us exactly the shape and muscling we wanted. Daim was a real type-getter and put a definite stamp on the herd.”

Daim’s son, Greenwell Field Master, was sold at Carlisle in 1991, where he stood reserve overall champion and made 6000gns. Field Master went to commercial producer Billy Laing, where he bred a string of successful show calves.

The early 1990s saw the herd benefit from the influence of Talent, with one son, Greenwell Excel, making 3800gns at Carlisle. Excel was used on two cows – both had heifer calves and both produced Carlisle champions, at 11,500gns and 9000gns.

Remaining constantly aware of the type of bull the commercial suckled calf producer is looking for is a challenge John and Ian still clearly relish as they make their breeding plans.

“There are still extremes in the breed,” says Ian. “Aim for too much muscle and you lose size. Go for size, and you lose shape. We’ve tried to steer a middle road and develop well-muscled cattle that aren’t too extreme, but also have size.

“Because of higher beef production costs, Limousins must produce commercial cattle that can profitably convert grass to beef without having to pile in concentrates. We keep strict records and, looking back from the present day to 1990, our bulls have improved their average gain from 1.3kg a day to 1.7kg.”

But it has been the connection Ian Nattress has developed with the Lanaud testing station in France that has maintained a steady stream of sires for the Greenwell herd. The big, long bull Genial was the first to come from Lanaud and left some good females.

“I always buy bulls in France on their looks and their back breeding,” he says. “I wanted to develop the herd on some original bloodlines and that’s what we continue to do.”

But it was a bull found on a farm in France – one that could not be bought until he’d been on test – that put the Greenwell herd into the breed’s upper house. His name was Igolo, a son of the successful sire Gigolo, and he was imported in 1994.

“He was the dream bull,” says Ian. “It wasn’t just his conformation, style and breeding, but as soon as his calves were born and up, I knew we had something special. There wasn’t one cow family he didn’t click with.”

The first Igolo son, Greenwell Ludo, was sold at Carlisle in 1997 after taking the herd’s first supreme championship. He topped the sale at 11,500gns to Carlisle butcher and breeder Jim Mulholland. On the same day, the Daim son Greenwell Lord – out of an Epatant daughter – was reserve junior champion and made 4000gns.

The best Igolo son, Greenwell Major, made 15,000gns to the Ridleys’ Haltcliffe herd, and at the same sale Greenwell Manager was sold for 9000gns to begin his successful career in the Quicks’ Loosebeare herd in Devon. The herd’s average at this sale in October 1997 was £8257 for six Igolo sons.

Recent years have seen a steady flow of French Limousin genetics influence the type of cattle produced at Greenwell – but then along came Ronick Member. This bull’s two crops of progeny had impressed Ian and he decided to buy him.

Member, by Ronick Idol, goes back to Tarvis, who brings in the great Broadmeadows Ainsi as well as Talent on the female side. Member’s best son – the unusually named Greenwell Ronick – topped the breed’s first post-foot-and-mouth sale at Carlisle at 18,000gns to Proctors Farms.

Several other French bulls have been used to maintain traits of docility, milk and wearability, as well as conformation and correct muscularity. But of them all, it’s the new kid on the block, Vagabond, who’s causing quite a stir.

The Greenwell herd is following a clearly defined breeding policy that will never be influenced by fad or fashion, says Ian.

“Our aim is to produce bulls to suit the commercial man and, in turn, give a better return to the butcher. The Limousin breed mustn’t allow extreme muscling traits to dominate or we will all lose out. Today’s suckler cows have a greater influence of continental breeding and we need to use bigger, stretchier bulls on them to maintain calving ease.”