Edward Hawkins and South Devon cattle

Continental cattle soared in popularity during the late 20 Century – but a growing number of farmers are going back to native breeds.

Attracted by their docile nature, easy calving and possible premium markets, it’s not hard to see why.

Throw in some cutting-edge genetics and a modern approach to management, and native breeds could be the choice of the future.

See also: Performance gains for South Devon breeders

Switch to South Devons

Edward Hawkins is one of those who made the switch.

Cutsey Farm, Taunton, Somerset

  • 81ha including 53ha of cereals and 28ha of temporary leys.
  • 32 pedigree South Devon cows, one stock bull and 35 youngstock.
  • Second most-improved herd in Eblex’s national competition 2014.

Having previously kept dairy cross Limousin and Charolais suckler cows he decided to try out a couple of South Devon heifers in 2000.

“The Limousins were a nightmare to handle, and I was looking for something a bit more docile,” he says.

“If the South Devons are calving you can walk right up to them – with the continentals you daren’t step inside the shed.”

A 10-day breakout by the cattle into the neighbour’s maize field – with the notable exception of the two South Devons – persuaded Mr Hawkins to expand the pedigree herd, eventually getting rid of the last crossbreds in 2013.

See also: Morrisons offers premium for native beef

“We were selling the crossbreds at market at 24-26 months old and they averaged R4L grades, but now I’m either finishing the South Devons with a neighbour or selling them as stores – there’s plenty of demand for them.”

Feed conversion

In a bid to make the most of the South Devon’s efficient feed conversion, Mr Hawkins also changed his farm management, adopting much of the dairy sector’s technical best practice.

As well as performance recording, weighing stock and using estimated breeding values (EBVs), he rotationally grazes his pasture to maximise grass yields and forage quality.

“The beef sector is a long way behind the dairy sector in terms of how we feed and manage the animals: Science is an amazing tool.”
Edward Hawkins, beef farmer

“Our system is all about producing more meat a hectare as quickly and cheaply as possible,” he says.

“The beef sector is a long way behind the dairy sector in terms of how we feed and manage the animals: Science is an amazing tool.”

See also: BCMS reveals rise in native beef calf registrations

When choosing his stock, Mr Hawkins looks first and foremost at the EBVs, with fertility, calving ease and growth rates of particular importance.

“When the calf hits the ground I want it up and sucking straight away, and for the cow to get back into calf quickly,” he says.

Pasture management 

He calves the heifers in the spring at three-years-old to an easy-calving South Devon bull, with all females kept inside to bond with their calf before going out to grass.

“All our pasture is on a five-year rotation, and we split it into 1.2-1.6ha paddocks with electric fencing,” he says.

“Grass is just as important as an arable crop: We measure it with a sward stick and move the cows every day or two. Any pasture that gets ahead of us can then be cut for silage.”

Last year the second-cut round bale silage tested at 52% dry matter, 18.7% crude protein and with a D Value of 73 and ME of 11.6MJ/kg.

“I prefer to go for quality not quantity, as you can always buffer down with straw or hay – it’s cheaper than improving quality with cake,” says Mr Hawkins.

“We used to feed the continentals rolled barley and protein cake, but the South Devons just don’t need to be pushed.”

Feed

The cattle are housed again in November, on a silage, hay and straw ration with minerals and a trace element bolus.

Calves are weaned gradually a month later to minimise stress.

“We were feeding the calves 1kg/day of concentrates earlier this winter, but with the good-quality silage it was going straight through them,” says Mr Hawkins.

“We changed to soya hulls with sugar beet pulp and barley in a blend at a cost of 37p a head a day and in two weeks we saw a difference in growth rates.”

Last year the herd’s calving interval was 378 days including one cow with a prolapsed uterus.

“Male calves averaged 45kg at birth, with heifers at 42kg – and by 200 days, with no creep feed, heifers averaged 293kg and males (including twins) 287kg,” he adds.

To maximise efficiencies, Mr Hawkins is now working with a neighbour who finishes any non-breeding youngstock on a profit-share agreement.

“He continues with the performance recording – and we’re now in the top 25% of the suckler replacement and quality beef indices,” he says.

“Everything is myostatin tested for double muscling and we’re very interested in genomics too; my ambition is just to keep on improving and to aim higher all the time.”