17 November 2000


Pedigree breeders are often criticised for not reacting to their customers needs.

This is not always the case, according to one Glos farmer. James Garner reports

BREEDERS and commercial stockman sometimes appear to come from opposite ends of the stock-keeping spectrum.

One has animals that are pristinely presented and fed to be in peak show condition, the other is usually more concerned about performance than looks.

The commercial breeder has a point. What is the purpose of keeping pretty animals if they dont earn money?

The gap between the two may seem wide, but some breeders are very aware of what commercial producers are after and strive to produce the best. This is the aim of pedigree cattle and sheep breeder Ernie Hemmings.

Over the last five years, this builder-turned-farmer has invested heavily in his pedigree and commercial enterprises and reckons his business has just turned the corner, having bought 65ha (160 acres) at Haylane Farm, Horsley, Nailsworth, 12 years ago.

"Five years ago I became really serious about making it profitable and set about building a niche market, which suited my farm." This market is producing terminal sires in both cattle and sheep, opting for Belgian Blue cattle and Suffolk sheep.

Commercial sucklers

Running alongside his pedigree enterprises is a commercial suckler herd consisting of 80 Limousin cross Friesian spring calving suckler cows that are put to his own Belgian Blue bulls.

But both pedigree and commercial set-ups are managed to be profitable. "I want to produce quality livestock and am prepared to use up-to-date technology to do so," he says.

"Quality always sells, whatever business you are in. This is particularly the case when times are hard; then you cant give away second best."

After a Smithfield fatstock show 10 years ago, Mr Hemmings realised the best beef animal was either a Belgian Blue or a Limousin and from then on he decided to use one of those breeds.

He chose Belgian Blues as a terminal sire and Limousin crosses as his preferred breed of suckler cow, which, he says, is milky enough and suckles well.

However, he didnt begin his Belgian Blue pedigree herd until five years ago. "I started off with commercial Hereford cross Blonde DAquitaine cows and learned how to breed and feed cattle."

However, he soon realised he was using stock that lacked conformation and switched to Belgian Blues because of their tremendous fleshing.

To develop his Belgian Blue herd, that now numbers 40 including youngsters and followers, he used embryo transfer (ET) in his suckler cows to breed Belgian Blue replacements. But this failed, so he began using clean heifer suckler cow replacements and implanting these with Belgian Blue embryos.

He now uses his Belgian Blue bulls on his suckler cows and reckons the calves are worth good premiums. "Belgian Blue calves from Limousin cross cows are at least a conformation grade better – worth 5p/kg – and are 50kg heavier at the same killing stage."

And he reckons there is a good future for his bulls in the dairy herd as well. "There is demand from dairy farmers for white Belgian Blue bulls producing blue calves and they need an extreme beef bull to gain beef characteristics."

For suckler producers, darker Belgian Blue bulls are more popular because their colour is supposed to represent hardiness, he adds.

But its not just aesthetics that are part of Mr Hemmings breeding strategies; selection is also based on performance recording. "About 90% of my herd is in the top 10% of the breed on Signet figures."

When selecting heifer replacements, Mr Hemmings looks for two things; they must be a good representative of the breed and be in the top 10% of recorded animals.

He is also proud of the bulls he produces. Last year one of his bulls, now owned by Cogent, was promoted as an AI stud bull.

But bulls need to be mobile and that means they are not over-muscled. "My bulls will march across a field because I look for muscling, growth rate and feet. No animals with suspect feet are kept here," he adds. &#42

Ernie Hemmings believes pedigree breeders need to think about commercial producers requirements.