11 February 2000

CLOSEDHERD SEENASTHEWAYFORWARD

Pure-bred Limousin suckler cows producing high quality

calves from a closed herd is the way forward, according to

one Lancs hill farmer. Jeremy Hunt reports

RUNNING pure-bred Limousin suckler cows will be the inevitable consequence of the closed herd policy being followed on a Lancs hill farm. But purity is not expected to undermine commercial performance.

Gary Swindlehurst, farm manager at Procters Farm, Slaidburn, in the Trough of Bowland, believes the advantages of being self-sufficient in producing the herds replacement females far outweighs any concerns over losing hybrid vigour.

"Our aim is to have a totally closed herd within the next 18-months. The herd health benefits, in terms of reducing risks from BVD and leptospirosis, are a big consideration but thats not all.

"We will be able to select herd replacements based on the proven breeding ability of the dam and on visual assessment. Even surplus pedigree Limousin heifers will be brought into the commercial section of the herd," says Mr Swindlehurst.

The 202ha (500-acre) farm carries 400 Swaledale ewes and 120 North of England Mules alongside its pedigree herd of 25 Limousin cows – established three years ago – and about 45 Limousin-cross sucklers.

The commercial cows are mostly bought-in Limousin x Holstein Friesians but there are now 11 home-bred threequarter-Limousin females. Calving runs from late December to April. Cows – all put to the Limousin bull – are conventionally housed in cubicles during winter and fed silage from a feed barrier with 115g (4oz) of minerals fed a head/day.

Cows and calves are turned out in May and graze land running to about 230m (750ft). Some of the earliest born bull and heifer calves are sold as stores at 10-12 months-old through Skipton auction mart but the best are steered and aimed at the main spring sale of Continental sucklers at Carlisle the following March, weighing about 450kg at 12-months-old.

For the last two years it has been the policy to retain threequarter-Limousin heifers bred out of superior cross-bred cows whose breeding ability has already been proven in the herd.

"Hopefully, a few years down the line should also see us bringing pure home-bred heifers into the herd as commercial replacements," says Mr Swindlehurst.

One of his primary concerns is to retain milking ability within the commercial herd as the purity percentage increases. Close attention has already been given to milk figures as part of the selection procedure applied to choosing foundation females for the pedigree herd.

"The milk trait is important. Just as it can vary in pedigree cow families so it can among cross-breds. But as we look for more replacements from home-bred threequarter and pure-bred heifers we will have the advantage of being able to take account of the milking ability of the family. We already have three generations of some cross-bred cow but we are being selective".

As well as advantages in terms of having greater control over herd health and a deeper knowledge of heritable performance of heifer replacements, the closed herd policy at Procters Farm will also increase the level of uniformity of its suckled calves.

"The way the beef market is developing I think there are advantages to be gained from producing a uniform product and thats why we see a future for pure-bred commercial Limousin suckled calves. Some markets have seen pure-bred commercial Limousin suckled calves making up to £100 more than cross-breds."

Sire selection will increasingly take account of BLUP figures, and this spring will see the first calves from the herds senior stock bull Neutron. Bought at Carlisle in October 1998 for 14,000gns in partnership with Cumbria breeder Johnny Thompson, Neutron was imported as a calf suckling his dam.

"Neutron has a Beef Value of 22. The first Neutron calves, from both our pedigree and commercial cows, are due this spring but he has a younger full brother whose performance has helped to lift his Beef Value to 31. That puts him in the top 1% of the breed in the UK," says Mr Swindlehurst, who has plans to increase the pedigree Limousin herd and establish a market for pedigree bull sales.

Longevity is another factor in favour of the plan to run a pure-bred commercial herd. "A lot of pedigree cows will keep going to 12 years and even older. In most cases cross-breds out of Holstein cows wouldnt have half that life expectancy. Replacement costs are still a big item in many commercial herds."

Mr Swindlehurst has not experienced any loss of time in calving dates. A batch of threequarter-bred Limousin heifers that calved in December 1997 went on to calve in January-February 1998 and calved again in January this year.

"They are staying tight and showing no signs of losing time just because they have a higher degree of purity."

The herd at Procters Farm grazes land running to 230m (750ft). One of Mr Swindlehursts observations when comparing pure and cross-bred Limousin cows relates to their contentedness.

"The higher the percentage of Limousin blood in females, the more contented they are at grass and the greater their ability to hold their flesh when compared with first crosses. In autumn, before the herd is housed, cross-bred cows are hanging around the gate while pedigree and threequarter-breds are still happy to be grazing." &#42

CLOSED HERDS

&#8226 Breeding own replacements.

&#8226 Move to purer breeding.

&#8226 Less disease pressure.

Home-bred three-quarters Limousin x Irish heifers are currently producing replacements, but the herd will be closed and bred-up, says Gary Swindlehurst.