30 August 2002

Criss-crossing policy brings top sucklers

By Jeremy Hunt

EARNING premium prices for suckled calves is as much about breeding as it is feeding, believes a Cumbrian producers who sells crossbred stores at 10-12 months old.

John Richardson of Ghyll House, Dufton, Appleby, says it is the breeding behind the suckled calves he sells which makes them some of the most sought after beef cattle in the county. He takes pride in hand-picking herd replacements in an ongoing criss-crossing programme, based on Belgian Blue and Limousin breeding, for the 200-cow herd on his 416ha (1000-acre) hill farm.

These cattle have become so successful that other suckled calf producers are buying crossbred bulls sired by a Limousin and bred out of Mr Richardsons small herd of pedigree Belgian Blue females. Although some crossbred bulls are also used in the home herd, most of the calves are by purebred Limousin and Belgian Blue sires.

Each one is chosen to run with individually selected groups of cows to ensure their progeny maintain exceptional conformation, muscling and growth potential. "Our cows and bulls are the raw material and they must have good potential. When calves are bred right they will perform," says Mr Richardson.

Belgian Blue x Friesian and three-quarter-bred Limousin cows form the bedrock of the herd. Most are bought-in, but more homebred calves from the herds milkiest cows are now being retained. "We do not buy bulls based on figures, but I always want to see a bulls dam before I buy it.

"The milking ability of our cows is important, although we have a different criteria on milk than most herds. I want a cow that milks well in the first few weeks to ensure the calf gets the best possible start, then it is all right if her milk yield declines.

"That is when calves start to take creep and is when we see their true potential. It wont happen as quickly when they are filling up on milk," explains Mr Richardson.

Although some beef producers are worried that three-quarter-bred Continental cows can lose milk, compared with the halfbreds, it is not something that concerns the Ghyll House ethic. "Cows which dry off quickly hold their bags better, wear longer, are hardier and have fewer mastitis problems."

Calving runs from May to July and September to Christmas. All cows are housed during winter and fed only ad-lib silage. The spring-born calves are offered ad-lib creep based on a bought-in 16% beef pellet. This is gradually supplemented with home-grown barley to make the ration as economical as possible by sale time at 10-12 months old. Calves are offered hay, switching to straw for the last eight weeks before sale.

Spring-born calves – which are never housed – are sold in March and May. This springs calves, weighing 350-400kg, made up to £550 and bullocks up to £680, but among this springs deals were five-month-old show calves sold at auction for £1500 and a private sale of £4000 for a nine-month-old Limousin x Belgian Blue bullock.

"There is no doubt that the time calves spend inside and eating is the most critical in terms of exploiting their true potential before we sell them. But the way they are bred is also fundamental.

"Although we are not managing calves very differently to many other herds, we put a great deal of emphasis on our cows and the bulls we use." Working with high levels of Belgian Blue breeding inevitably leads to a high number of assisted calvings.

"We live with these cows day and night when the herd is calving and the vet is on stand-by. We are prepared to put in a high level of management to produce calves of this calibre."

Autumn-born calves are offered creep feed from three weeks old and fed continuously throughout the following summer at grass, until sale in early autumn. Maintaining free access to minerals and regular worming – all calves receive three wormer treatments – is considered essential to keep them healthy and thriving.

"To really capitalise on the beefing qualities of these cattle, we do everything we can to keep them growing. They have the genetic make-up to do the job and there is nothing to be gained by holding them back," adds Mr Richardson. &#42

CROSSBRED STORES

&#8226 Calf dams well bred.

&#8226 Creep fed from three weeks.

&#8226 Simple 16% protein ration.

CROSSBRED STORES

&#8226 Calf dams well bred.

&#8226 Creep fed from three weeks.

&#8226 Simple ration.