9 July 1999

Devon cattle thriving on cross-Channel influence

By Jeremy Hunt

DEVON cattle, one of the countrys oldest breeds, are being crossed with a relative newcomer to the British beef scene to produce efficient, low-maintenance suckler cows.

Robin and Amanda Gray of Riverside Farm, Chebsey, Stafford, have found crossing the French Saler with their pure Devon cows has produced an ideal suckler that is thriving on a low-cost, predominantly straw diet.

And although a businessman running a chain of pubs and several wholesale outlets, Mr Gray says his herd is more than a hobby and has to pay. The close eye kept on the herds costings by Mrs Gray, herself an accountant, has proved the value of the Saler x Devon cows.

"We bought our first 15 Devon cows in 1989 to establish a beef herd on our 70 acres," says Mr Gray.

Apart from a small number of pure Devon cows, the bulk of the herd is now Saler-crosses which are put to a Limousin bull. Most suckled calves are finished on farm.

"I like what West Country bree-ders call a modern Devon. I like a bit of size in my cattle but that doesnt make them any less efficient."

Mr Gray says the appeal of the Devon-cross suckler cow is her thriftiness. "We have had a winter diet formulated for the cows. When the herd is housed their ration is almost 90% straw and 10% silage with about 2kg of brewers grains apiece each day.

"They stay on that through the winter until just before they calve in April. We have a very tight six-week calving period. Anything that doesnt calve has to go. We are very ruthless."

Latest figures from the herds costings include 11 finished Limousin-sired heifers produced last year and sold at an average weight of 475kg liveweight to average 87.4p/kg and return £415.20 a head. Nine Limousin-sired bulls averaged 547kg and realised an average of 91.9p/kg – a total of £503 a head. Eight bulls were sold as stores to average £350 apiece.

The main feed cost was 288t of brewers grains – a benefit from Mr Grays main business – and 10t of rolled barley costing £93/t.

If Mr Gray has any criticism of the Devon-cross suckler cow it is her abundance of milk, a problem that has been overcome by multi-suckling with additional bought-in calves.

"We keep cows inside for the first week after calving to monitor milk output. Once calves are a week old they can usually cope with the full flush of milk these cows produce from spring grass."

Calves are autumn-housed with their dams and weaned at Christmas. Bull calves receive a diet of rolled barley, brewers grains and silage aiming for a 550kg sale weight.

"Last springs calves performed very well. We have one bull that weighed 480kg at just a year old."

The herd, which has quota for 50 cows, contains several matrons well into their teens of years. Last years gross margin was £525 a cow, not including the cost of replacement.

Mr Gray says the crossbred Devon is easy calving, docile and easily managed. "But the ability to thrive on a low-cost diet and still produce top quality suckled calves that is their strength." &#42

Hardiness, adaptability and grazing prowess – thats how Devon Cattle Breeders Society secretary Albert Beer sums up the breed.

"More commercial suckler herd owners should look at the potential of the red ruby Devon. There is a big swing back towards producing home-bred replacements and there is no better foundation than the Devon cow," says Mr Beer.

Average 400-day weights for purebreds are 448kg for bulls, 359kg for steers and 325kg for heifers.

"The hardiness and ease of management of the Devon is legendary and she crosses extremely well with Continental sires to produce suckler replacements.

"As well as Mr Grays success with the Saler x Devon there are others who have done well using Continental sires. The Blonde dAquitaine x Devon is already attracting a lot of attention.