17 November 1995

EYE FOR A BEAST THEIR EBV

Many a Smithfield winner has been bred in the North of Scotland. Emma Penny reports on one herd with a successful track record.

THE Durno family says breeding show calves is the icing on the cake of its suckler herd. And two years ago, the icing must have been pretty thick when the home-bred Charolais cross Smarty Pants took the reserve heifer champion ticket at Smithfield.

The family has built up an enviable reputation for producing quality suckled calves from its farms near Glenlivet in Banffshire. That means the same buyers come back year after year to buy show and commercial calves from the farm. Home-bred calves are well known on the show circuit too, with successes including winning the Highland Show cross cattle championship three times in five years.

Its having an eye for a beast, and then matching it with the right bull that helps to breed a winner, says Leslie Durno.

Eye for a beast

The herd of 300 suckler cows is split between two farms. Auchorachan, which overlooks Glenlivet distillery, runs to 178ha (440 acres), is worked by three generations of the family; Duncan Durno who still works at 81, his son Leslie and grandson Michael, the show enthusiast. A couple of miles along the road lies a further 304ha (750 acres) at Croftbain, which is run by Leslies brother Stuart and his son – also Stuart.

Previously, the 173 suckler cows at Auchorachan were mainly Simmental, but the herd is moving towards being home-bred Limousin crosses, as Michael Durno explains.

"Simmentals were the backbone of the herd, but we moved to Limousin because we could get a good calf from a Charolais bull on a Limousin cross."

But Simmental cows still dominate the 127-head herd at Croftbain, with Stuart preferring them for their milkiness. The cows and heifers run with Simmental, Charolais and Limousin bulls, calving mainly in the back end. Heifers run with a Limousin bull, while the Simmental is again picked for milkiness, and the Charolais for size and shape.

At Auchorachan, the cows and heifers are AId, using a selection of bulls including Shatton Pedro, Tanhill Rumpus, Allanfauld Vagabond as well as straws from an old stock bull, Glassel Satchmo. Mr Durno, who carries out all the AI, currently has straws from about 20 bulls in his tank, giving access to high quality bulls, plenty of choice, and allowing him to match individual cows with a suitable bull.

"Ill AI the cows twice, and then Limousin or Charolais bulls will go in to tidy up. I try to evaluate each cow, and know their strong and weak points so I can match them with a bull with opposing features. For instance, Ill use a rangy bull on a small cow, and when the Simmental influence is too strong in a cow, Ill use a Charolais or Limousin," he says.

While many breeders have chosen to use estimated breeding values (EBVs) as a way of selecting a new bull, the Durnos prefer to rely on seeing the bull, and more importantly, seeing what his calves on the ground look like.

Calving at Auchorachan starts in late August, with about 120 having calved by the end of November, and the remainder calving after the beginning of February. Cows are brought indoors in October, then turned out after the flock of 670 Blackfaces have finished lambing, usually around May.

Apart from buying-in an occasional stylish heifer or cow with promising calf, all herd replacements are home-bred, and calved at two years old. Heifers are chosen on conformation – they have to have a good backside – and also on their potential milkiness. Where a mother has had no milk, its unlikely that her offspring will be kept as a replacement.

The rest of the calves are sent to local marts, usually Thainstone or Elgin, to be sold for finishing at 10-13 months. The first draw, and those that have been shown during the summer, are usually sent to the Thainstone Spectacular, where many potential Smithfield contenders are bought. Some of the good later-born calves are kept on to be shown at the Aberdeen Spring Show.

Both farms are FASL – Farm Assured Scotch Livestock – accredited, and won the FASL herd of the year competition in 1994 for the most prizes accumulated at shows. Financially, they benefit little from FASL membership. Only finishers receive a premium on accredited stock. However, they are strong supporters of the scheme and are keen to sell stock with a quality frank on it, says Leslie Durno.

He hopes that through time there may be a premium for FASL producers, which would go a short way to easing the pressure felt since the area aid payment scheme was introduced. "Costs have increased significantly; livestock subsidies are based on a grain price of £90/t, so continuing high prices are putting pressure on profits." &#42

Left to right: Leslie, Duncan and Michael Durno who run 300 sucklers near Glenlivet, Banffshire.

Many breeders chose to use estimated breeding values (EBVs) as a way of selecting a new bull. But the Durno family, which has a reputation for producing quality suckled calves from its farms, prefers to rely on seeing the bull, and more importantly, seeing what his calves on the ground look like.