By Jeremy Hunt
CATTLE bred on the Handley familys remote hill farm on the Lancs/Yorks border are causing a stir among pedigree Limousin breeders. And it looks as though there could be even more surprises in store.
Breaking into the top ranks of pedigree cattle breeding can take a lifetime, but 29-year-old Ian Handley is well on the way. He is already reaping the rewards of some shrewd selections of foundation females made just 12 years ago when he established the Gunnerfleet herd after leaving school.
His familys Gunnerfleet Farm at Chapel-le-Dale, near Ingleton, is a no-frills hill farm of 220ha (550 acres) of in-bye land with additional sheep rights on the bleak grazings of Whernside. The farm carries 800 pedigree Swaledale ewes and 65 pedigree Limousin cows.
Pedigree at heart
Pedigree breeding is at the heart of this business run by Jim Handley and his sons Peter and Ian. Peter Handley is already a well established Swaledale breeder who has sold tups to £13,500.
But the Limousin world has now turned the spotlight on the Gunnerfleet prefix.
The herds recent success at the breed societys bull sale at Carlisle in March – where four bulls averaged almost £8000 – has focused attention on the Handleys carefully planned breeding programme.
The first purebred Limousin cow arrived on the farm 18 years ago when the cattle enterprise was based on commercial sucklers. She was a full sister to the bull Circle Maximillian, who was bred from the famous Excellence line from France.
The Handleys can still trace back some female lines to that cow, but it was not until 1988 that Ian decided to establish a pedigree Limousin herd.
"We bought the best females we could afford from several different herds, but our selection priority was always width, natural muscling and blockiness.
"We were not preoccupied with size and power. On this type of farm, where cattle are at grass for less than five months a year, we want thicker types that can withstand tough conditions."
Females from the Ballyburton, Burton and Broadmeadows herds have been among the most influential. Although the average price paid in the early days was about 3500gns, there were some shrewd purchases costing far less.
"Ballyburton Una, by Bedell Maurice, was bought as an in-calf cow at Yorks breeder Mike Keebles dispersal sale. She was the sort of cow we wanted and proved to be a steal at 1400gns. She is behind some of our most successful families," says Ian.
The first stock bull was from the Haltcliffe herd of Cumbria breeders Matt and Craig Ridley, an association that led to a half share being bought in the French bull Heros.
"Heros was a bull of extreme width and muscling and really put us on track. He produced some excellent females, predominantly from Ballyburton Una and Burton Enchantress. It proved to us how important it is to base a herd on good cows."
And it was Heros who sired the Gunnerfleet herds first string of three bulls to be sold at a breed society sale at Carlisle where they averaged 4500gns.
Foundation females from Broadmeadows have also been among the best breeders.
Maiden heifer, Hydesville Ilissa, bought for 4000gns, after she stood female champion at a Carlisle sale, went on to justify her price tag by producing a son that made 10,500gns at the March sale this spring.
But it was a bull called Tunnelby Monkey Tricks, bred on an organic farm in Cheshire, that put the Gunnerfleet herd on the breeds fast track, says Ian.
"He was our first choice bull at Carlisle in February 1998 and we paid 10,000gns for him. He had outstanding width and the power we needed. There was no doubt that his size and muscling had come from his genetic make-up and not from the feed-bag.
"All he wanted to eat when we got him home was silage and straw. He did not melt away or lose any condition.
"He had natural muscling and has not lost any of the shape or power that appealed to us when we first saw him."
The first bulls by Monkey Tricks were sold at the October 2000 breed sale at Carlisle and included the intermediate champion at 7000gns, another at 6900gns with others at 4300gns and 3500gns.
Talk of the sale
In March 2002 his sons were the talk of the Border Mart sale-yard with the best taking the junior championship and making 12,000gns and tracing back to the 1400gns foundation cow Ballyburton Una. Another made 10,500gns and a third realised 4200gns.
"We are aiming for natural growth and do not push bulls hard even in the later stages. In the final months before a sale, bulls are getting about 15lb a day of a basic barley-based home-mix," says Ian.
Looking for a stock bull to follow Heros and Monkeytricks was never going to be easy, but a young home-bred bull by the 10,000gns Goldies Oswald – a senior stock sire lost in the Haltcliffe herds foot-and-mouth cull – looks as though he will take on the mantle.
"He is a very exciting prospect. We have already turned down several tempting offers for him. Hes out of Burton Enchantress – one of the herds most successful cows – which we have just sold at 12 years old for 7000gns.
"I have still got a lot to learn, but I was fortunate in finding the right cows at the start," says Ian Handley. *
• Established 12 years ago.
• Shrewd investments.
• Strong cow families.
Looking forward… Ian Handley is causing a stir in the Limousin world following recent success at Carlislebull sales.