When beef producers talk about outwintering suckler cows on turnips and fodder beet following a summer on marsh lands, Blonde d’Aquitaine’s don’t normally come to mind as the breed choice. But Nick and Lizzie Roberts from Heckingham find them to be the perfect breed for that system.
“The Blonde is often tarnished as being hard to handle, skittish in temperament and difficult to finish above a grade one or two in fat classification, but with careful selection and right management it can be the perfect breed choice,” says Mr Roberts, who runs 100 suckler cows including 30 pedigree Blondes.
“Our suckler choice is a native cross cow, either Hereford or Aberdeen Angus. They are small, easy to handle and are great mothers.” Added to that, Mr Roberts says the native genes help produce the right amount of fat content when bred to the Blonde which produces a long, clean carcass.
The docility of the Blonde is something most suckler producers don’t see, but he is adamant that when handled often enough, the temperament is fine. “With our stock having to move on and off marsh land via cow tracks throughout the grazing year and on and off stubble fields during winter, they have to be easy to handle. And when it comes to calving and manual tasks such as TB testing, docility is the number one factor.”
But although Mr Roberts is incredibly positive about the breed, particularly as he sits on the breed council, he admits more should be done in terms of selection. “Industry is moving towards common use of breed performance tools such as estimated breeding figures. The success of this is represented at society sales as the top-priced animal often has good figures, but more breeders need to be recording.
“There doesn’t seem to be hard enough selection criteria at sales. We need to get breeders only selling their best stock and that means not only in frame, size and carcass potential, but in EBV figures and health status as well,” he adds.
And as Mrs Roberts points out, it costs a lot to get a bull to Carlisle for a society sale, so producers shouldn’t be willing to accept bids of between 1500 and 2000gns. “If the Blonde is going to compete on any scale with breeds such as the Limousin or British Blue then we need to provide a solid offering.
“In the current climate it costs about £2 a day to feed a prime animal and considerably more when fitting bulls for sale, so the price has to justify that cost to make it worthwhile,” she adds.
Because the Roberts’ herd is located in Norfolk – not the easiest region to sell pedigree bulls out of – they have worked hard on building a strong consumer base in the local region.
“We supply both dairy and commercial breeders as well as a few pedigree herds. Most of them are repeat buyers, and we are strict in what we keep and those that don’t make the grade as a potential stock bull are finished and sold with the rest of the commercial offspring on a deadweight contract through Anglia Quality Meats.
“We’ve invested in EBVs when selecting stock bulls and have also started marketing our own genetics to Brazil and Australia, so are confident in what the breed has to offer both the UK and worldwide market,” he adds.
On the commercial side the finished cattle at about 13 to 18-months-old mark grade R4L or better and are grossing between £750 and £900 a head. “To keep costs down to a minimum commercial calves aren’t creep fed, are weaned in October, are yarded and put on a 16% protein ration currently costing £143/t.” After weaning, suckler cows are wintered on stubbles and pedigrees are housed, but strip graze stubbles during the day, he adds.
“Pedigree bull calves, meanwhile, are creep fed from six weeks of age to give them that added bloom and prevent a check at weaning. If we could drive costs down further we’d creep the commercials, but currently costs don’t allow,” explains Mr Roberts.