How to move into pedigree livestock production

A focus on different ways new starters can build a pedigree beef herd or sheep flock, the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches and case studies.

There was a time when success in pedigree livestock breeding was driven purely by how an animal looked. Famous herds and flocks built reputations on wins in the show ring rather than profitable performance on the farm.

But things are changing and while showing accolades are the icing on the cake, the most successful pedigree breeders will in future be those whose stock can fill the eye as well as fill the pocket in terms of making a profit.

And there are now great opportunities for those keen to get involved in pedigree livestock.

It’s a time when the big money paid for pedigree cattle and sheep will increasingly come for superior stock whose excellence and earning potential will be produced by the inherent value of their genetics to commercial producers – although looking the part and winning in the show-ring remains the ultimate means of promotion.

A move into pedigree livestock and becoming established enough to make the venture viable and hopefully profitable, could often take a lifetime.

Not so now as breeders take advantage of the many opportunities to take their breed programmes forward more quickly.

As AI and embryo transfer have enabled new starters to benefit very quickly from top-level genetics, they has also provided established breeders with a much faster means of genetic improvement.

In essence, it means a bigger selection of top-notch foundation stock is available as big-name herds and flocks need to off-load surplus animals. And that’s got to be a good thing for new breeders who can snap-up the seed-pearls of established bloodlines as they strive to make their mark in the world of pedigree breeding.

Here we look at the different options for setting up a pedigree herd or flock.

Buying from one breeder


  • Would suit those who have a preference for a particular type or bloodline
  • Easier to keep within a budget
  • Stock can be acquired in one go
  • Stock should breed to a type


  • Will have inherited the bad as well as the good from one source

Simon Turkington,
Charollais flock, Caithness

Simon Turkington has set-up a flock of pedigree Charollais sheep in a joint venture with his employer James Fleming on an upland farm at Caithness in the Scottish Highlands. He was keen to get into pedigree sheep and the offer of a 50:50 partnership made it a finacially viable.

“Because of where we are and the time and cost involved in sourcing sheep for the new flock we decided that to buy all the foundation ewes from one breeder was the best way in. Fortunately, we saw an advert for someone who wanted to reduce his flock and we were given the first pick.”

As well as the logistics of sourcing the foundation stock, the biosecurity advantages of buying from one breeder were important to the partnership, which bought ewes and shearlings at £300 a head. And there was the added advantage of an offer from the vendor to AI all the ewes before they headed for their new home – for luck.

“The aim is to run a pedigree flock of 30 Charollais ewes and breed good-quality tups for the commercial trade.

“We may buy-in a few more good females, but we aren’t chasing fancy sheep at big prices. And buying from one flock means we now have a foundation of breeding from one source rather than having a wide range of female genetics. Hopefully it will have given us a solid base to start off from.”

Mr Turkington says he didn’t consider buying fewer “fancy” ewes and opting for embryo transfer. “We wanted to keep it simple and straightforward. We were lucky to find a flock just when we wanted to move into Charollais, but there would always have been the option of going through the breed society and finding a breeder prepared to sell us enough to get us going.

“We’ve had our first lambing and have some good lambs so we feel our own flock is now under way. The next job is to find a good tup.”

Cherry-pick at sales and privately


  • Wide appeal – suits all situations and pockets
  • Gives total control of spending so suits large and limited budgets
  • Herd can be built-up quickly or over time
  • Can suit those wanting to select individual animals from a wide range of genetics


  • Can take time

John and Jenny Rix,
Wissington Charolais, Colchester

Selecting individual females privately from several well-known breeders – and also from sales – produced the foundation cattle for John and Jenny Rix’s Wissington herd whose bull, Wissington Genius stood breed champion at Stirling last autumn.

An interest in pedigree cattle and the acreage to develop a new herd were the initial drivers behind the new venture, which was started six years ago.

“The aim was to put together a broad range of proven genetics as the foundation for our breeding plans.

“It gave us opportunities to go in different directions and to do some embryo work,” said Mr Rix.

Among the original purchases were several older cows.

“Some were seven or eight years old but they had good families behind them and could still produce two or three more calves.”

But Mr Rix says it’s important not to get carried away with fashion when setting up a herd.

“Don’t get caught up with fashion, it changes very quickly.

“We went for numbers of cattle to start with because we had the grazing and the staff but it’s the option that gives you a chance to evaluate a wide range of genetics at the outset.”

Buy one very good female


  • Top-class foundation for a new venture


  • Need substantial funds to invest in the best
  • Could cost upwards from 10,000gns
  • Will take longer than buying several foundation animals
  • Dependent on successful flushing programme

Michael and Mel Alford,
Foxhillfarm Limousins, Cullompton, Devon

Mel Alford is in no doubt that making a sizeable investment in a good female from a well-proven and successful family is far better than spending the same amount of money and taking a gamble on the breeding potential of several females. That was the thinking behind the establishment of the family’s Foxhillfarm herd in 2011 and it was the brood cow Bankdale Alice – bought for 15,000gns – that has proved the point.

“I studied the breed very carefully – and I believe it’s very important to have a clear picture in your mind about the type of animal you want and to stick to that. Before the Bankdale sale I went to look at the cattle on the farm and went into the back breeding very thoroughly,” says Mrs Alford.

Bankdale Alice was carrying the heifer calf Foxhillfarm Gracie, who has had a meteoric show career this year and swept the board at the Great Yorkshire Show, taking a record-breaking list of inter-breed titles after standing Limousin champion.

“Buying a really good cow is a great way to start a herd. Make sure it’s a cow that is a model of the type of animal you want to breed yourself.

“We know we’ve been very lucky, but we were very strict about what the females we bought to establish the herd. I think it’s more important to have a small number of really good cattle than just go for quantity and take a chance on breeding something good.”

Buying embryos


  • Wide appeal to all starters
  • Can cost less than buying stock but donor females needed – embryos range from a few hundred pounds up to four figures
  • Longer time as starting from the calves
  • Opportunity to buy from top-class flushes


  • Low success rate can hamper progress

Tom Richardson,
Beef Shorthorns, Garstang, Lancashire

The decision to switch from rearing dairy heifers to establishing a pedigree herd of Beef Shorthorns has seen Tom Richardson make good use of buying embryos – from the UK and abroad.

“I wanted pedigree cattle that were easily managed, quiet and would thrive off grass as well as give us the option to earn a premium for prime cattle and sell pedigree stock,” says Mr Richardson.

Although recent years have seen a few pedigree heifers bought-in annually, the latest focus of the herd’s development has been to buy embryos.

Some bought-in cows have been flushed, but the latest venture has seen eight embryos imported from Canada.

“I wanted to import some new bloodlines that we could use in the herd and eventually market in the UK.”

But he admits it does have its drawbacks and is probably best used alongside buying live cattle.

“You’ve got to buy the recipient – which aren’t cheap at the moment – and you need a conception rate of about 60%.”

For a good embryo plus the cost of the recipients and implantation you could have bought three or four good females.

Eggs range from about £500 to several thousand. It’s not a cheap way of getting in to a breed but it does have a place.

“Conception rates have been variable, but when things go right it’s well worth while.

“We bought a good cow at the Stirling sale, flushed her and sold a good bull from the flush so there is success to be had from embryos.”

Buying privately from health-tested herds


  • Suitable for those setting very high standards from the start
  • A broad base of genetics can help faster progress
  • Clear awareness of health issues from the outset


  • May be slightly higher for superior health status stock
  • Strict buying criteria may limit choice

Tim and Alice Amery,
Gomer Herefords, Carmarthenshire

Tim and Alice Amery established their Gomer Hereford herd a few years ago at Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire to fulfil an interest in pedigree cattle – but cattle health has been a priority as they began to expand.

The four original maiden heifers bought by Mr Avery as a birthday present for his wife have now been increased to 38 pedigree Herefords as the herd has made further additions of foundation cows, primarily from three well known herds.

“Buying privately from these established breeders gave us plenty of choice and we were able to select cattle where traits such as easy calving as well as high health status and good performance figures were well established.

“Although we did buy different types of Hereford cattle at the outset we do now get told that we have achieved our own “stamp” in the Gomer herd so hopefully we’ve made the right decisions about the way we started,” says Mrs Amery.

Buying cattle from sales was never an option: “It’s very difficult to buy stock at sales when you are in a health scheme.

“The more we found out about the value of having a high heath status herd the more important we felt it was for us and also for anyone buying stock from us in the future.” The Gomer Herefords are in the Hi-Health Herdcare scheme.

The buyers’ tip from Mr and Mrs Amery is to select stock from healthy herds and always have animals blood-tested before you hand over the cheque.

“It’s very important to make sure any foundation animals chosen, no matter what breed, will meet all your required standards on health.”

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