Rich dividend from his Beef Shorthorn investment
The search for genetic improvement and long-term business prospects led Cumbrian farmer Charles Lowther to establish a pedigree herd with a purpose, as Neil Ryder found out when he went to meet him.
Two factors came into play when Charles Lowther established a new pedigree beef herd on his Cumbrian farm.
Firstly there was a belief pedigree cattle breeding was less vulnerable to open market forces than commercial beef production and, secondly, the British Beef Shorthorn had the greatest potential for genetic improvement of any British native breed.
Now, nearly 10 years after Charles bought his first Beef Shorthorn cattle at Perth, six years of fierce culling and drawing on Canadian, US, Australian and British genetics, the decision is paying off.
His Lowther herd is consistently earning major show awards – achievements which are translating into hard cash with leading breed prices at autumn and spring Perth sales (now Stirling) and a string of private bull sales.
The herd has been based at Maulds Meaburn Hall, Maulds Meaburn, near Penrith for just over a year, previously being based half way between Penrith and Carlisle at Nordvue Farm.
Nordvue Farms is owned by Charles, and is a separate business from Lowther Park Farms, while his mother owns Meaburn Farm.
As with many Cumbrian farm businesses, Nordvue lost all its original stock in the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, opening the way for a complete rethink of the farm business.
In the meantime, Maulds Meaburn Hall, a 134-hectare (330-acre) unit was let on a 10-year Farm Business Tenancy, having previously been run as a dairy farm.
“Maulds Meaburn is a heavy land farm with loam and clay and is much better suited to stock,” says Charles. “So when the existing tenancy finished the Beef Shorthorn herd was moved here.”
“It’s now run as a self-contained unit totally focussed on pedigree cattle breeding, with a neighbour’s sheep being grazed purely as a management tool. In many ways it is an ideal stock farm with a good range of field sizes and is well served by natural streams.”
When the family took over the farm, around £50,000 was spent on making it suitable for beef suckler cattle, which included electric back fencing on the drystone walls and the construction of bull paddocks.
In the buildings, bull pens and a cattle handling unit were installed to encompass the 60-head breeding herd, a number Charles says will stay at that level.
It also had to be something that was financially viable in the long-term
Cows are outwintered on big bale silage and the herd calves from January to May with calves weaned and housed in November, depending on weather conditions. Calves have access to a creep feed while housed cattle are fed silage and a bought in blend.
“We don’t use a mixer wagon, says stockman John Rowell, who has worked with the family for 24 years. “We feel manual feeding gives us maximum control and we know exactly what each animal is eating.”
With sale and show cattle, the year is split into two, explains John. The first part of the year concentrates on preparation for the Royal Highland and Great Yorkshire Shows and the latter switches to preparation for the sales.
“We mainly sell our heifers in-calf to calve down at around two years at Perth each October and bulls at the February Perth sales, though we also sell many bulls privately,” says Charles. “This year we will also have some bulls to sell through Carlisle in May.
“Colour is important as many buyers prefer roan animals. This is not a problem as we use white bulls on our red and white females and red and white bulls on our white females, both of which give us roan calves.”
“We felt concentrating on pedigree cattle would give us better prices and make the business more profitable than commercial beef production. It was not so much taking risk out of the business as concentrating on being profitable.
“We also wanted to do something that was slightly more long-term and involving, rather than running a purely commercial farm. I was also concerned that in purely commercial beef production, you are very much at the mercy of the market and do not have the same control over your selling price as with pedigree stock.
Costing aside, it is clear Charles has a genuine enthusiasm and determination to establish a quality breeding herd. “I felt pedigree stock was something we could excel at and I have always enjoyed working with cattle.”
During studies at Newcastle University, where he graduated in 2001, he completed his dissertation on the eating quality of beef.
“Our background at Lowther with a commercial beef unit made us look at a breeding programme linked to the needs of commercial farming. It also had to be something that was financially viable in the long-term and would benefit the commercial markets.
“We looked at a wide range of breeds and felt that much of the genetic improvement work had already been done with most of the Continental beef breeds.
“I wanted a breed where there was scope for improvement and I was keen to work with a traditional British native breed so we looked at as wide a range of breeds as possible.
“We felt, that in the past, the British Shorthorn had real potential for improvement, having been used as both a dairy and beef animal and often ending up as neither.
“I must also admit to a little sentiment as there were Shorthorns at Lowther Park Farm for over 200 years until my father sold them in the 1960s. They won many medals and awards at Northern Shorthorn shows.”
Foundation stock for the Lowther Beef Shorthorn herd started with heifer purchases at Perth in 2002 and this was followed by the bull Uppermill Sherlock, also acquired at Perth, in February 2003.
Out of Chapelton Nimrod, Sherlock came from one of the oldest established Beef Shorthorn herds in Britain.
Throughout, Charles was looking for heavily muscled, thick females with height, good udders and legs. He was also looking for good growth rates, but is quick to add calving ease is also a priority.
“One of the problems was, within this country, there was a fairly small genetic pool, especially following the loss of some herds in the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
“At the time, some breeders were building up their new herd using embryo transfer from really good Shorthorn herds in the US, Canada and Australia.”
Charles then talked to Donald Biggar who had lost his old established Chapelton herd to foot-and-mouth and was rebuilding his herd with 80 per cent embryos, including a flush from Blue Ridge Cheerleader and by CF Varsity.
This in turn led to links with Roly Bateman in Alberta and a series of visits to the US and Canada, including a visit to Blue Ridge, where he purchased Blueridge Cactus Joy, a flush from a cow a little more heavily muscled than Cheerleader.
Another influence has been the Australian bull, Weebollabolla Theodore, which, mated to a Canadian cow, produced an excellent bull.
From within the UK came the purchase of the bull Blelack Minstrel, a full Canadian bred bull imported as an embryo by Aberdeenshire breeder, Neil Massie.
“By using genetics from overseas as well as the UK, we are looking to bring in different genetics to our herd and, apart from ease of fleshing and thickness, these are bringing additional hybrid vigour to our herd. We do not follow any particular bloodlines, selecting our genetics solely on type.
The aim is to produce animals with birth weights of 40kg and 400-day weights of 700kg.
“The herd is fully recorded through Breedplan, though this can be misleading as new bulls with relatively few calves can be at disadvantage to established bulls with many calf records.”
Charles sees the future as one of steady improvement and consolidation since the move to Maulds Meaburn with cow numbers remaining unchanged. But the heavy culling carried out earlier does mean virtually every animal produced can be sold as breeding stock.
As for eating quality, any that do not make the grade for breeding find their way to the table at the award-winning George and Dragon Inn owned by the Lowther family, which makes use of meat and produce from the 70 tenanted farms on the Lowther Estate wherever possible.
“There is a fine line in pedigree breeding as you must be absolutely focussed. Either you are the best or you are nowhere. You must aim to be ahead of everybody else.”
- Charles Lowther owns and runs the Nordvue Farms farming company
- The farms, Nordvue and Maulds Meaburn Hall are owned by members of his family
- Perth sales (now at Stirling) are the main outlet for sales
- Prices include nine Lowther heifers selling to 5,800gns and levelling at a centre record of £3,605 in October last year
- Many bulls are sold privately, plus some will sell through Carlisle
- Lowther has also won the breed heifer class for three years running at both the Royal Highland and Great Yorkshire Shows
- The herd is based on around 60 breeding cows with genetics sourced from the US, Canada, Australia and mainly Scotland in the UK
- Selection is mostly on type rather than particular bloodlines