A dedication to the Blonde d’Aquitaine breed combined with expert rearing, conditioning and presenting skills have led a Somerset farmer to trophies in the showring and sales of pedigree stock to mainland Europe.
David Knight’s herd of Blonde d’Aquitaines is impressive by any standards, but to have built up numbers from a standing start to create the largest and, arguably, most successful herd of its kind in the UK, shows a deep dedication to the breed and the exceptional stockmanship skills required to prepare and exhibit cattle at their very best.
Admitting it was ‘love at first sight’ when he saw his first ever Blonde steer as it passed through Chippenham Market in the 1980s, he explains how he was with the farmer on that day who had taught him the skills of stockjudging.
“The steer was as near to what he had taught us as you could find. It reminded me of a Landrace pig on longer legs,” he says.
It was soon after this event that Mr Knight acquired his first Blonde d’Aquitaine heifers and a bull, and everything has since been built up from there.
Working at the time on other people’s farms – undertaking stock duties and fencing – everything he earned was channelled into creating his herd.
Taking on rented land in the Doncombe Valley between Chippenham and Bath, he gave his herd the Doncombe prefix and continued keeping his stock on small and scattered blocks of land in Somerset, Wiltshire and South Gloucestershire.
Today, he has grown the herd to about 100-head of pure-bred, pedigree suckler cows and has 200-head in total on the ground, including followers. A larger premises has been taken on comprising the 130-hectare (320-acre) rented holding at Oakham Farm, Portbury, Bristol, which is farmed with the part-time help of his wife, Sue.
Over the years since the herd began, prizes have been garnered across many shows and sales and the reputation of Doncombe Blondes has steadily grown.
A handful of show and sale championships in the 1990s were just the beginning and by the early 2000s the couple were regularly taking breed championships at Carlisle shows and sales.
Summer showing started in the mid-2000s, beginning with The Royal and including the Bath and West, Three Counties and Devon County. At all, Doncombe cattle have taken breed or inter-breed championships, and even the ‘champion of champions’, beating all species in the show’s grand finale.
At the same time, demand for the herd’s genetics has grown, with top prices for the breed achieved at auction and private buyers travelling from as far as Germany to buy stock.
Preparing cattle to a standard which attracts the top prizes and prices requires a dedication to nutrition and, for this, the Knights take advice from ForFarmers blend manager Oliver Clayton.
With abattoir and retail sales of beef also to consider – including to the local primary school at Colerne, attended by the couple’s grandchildren – a close watch has to be kept on commercial performance.
Hay is chosen as the ad-lib forage during winter months for its ease of handling and cleanliness.
However, as Mr Clayton points out: “Hay is usually of a lower nutritional value than silage so has to be complemented by concentrates of a high nutrient density to reach the high growth rates achieved by these cattle.”
With up to 10kg of concentrates fed per day to the show bulls and some youngstock, there is always the danger of acidosis, which Mr Knight admits has occurred when the cattle were pushed in the past.
“On our previous rations, we have been borderline for acidosis,” he says.
However, with the new ration, which was developed for the herd about 18 months ago, he says performance has improved dramatically and there has been no sign of acidosis.
Three ingredients Mr Knight considers essential in the coarse mix are prairie meal (maize gluten), the live yeast product Levucell TITAN, and the linseed product Lintec. Other components of the mix include ground maize, rolled barley and wheat, distillers grains, soya and sugar beet pulp.
Mr Knight says: “The prairie meal is very high protein [about 60 per cent] and the best thing we can use in the absence of fish meal.”
Mr Clayton adds: “The Lintec is important on numerous fronts. It has been shown to give a significant improvement in feed conversion efficiency, which it does by reducing methane production and therefore cutting nutritional losses.
“It also improves the absorption of the products of digestion – the volatile fatty acids – across the rumen wall, reducing the risk of acidosis and keeping the animals more relaxed.”
The Doncombe animals testify to this, looking perfectly content in their winter housing, although Mr Knight has also bred them for temperament since the outset.
The third key to the good performance is the Levucell TITAN, which plays an essential role in digestive health.
“Levucell is particularly important in a high starch concentrate, and this mix analyses at 30 per cent starch,” says Mr Clayton.
“By scavenging oxygen, the yeast helps create the ideal environment for the rumen’s anaerobic bacteria.
“This, in turn, gets other important processes underway, including the mopping up of lactic acid which will help to maintain a constant rumen pH of 6.2 or higher.
“This is a particularly important benefit in high starch diets, such as those including barley, wheat or maize,” he adds.
However, there is a further benefit of Levucell in this particular diet because of its hay component.
“The Levucell also works on the fibre in the ration by breaking down lignin and making the hay more digestible,” he says.
“Once the lignin is broken down, the digestible parts of the fibre, the cellulose and hemicellulose, are released, improving the digestibility of the feed.”
All of this has a positive impact on rumen health and also leads to greater feed conversion efficiency and growth, as Mr Knight explains.
“If the gut is not healthy and firing on all cylinders you will not get the liveweight gain.”
A typical group of his bulls aged 10-12 months on the farm today has just weighed in at an average 500kg having been fed 5kg/day of the coarse mix together with ad-lib hay.
Mr Clayton says: “This gave them an average growth rate over 65 days of 1.85kg/day, which is very efficient at this level of restricted feeding.
“However, other bulls have achieved 2kg/day over a sustained period until they reach about 800- 900kg and it has also been possible to push them more, when the need has arisen.”
Mr Knight says: “We can hit 3kg/day over a short period if we go for broke.”
He also praises the breed for its conformation, length of loin and high killing out percentage.
“The breed is fine-boned and heavily muscled and the fine-textured meat is tender, even though it is lean,” he says.
“If we get everything absolutely right, we can kill out at 70 per cent, although 65 per cent is the norm.”
He believes getting everything right comes down to good genetics and nutrition and, this year more than any, he feels this has come together.
“Between us we have concocted a ration which works and performance has been incredible this year,” he says.
“Rumen health has been the best we have had and this is reflected in growth rates. And coat condition has been terrific, probably because of the Lintec.
“We have certainly seen a significant improvement in our show cattle this summer and now we are preparing to select our team for the 2019 season.”
Visit the series Hub page for more articles, links and project information.