For James Williams Red Ruby Devon cattle are the ideal breed to meet the economic, political and consumer-led challenges facing the industry. Rebecca Jordan reports.
Beef farmer James Williams says Red Ruby Devon cattle are ‘tailor-made for the world we are going into’. This, he says, is because of the breed’s ability to produce quality beef in a grass-based forage system, something which is increasingly important in today’s economic and political climate.
He adds: “On a large number of farms these cows are capable of producing quality beef just off grass.”
Mr Williams’ own Tregullow herd at Scorrier near Redruth, Cornwall, was established 18 years ago, but he says he knew it would take at least 10 years to fully establish the herd.
He says: “There are no shortcuts. You may have a road map but it is quite easy to get diverted or find you have taken a turning down a dead end.
“I always dreamed of restoring Devons at Tregullow. This was not some starry-eyed retirement project. It had to be a fitting use of the land I owned. Understanding enough about marketing I knew I had to produce a premium product, not just another commodity. It was already dawning on me that the environmental impact would be the main criteria on which we would be judged – and then paid – in the future.”
So the fundamental premise was grass-finished beef. The herd, between 20 and 25 cows, comprises eight breeding lines and has the run of 55 hectares (135 acres) of permanent pasture. Of this, 20ha (50 acres) is cut, usually just once, to yield about 350 bales of haylage.
A ‘dusting’, no more than 125kg/ha of nitrogen is applied in spring. Asides from topping, the ground receives no other treatment.
The herd is not housed until late-January – although there is access to silage from December when calves are weaned. The latter are housed and offered 16 per cent protein creep in autumn.
“This is the only stage when anything other than grass is offered to stock,” adds Mr Williams.
“I believe it is vital to prevent calves from going backwards after weaning to keep their frame growing to maximise the size of the finished bullock on which to hang more meat. At the end of the day I am doing this for meat production so stock must be fit for purpose.”
Usually 95 per cent of cows calve within eight weeks from mid-February. The bull is introduced in late-April. Up to seven, two-year-old bulling heifers join the main herd at this point.
Currently, four-year-old Champson Enterprise, bred by Will and Richard Dart, is holding court. This is its first full crop of calves as just a handful of cows were put with the bull for the first year to ensure its genetics knitted with Mr Williams’ cows.
“I am delighted how his calves have turned out,” says Mr Williams, who selects a bull on a very strict set of criteria. Length is very important, as is a good level back, a trait already very well established within this herd.
“A good temperament is essential. I have been prepared to cull a heifer I did not trust 100 per cent even though they were good stock because I will not let the herd be spoilt with cows which have ‘character’.
“I do also select for a bull which has a bit more shape than a cow and it must have bone. Good conformation is obviously essential if it is going to move well and last. And a good deep red colour also comes into the reckoning.
“Finding a bull is not easy, so if I buy one which breeds good stock here I would like it to last for as long as possible and then be able to go on and do the same job for another breeder."
This year an exceptional bull calf has remained entire in the hope this will be the first breeding bull Mr Williams will sell from the herd. It is the seventh calf out of nine-year-old Tregullow Incense, which is the reigning overall herd competition champion cow. It is out of Cutcombe Wallflower 10 and by Bollowal Rhapsody – bred form Jeff Thomas’ successful Showgirl family.
Otherwise, all bull calves are castrated. These, along with heifer calves, will not see a shed again as they spend their second winter outdoors in a field which includes sheltered woodland where they are offered ad lib round bale silage.
“The breed has a thick skin and good coat so can deal with the weather. Quite often I go to check them on a rough day to find them contentedly chewing their cud tucked in the lee of our stone-banked hedges,” says Mr Williams.
By their second spring these heifers weigh between 500kg and 550kg, having put on about 150kg in 12 months. Steers tend to be 20-30kg heavier.
This group is finished on 10ha (25 acres) of good ground. Heifers not selected to join the breeding herd are finished between 26 and 30 months old. Steers, up to 30 months old, kill-out between 320-350kg deadweight at R4L.
“These weights are easily attained without any concentrate,” says Mr Williams.
“JV Richards, the abattoir, is just 10 minutes up the road. I always send cattle two at a time to minimise stress. Our cattle have a wonderful life within a small, intimate herd. They are extraordinarily relaxed and because of that, and their grass-based diet, I strongly believe they produce beef with exceptional taste and texture.”
Tregullow beef is in constant demand, with most going to Philip Warren Butchers which supplies native grass-reared beef to restaurants such at The Ledbury in London’s Notting Hill and chef Paul Ainsworth’s Number 6 in Padstow.
Mr Williams also has a meat box delivery round and supplies the local farmshop with beef.
“Although most of our sales are for finished beef, I do believe the pure pedigree approach to this system is important,” says Mr Williams.
“When you have a level herd of cows bred from selected female lines there is consistency in size, finishing ability and longevity. Pedigree breeders are the custodians of the breed.
“I did go through a phase of scoring the cattle in an attempt at genetic improvement in areas such as easy calving and milkiness. Not many other breeders signed up and, as a result, the information was not very credible against reality. It is perhaps an area the breed needs to encourage if we are to continue to improve and remain competitive.”
Another area Mr Williams feels the breed could improve is the number of herds signed up to accredited high health schemes. This Devon herd, annually tested, is one of very few which at Level one for Johne’s and accredited free of BVD, IBR and leptospirosis. Under veterinary advice, Mr Williams does not vaccinate for these diseases.
“We are signed up to Biobest’s high health scheme and have not bought-in a female for years,” says Mr Williams.
“Any bull we buy comes from an accredited herd and we also require this status to sell four or five females each year at society sales.”
Even though this herd is not the primary source of income, it does, financially, hold its own. And Mr Williams has no intention of resting on his laurels.
“There is still plenty more I would like to improve on. For example, to enhance herd type I am working on taking the number of female lines down to just five.
“We will soon all need to farm in a manner which rewards the public through ELMs. I cannot see what else I can do here to farm more sympathetically. The breed suits the farm and produces top quality beef off grass. There is a theory we should eat less meat. If that means the consumer is prepared to pay a little more for quality beef on a less frequent basis that is potentially a good concept.”=