The Stronach family’s Islavale Simmental herd has become well-known across the UK for producing leading prices at Stirling bull sales. Katrina Macarthur paid them a visit.
Since the establishment of the pedigree herd in 1984, the Stronach family has built up a strong herd of females backed by tremendous bloodlines, with most classified as either excellent or very good through the British Simmental Cattle Society (BSCS).
Stewart and Hazel Stronach, together with son Stewart, his partner, Fiona, and their family of Michael, Lauren, Ellie, Emma and Aimee, farm 303 hectares (760 acres) between two units, Berryleys and Maisley, near Keith.
The Simmental breed was first introduced to the business as a terminal sire during the 1970s and the family immediately saw the advantage of the extra growth in the calves, as well as the breed’s maternal characteristics in producing milky and fertile females.
Such was the success commercially, that the family decided to venture into pedigrees when Stewart senior bought two females for Hazel.
The first was Maryculter Lucinda, followed by Drumsleed Amelia, which was flushed and went on to produce many female embryos which formed the basis of the Islavale herd in the early years.
Stewart jnr, who is vice-president of BSCS, says: “Simmental cattle are a great dual-purpose breed, producing fertile and milky females which are easy to handle, as well as easy fleshing calves with good growth rates.
“The Simmental cross is still the most popular suckler breed in Aberdeenshire, so there is also a good, local market up here for bulls. We also sell a growing number of pedigree and commercial females privately each year to repeat customers, with many used as embryo recipients.”
Over the years, the family’s suckler herd has been built up to 200 breeding cows of which at least 150 are registered as pedigree, with the remainder almost pure and running with the same bulls as the pedigrees.
The herd has been closed for several years now and boasts an impressive health status, being accredited for Johne’s and BVD for the past 12 years.
“We run the pedigree and commercial cows together and when a commercial cow leaves the farm, we replace it with a pedigree female,” says Stewart.
“Our heifers are also bulled to the Simmental and we only ever buy-in stock bulls and the odd special female. It is not often we buy-in a female, so it has to be really special with the correct bloodlines.”
Just recently, the family purchased a January, 2019-born heifer for 7,000gns at the Ranfurly production sale held at Dungannon Mart.
This was Ranfurly Beauty 13 K2, sired by Grinalta’s Excel 8N, out of Ranfurly Beauty, which Stewart and Fiona travelled over to Northern Ireland to see, before purchasing online the following week.
“Ranfurly Beauty 13th K2 is just our style of heifer with a lot of potential for the future,” says Stewart.
“She brings something different in the bloodlines for us to try and is from a proven breeding dam line, with her mother being a full genetic sister to our most influential stock bull yet, Curaheen Bandit.”
The family has been selling bulls at auction since 1987, with most now sold at Stirling bull sales, where the team has produced some impressive averages over the years including £12,994 for four in October 2019 and £8,321 for 12 sold in February 2018.
They often dominate the pre-sale shows at Stirling and have received several five-figure prices over the years with a top price of 24,000gns achieved in February 2018 for Islavale Heston and 18,000gns for Islavale Brilliant in February 2012.
Stewart says: “Our aim is to breed top-end bulls for the commercial market but we have also sold many of our top priced bulls to well-known pedigree herds which is always a real bonus.
“We have also enjoyed success at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre and previously held a centre record of 9,000gns for Islavale Bailey, while Islavale Jester 18 made 8,500gns at the Royal Northern Spring Show in February.”
By relying on home-bred replacements each year, the Stronachs have invested in many top stock bulls from leading herds over the years, including the 7,000gns Dashams Lucky Strike; Woodhall Walker purchased with its mother at the Woodhall reduction sale, and the 8,000gns Chesterman Varney.
Curaheen Bandit, which was purchased for €9,200 (£8,400) in 2011, has bred most of the females found in the herd today, while Ranfurly Confederate, purchased at the Dirnanean dispersal sale, has sired the 24,000gns Islavale Heston and the 16,000gns Islavale Harvest, which were sold on the same day to two pedigree herds.
More recently, the family purchased Corskie Highlander in a private deal from the Green family two years ago and saw the first son sell for 15,000gns in October 2019.
It also sired Islavale Jimbo, which stood senior champion at Stirling in February 2019.
Another successful purchase has been the 15,000gns Atlow Dixon, which was bought at Stirling for its style and length and again has produced some tremendous bulls for the family, including one at 13,000gns and Islavale Illusive, which made 14,000gns in February 2019.
Just recently, a new stock bull was purchased from Southern Ireland in the shape of Coose Lincoln, which is by the famous Team Celtic sire.
Stewart says: “We aim to buy stock bulls with plenty of shape and power but they must be right on their legs and have the correct pedigree to match.
“When we select a bull, physical appearance, pedigree and health status come before the EBVs as, after all, the figures are only meant to be a guide.”
The commercial and pedigree cows are split between autumn- and spring-calving, with spring calvers mainly outwintered on stubble turnips or kale, before coming into straw-bedded courts to calve throughout March, April and May.
Autumn calvers are brought inside in October before calving and are fed a total mixed ration of silage/draff and straw.
About 30 heifers join the herd each year to calve at two-and-a-half years old, with almost all of the other commercial and pedigree heifers sold privately for breeding at 12 to 18 months old.
“We like a fairly big cow with shape, length, width and plenty of milk, as the genetics are passed onto the calf as well as the bulls,” says Stewart.
A selection of heifers are sold at the annual BVD accredited sale of bulling heifers at Thainstone, in both May and September, where they regularly lead the trade, with top prices of £1,600 and £1,580 achieved.
“Pure Simmental and Simmental cross heifers suit the market at Thainstone and can be bulled successfully to any other breed, with many running with the Charolais to produce store calves for selling back through the centre,” adds Stewart.
“We find Simmentals are long lasting and have a good resale value when they are sold off the farm, having recently sold a cast cow at Thainstone for £1,560.”
The male calves are finished on a barley beef system and sold at an average of 13 months of age to ABP, with 95 per cent of them producing U grades at an average deadweight of 400kg.
Despite the May fixture of Stirling Bull Sales having not gone ahead in its usual format earlier this year, the Stronachs achieved a fantastic trade, when they sold five bulls to average £6,794.
The bulls were sold from home, but still through United Auctions, and saw the family top the trade across all breeds at 7,600gns for Islavale Jammydodger 18, with two selling to pedigree herds and others to Orkney and Islay.
In the meantime, preperations are underway for the October round of Stirling bull Sales and the online sale hosted by Aberdeen and Northern Marts.
The Islavale team has a strong team of six junior bulls for the forthcoming sales, all of which have been vet checked and semen tested.
These include three by Corskie Highlander, while the others are by Atlow Dixon, Curaheen Giant and Ranfurly Confederate.