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Eblex improved herd awards: Making progress through improving genetics

The Eblex improved herd awards are presented to the recorded beef herd which shows the greatest increase in genetic merit for commercial characteristics over a 12-month period. Farmers Guardian reports on the 10 breed winners.


South Devon

Hawkley herd, Hampshire


Owned by Robert and Sophie Whitcombe, the Hawkley South Devon herd of 25 females is run on a 120-hectare (300-acre) farm alongside a Red Angus pedigree herd of 30 females and a pedigree Border Leicester pedigree sheep flock.


The Whitcombes manage the farm to produce livestock on a mainly forage diet which they can sell with confidence for breeding.


They are very selective when retaining females and focus on specific breed type characteristics combined with figures for easy birth, high performance, fertility, and strong maternal traits.


Selection for breeding depends on good records for performance and fertility, family history, visual appraisal and temperament.


Unassisted calving, a sound udder and good feet are also important.


Being very wet land, cattle are housed in winter with a restricted amount of forage. No creep feed is offered, although some concentrate will be provided to youngstock after weaning in their first winter.


All steers and surplus heifers are finished between 18 and 22 months, before their second winter, achieving weights about 400kg at the desired fat class.


Finding the right bulls to match their criteria is a challenge, according to Robert.


He says: “Our objective is to breed polled cattle, but we are not exclusive yet. We are also careful to avoid the gene mutation linked to myostatin expression, which causes extreme double muscling and is thought to be detrimental to ease of calving.”


Breeding stock is marketed through society sales and sold off farm.


“We are part of the style and statistics breeding croup, comprising of seven South Devon breeders who regularly exchange breeding stock with superior EBVs,” adds Robert.


The Tweeddale herd, Northumberland

Based in Northumberland, the Tweeddale Charolais herd operates on a 242-hectare (600-acre) livestock farm, run by Jonathan Watson and his uncle Brian Redhead.


As well as a herd of pedigree Limousins and British Blue cows, Jonathan and Brian established Tweeddale Charolais six years ago and built the herd up to 25 foundations cows.


Already believers in performance recording, a keen focus on EBV figures for calving ease and milk, combined with good 200- and 400-day weight was essential when buying bulls, explains Jonathan.


They purchased Blelack Black Beret, a proven six-year-old stock bull, which has direct calving ease EBVs in the top 1 per cent of the breed, and is in the top 10 per cent of the breed for 200-, 400- and 600-day weight EBVs. To date they have had two crops of calves from Blackberet on the ground.


The farm has three main calving blocks, providing a year-round supply of pedigree bulls from their herds.


Jonathan says: “After being weaned at six months, calves are selected for retaining as replacements or to sell for breeding.


“Female replacements are selected by using EBVs concentrating on growth traits, milk and calving figures, as well as overall index to ensure the herd is progressive. They must have a large frame with good locomotion and breed type, as well as a steady temperament.”


Male calves remain entire, and anything not making the grade will be housed on an intensive ration to finish at 13 months, with the aim to provide a 400kg, U- or E-grade carcase.


Jonathan aims to sell 20 Charolais bulls per year in October or Feburary, increasing the number of calves from their best cows through a flushing programme, with most sold to the commercial market.


The Tweeddale herd frequently attends the Royal Highland, the Great Yorkshire, the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show and the Livestock Event.


Bosahan herd, Cornwall

John and Bridget Olds established the Bosahan Simmental herd in 2005.


Seven foundation cows and a stock bull produced 17 heifer calves in three years and the herd currently has 33 active females.


The Olds put their success down to the recent influx of new genetics from seven first-time calving heifers.


Attention to EBVs for retail beef yield and eye muscle area are helping to improve their finished beef and they is also starting to monitor and select on milk figures.

British blue

British Blue

NewPole herd, Somerset


Farming together, Phil White and Jools Turner, purchased an imported, Belgian in-calf cow in 2004 which became one of the NewPole herd’s foundation cows. To build up numbers they have kept home-bred heifer replacements and bought-in embryos and several good females to flush.


The herd focuses on traits for calving ease and milk, combined with good 200- and 400-day weight EBVs or a desirable muscle area EBV.


Lowesmoor herd, Gloucestershire


Run by Mike Clark, who farms with his brother Adrian, the Lowesmoor herd was established in 1960 with horned females sourced from the country’s top herds.


After importing a polled bull from Australia, the herd now totals 70 breeding females.


Mike has always recorded to identify better animals and feels it is important to keep a focus on the Hereford’s natural ability to finish calves and to avoid jeopardising this by focusing purely on muscling traits.


He puts his win down to the three stock bulls which he used last year, all of which were in the top 5 per cent for the breed.


Penhalveor herd, Cornwall


Initially a store cattle finishing system, Ashley and Hilary Wood’s business is now focused on their suckler herd.


Deciding the Stabiliser breed suited their breeding objectives, the first semen straws arrived on the farm in 2002 and the Woods have used their genentics ever since.


The Penhalveor herd has been performance recorded since 2008 and is now within the top 10 per cent of the breed for beef value. When selecting replacement females, they pay attention to cow families, as well as maternal and growth trait EBVs.


Black Ven herd, East Sussex


The Black Ven herd is managed jointly by 91-year-old Libby Buchanan and her daughter Elizabeth.


Libby has a lifetime’s experience in agriculture and was the first woman to read agriculture at Oxford University before becoming an adviser to the Secretary of State for Agriculture.


In 1977, Libby decided to establish a pedigree herd of native breed cattle and bought four Sussex cows with heifer calves at foot. Today the herd’s 76 pedigree Sussex cattle are part of 121-hectare (300-acre) organic farm.


The herd has been performance recorded since 2000.



Greensons herd, Cambridgeshire


The Greensons herd is a second-time winner of this award, having won for the first time in 2011.


John Green, alongside his sons William and Guy, farm more than 800 hectares (1,970 acres), including an arable enterprise.


The pedigree herd was established in the 1980s when three full-blood French heifers were introduced to the farm’s commercial suckler herd. Thanks to their attributes, Limousins quickly replaced all of the cattle.


While in America and Canada, John saw how performance recording could inform breeding management decisions and made the bold decision to import the first black Limousins into the country.


Jerusalem herd, Cumbria


Founded in 2001, the Jerusalem herd was started with Bryan Ronan selecting the Aberdeen-Angus breed for its quiet temperament and easy calving attributes. He purchased 10 females from five of the breed’s leading herds to create the herd’s foundation.


Bryan, who manages the herd with his partner Carole Stephens, has always been involved in performance recording. However, as they have learned to trust the capabilities of the Breedplan system they have changed their approach and moved the objectives for the herd on hugely.

Beef Shorthorn

Grafton herd, Northamptonshire


The Grafton herd, Hootens Farm, was established in 2002 when Trevor Browne purchased his first two foundation cows with calves at foot.


Within two-and-a-half years, the herd has grown to 20 cows, with all bar one of the females being home-bred.


Trevor likes the breed for their low management intensity, docile nature and natural ability to finish off grass.


The Grafton herd has been performance recorded since 2008. Trevor is keen to ensure the overall index is always improving and his females provide strong maternal traits. 

Improved herd award tips

All genetic change can be directly attributed to either the selection of superior sires or dams to produce the next calf crop, says Eblex breeding service manager Sam Boon.


He says: “In the case of cows, this is usually through the retention of high-EBV heifer replacements, the sale of older cows of low genetic merit and occasionally the flushing of high genetic merit cows using embryo transfer.


“In beef breeding the relatively long interval arising between generations and the slow turnover of genes within the female breeding herd means much of the genetic gain has to be achieved through careful sire selection.


Sam says in most breeds the wide availability of high-EBV bulls and semen makes it possible for breeders to identify and use leading animals from right across the breed – often with EBVs in the top 1 per cent – and this leads to very fast genetic gain.


“In fact small herds which are reliant on AI can make just as fast genetic progress as larger ones if the semen which they use is chosen with care from bulls with high EBVs and high accuracy values,” he adds.

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