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Achieving high genetic gain: The winners of the AHDB Beef and Lamb awards

THE AHDB Beef and Lamb 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.

Genetic improvement within the beef sector generates an annualised £4.9 million benefit to the industry according to recent AHDB Beef and Lamb-funded research.


Sam Boon, Signet breeding services manager says: “It is great the industry has progressive breeders who are striving to push forward the genetic potential of their breed.

“The industry is constantly changing and this year it is noticeable how winning breeders are talking about changing their breeding strategies to meet these needs; from breeding decisions primarily focused on carcase traits to those where traits influencing ease of calving and in some breeds, maternal performance, are increasingly important and proactively embraced.”


Below are the winners of The Most Improved Herd award given by AHDB Beef and Lamb.


Aberdeen Angus – Sunoak herd, West Sussex

Aberdeen Angus – Sunoak herd, West Sussex

Since establishing the herd in 2002, Keith Booker has been working towards having female lines with an index in the top 25 per cent of the breed and a goal of producing high-quality pedigree bulls from the 25-cow herd.


Mr Booker historically ran commercial suckler cows, but his ambition was to run a pedigree closed herd. He chose the Aberdeen Angus because they were not too big, are docile and easy calving.

He says: “The first females I bought had no figures, but my first priority was to achieve a high-health status herd.”

He then started performance recording and selected high-index bulls, using EBVs to increase first size and then length.

Mr Booker says: “I also wanted a cow that would produce plenty of milk. So the more recent bull bought, Warrenho Razzle, and the AI bulls used have all had high Milk scores.”

He already sells a number of bulls to dairy and commercial beef farmers and last year he sold a high-index bull to a pedigree breeder. Now he has established his base herd he will turn his attention to producing bulls for the pedigree market.


Beef Shorthorn – Meonhill herd, Hampshire

Being relatively new to cattle farming, Syd and Mary Chaplin believe they have benefited greatly from having performance recording figures, obtained by weighing and scanning cattle, to help their breeding decisions. 


They initially bought 12 breeding females in 2004. Now the high-health status herd has 32 breeding females and about 50 progeny, managed with the help of John Goodridge-Reynolds.

Mrs Chaplin says: “Beef Shorthorns were chosen because they are a hardy, native breed which would thrive on the farm, which is 900ft above sea level, with frequent strong winds. The choice has suited the farm well.”

The first stock bull on the farm, Chapelton Winsome, has helped the herd’s figures. “He was a top bull with an index in the top 5 per cent for the breed and has had an enormous impact.

“Then using Chapleton Covenator, who also had good figures, and imported semen on Winsome heifers has given us some amazing stock. We have also sourced semen targeting specific breeding traits for use with AI,” says Mrs Chaplin.


British Blue - Coldridge herd, Devon

John Quick’s venture into pedigree British Blue cattle began in 1984, when it was a relatively new breed in Britain. He was interested in their quiet nature, good conformation and meat production. 


From one heifer bought in 1984, the herd has grown to 60 suckler cows and progeny. The herd is run alongside a flock of 900 crossbred ewes, with the help of John’s partner, Ruth, and son Callum. Mr Quick says: “The Blues have proved easy to look after and they are very quiet.”

He started performance recording because some of the buyers of his bulls, including those with dairy and commercial beef herds, are keen to see the figures. But he has also used the Estimated Breeding Values and Index figures to help improve the herd. “We can see the EBVs improving over the years on paper and when you look at the quality of animals in the field,” he says.


British Simmental – Heathbrow herd, Hertfordshire

When David and Lesley Sapsed decided to disperse their dairy herd in 1996 and gradually replace their existing crossbred suckler cows, they decided polled Simmentals offered the best future. 


Mr Sapsed says: “We had a few pedigree Simmentals alongside the crossbreds and found they had phenomenal growth rates and plenty of milk,” says David.

They felt Canada was where the best polled cattle were at that time and imported a polled bull and heifer from the AWL herd. AWL Starlet has seen great success in the show ring. “However, her main contribution has been through her progeny,” says Mr Sapsed “There are currently 19 descendants at Heathbrow.”

Numbers now total 40 cows and 60 progeny, and 60-70 per cent are polled. Polled stock bulls have always been used, alongside polled AI sires.

Almost all the progeny of the current stock bull Celtic Comet are polled. He has good figures with a Terminal Sire Index of +81 and a Self-Replacing Index of +95.


Hereford – Boundless herd, Surrey

Barry and Hilary Myers have been breeding pedigree Hereford cattle since they bought Boundless Farm in 1987, where they farm 80 hectares (200 acres) in partnership with Barry’s brother, Michael. The brothers were brought up around beef cattle with their father managing a Shorthorn cross Hereford herd. Mr Myers says: “It was inevitable we would go into Herefords, as we had a history with the breed.”

They now have 60 pedigree cows which they have been performance recording for four years. In the past the Myers’ have used embryo transfer. An embryo imported from Canada produced the bull Boundwood 1 Route 66, who is behind much of the herd’s recent genetic improvement.


The bull has confirmed the worth of Estimated Breeding Values, explains Mr Myers: “His EBVs for growth rates were very good and it gave us data showing the weight gains he was capable of passing to his progeny.

“We see progress both in males and females from using performance data to help with our breeding decisions,” says Barry. “Once you start using EBVs, you start to see the benefits.”


Limousin – Sportsmans, Stockport

A policy of using high-index bulls on high-index females, since the Limousin herd was established in 2007, is behind the genetic improvement which saw Boden and Davies also win this award in 2012.


Charlie Boden’s 100-cow pedigree Charolais herd also took the Herd Improvement Award for that breed in 2013. Cattle are run alongside an 800-ewe commercial sheep flock and 100 pedigree Texel ewes.

Mr Boden says: “We chose the Limousin as a complimentary breed to the Charolais to ensure sales, both pedigree and commercial, all year round. The breed suits a modern day butcher’s requirements with good muscle and easy fleshing.

He now has 50 cows, having purchased high-index females, with good Estimated Breeding Values for calving ease, a shorter gestation length and good maternal traits, such as milk.

Initially, he used high-index AI sires while cow numbers were low. However, with increased numbers, he invested 37,000 guineas in a high-index bull, Graham’s Humphrey. in February 2014. “He was first in his class in the pre-sale show and had a Beef Value in the top 25 per cent of the breed,” says Mr Boden.


South Devon – Daylesford herd, Gloucestershire

South Devon – Daylesford herd, Gloucestershire

The decision to start a South Devon herd at Daylesford Farm in 2012 came from the desire to have a third native breed, which could produce good quality meat in a 100 per cent organic system, says senior farm manager, Richard Smith.


The farm now has 40 South Devon cows and progeny, as well as a 100-cow Aberdeen Angus herd and 70 Gloucester cattle, in addition to its other enterprises.

Mr Smith says: “The South Devons are docile animals with good-quality meat, which helped our decision to invest in them.”

They have bought 41 females to establish the herd. He says: “We looked at an animal’s EBVs to be as scientific as we can to identify specific bloodlines and potential genetic abilities of an animal, but figures don’t tell you everything, so visual assessment is also vital.”

A top-priced sire, Trewint Magnetto 10, was bought in 2013 as the first stock bull. Mr Smith says: “He has paid dividends. He came from a herd with a good average in its breeding values in 2011 and he himself was above the national average values for the breed in 2012.”


Stabiliser – Evergreen herd, Devon

Stabiliser – Evergreen herd, Devon

The desire to improve the quality of cows and breed his own replacements was behind Alan Derryman’s decision to buy Stabilisers and begin performance recording four years ago. 


He runs a 70-cow herd and progeny, alongside a 900-ewe sheep flock, on his organically-managed farm, with his partner, Gwenan.

Historically, the herd was Herefords and Hereford crosses, now about three-quarters of the cattle are Stabilisers. Mr Derryman says: “Our aim is to produce meat with good eating quality.

“We only intend to buy stock bulls from now on, having bought in 24 Stabiliser females from performance recording herds. We wanted cows that would be good mothers and were easy to manage.”


Mr Derryman was also pleased to find he could buy high-quality sires at reasonable prices. The first Stabiliser stock bull was in the top 25 per cent of the breed. The next was in the top 5 per cent. “Then two years ago, we bought Trebartha Noah privately from the breeder, who was then in the top 5 per cent of the breed, his figures have since improved placing him in the top 1 per cent,” he says.


Sussex – Offham herd, East Sussex

The Sussex breed was selected by Justin and Susan Harmer, trading as Wakeham-Dawson and Harmer, in 1991 for their ability to do well on the farm’s second-class grazing.


The herd of 40 Sussex cows and 60 progeny was established after the sale of a dairy herd and some crossbred sucklers. The mixed farm has two large Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), downland turf on the South Downs and river meadows in the Ouse Valley.

Mr Harmer says: “We chose Sussex cattle because they are docile, non-selective grazers, which produce a good sized carcase that we believe has superb quality with good marbling.”

They use performance recording to help select stock to buy, keep and sell. “We use the index as a guide, particularly looking for milkiness and growth rates. Alongside performance figures, the cattle have to be pleasing to the eye, conform to breed standards and have good locomotion.” he says.

The scanning information is valuable to promote muscle depth and the correct level of fatness, as most males are finished and sold through their own farm shop.

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