International travel provided David Ismail with the insight to introduce American genetics into his beef farm business. With strict policies running across cow management, Erika Hay finds out how knowledge transfer has paid off.
Extensive use of American genetics have been crucial to the success of David Ismail’s Fordel Aberdeen-Angus herd at Glenfarg, Perthshire.
His policy of treating his cows as employees and making them work for him – and not the other way around – has led to a herd of 400 pedigree females which display ease of calving, are economical to keep and produce small calves with high growth rates.
David came back home to farm Fordel in 1995 after completing a degree in agriculture and management at Cirencester and working as a golf operations manager. At the time, there were 90 suckler cows, of which only 20 were Aberdeen-Angus, 800 sheep and about 32 hectares (80 acres) in organic arable production.
The first business decision he took was to get rid of the arable enterprise, followed quickly by focusing on Aberdeen-Angus.
By working his way around ranches in the USA, particularly in Montana, David adopted some American philosophies, such as creating smaller-framed cows, no creep-feeding of calves and calving all heifers at two years old.
His method of choosing genetics was slightly unorthodox in that he established a finishing unit for Aberdeen-Angus steers, recorded daily liveweight gains, carcase grades and weights, and saw which bloodlines were the best performing.
He says: “I noticed steers by a bull called Edinburgh of The Moss finished up to six months quicker off less feed, so this was the bloodline I wanted in my females.”
He has used a mix of American and Scottish genetics, but decided early on big cows meant big costs.
“We weigh cows three times a year. They average 740kg, which is a moderate weight. I see no point in ‘black Charolais’ which have higher maintenance costs.
“Our cows have the same genetics as the American ones, but have slightly bigger frames due to the environment in which they are kept, such as being inside for part of winter and the lush grass they have access to in Scotland in summer.”
American genetics feature heavily in the mix
Fordel is a 607-hectare (1,500-acre) hill farm, rising to 335 metres (1,100ft) above sea level with 1,143mm (45in) of rain. And while the operation has expanded over the years to about 1,295ha (3,200 acres) of grass including seasonal lets, David breeds what is financially viable for this type of farm.
Hardiness and the ability to thrive outside are fundamental traits for cows at Fordel, which is another reason David selected bloodlines from the north of America, where temperatures can drop to -40degC in winter.
This said, Scottish conditions seldom allow out-wintering without drastic damage to ground, so cows and calves are housed in November and heifers in December or January.
Calving starts in late March for two months and as soon as they are calved, they are turned out.
For the last couple of years, David and his stockmen – Niall Lynch, Alun Garton and John Jack – have brought the calves inside with the cows in November and gradually introduced them to a forage diet until they are fully weaned in January.
David says: “The cows have so much milk and calves do not get such a setback as when they are weaned suddenly. We weigh calves when they come in and at least once a month after that to monitor their weight gain.”
Weighing regularly allows David and his team to build a profile on every female and also on families, and he ranks cows according to the daily liveweight gain of the calves.
Although this gives a good indication, it has its drawbacks as the season can play a part.
The trend has generally been upwards over the years and David quoted figures from 2000 when the best calves had a daily gain of 1.4kg and the average was 1.1kg. By 2011, the best was 1.9kg and the average was 1.4kg.
However, he says: “All the maths went out the window in 2012 when the weather was so bad and this highlighted problems with this system.”
He now says a better way of measuring a cow’s productivity is weaning weight percentage – taking a calf’s 200-day weight and dividing it by the cow’s weight. He aims for an average of 50 per cent and the best are at 60 per cent, but anything below 40 per cent is costing too much and will be culled.
David now sells steers to private buyers who give him feedback of liveweight gains, grades and margins so he can follow the process through to the end and get a complete picture for each family unit.
One of the most desirable traits for customers is ease of calving, and both American and home-bred genetics are selected and monitored for this.
David says: “Ideally, we want a calf born at 32-34kg, but which grows fast. Americans call these ‘curve-benders’.”
He is working with the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society and Eblex on feed efficiency trials, along the same lines as were used for the Stabiliser.
Using embryo transfer is a cost-efficient way of multi-trait improvement, believes David.
The farm used to be organic, but by 2006, the costs started to spiral out of control and David felt the rules were untenable, plus the market was reducing, so he returned to conventional production.
This meant, among other things, he could use embryos to introduce new bloodlines quickly. This year, he has about 80 embryo recipients about to calve, two-thirds of which have been implanted with American embryos and one-third with home-produced.
“Using ET is a cost-efficient way of multi-trait improvement, such as ease of calving, milk and moderate frames.”
This year, about 485 females are embryo recipients, AI’d or naturally served; of this, 36 did not hold and a further 50 were culled by November.
David says: “I try to get a balance of numbers for stockmen to cope with, plus high cull rates mean selective breeding.”
He keeps the best heifers for replacements, but has recently been able to take advantage of the popularity of the breed in Europe, with heifers sold to Romania, Switzerland and Germany in the last few years. The biggest batch he sold was 96 to Romania.
David keeps about 40 bulls entire each year and last year sold 32 privately. “Our objective is to provide cost-efficient bulls with good genetics and we usually sell them for between £2,000 and £5,000, although sometimes more to a pedigree herd.”
Heifers are served naturally at 15 months and this year he has been using two American embryo full brothers, Fordel Loch Torridon and Fordel Loch Rannoch which are by Sitz Upward, a bull with several thousand daughters in production in USA.
These two bulls are out of Championhill Lucy, whose dam is a full sister to America’s number one calving bull for the last decade, Sav Final Answer.
The genetics of proven American sire TC Freedom is another to come through in the latest crop of embryos.
“While we are looking for proven genetics, we also buy on physical appearance. Niall, Alun and John have all been abroad to look at ranching systems and cattle. “Length and width are more important than frame.
“The Aberdeen-Angus cow needs plenty of room in her gut to process large quantities of forage and the most efficient cows have a good spring of rib.”
For the last couple of years, David have brought the calves inside with the cows in November and gradually introduced them to a forage diet until they are fully weaned in January.
In 2004, David completed a Nuffield Scholarship on international beef production, which, after further research into markets in the UK, led him to investing in Wagyu cattle.
He imported 300 embryos from Japan and built up a market for the heavily-marbled meat, but after six years in production, decided to revert his attention back to the Angus.
“They were highly intensive, both financially and from a labour point of view, and I felt I had achieved a lot and could go on to achieve more from breeding Aberdeen-Angus.”
The whole herd of Wagyu and Wagyu cross Angus was sold in 2013 to husband and wife team Mohsin Altajir and Martine Chapman, who operate as Highland Wagyu from Dunblane.
Focusing solely on his black cattle now, the challenge for David is to continue to breed viable Aberdeen-Angus cattle while reducing production costs.
He says: “We have made rapid genetic progress, because we have the numbers to do so, and I am proud of my cows which produce a high quality product from a low cost and low risk base.