Selling a bull at the Stirling Bull Sales might seem to take only the two minutes the animal is in the ring but there is far more to it than that as Ewan Pate discovered on a recent visit to the Balthayock herd in Perthshire.
Stock managers, Davie and Tracy Nicoll actually start working towards the February Stirling sale almost as soon as the curtain comes down on the October sale.
By the last week of January all 15 bulls in the February team have been selected and halter trained with the help of Balthayock colleague, Hector Campbell. Before long the washing and scrubbing will start but this is all a matter of timing with too early a start risking hair loss.
This year has posed its own difficulties thanks to the almost incessant rain which has swept over the country since the end of November.
Herd owner, Major David Walter, believes it is vitally important not to pamper the bulls in the build up to the sale and all winter they have had 24 hour-a-day access to paddocks just behind the bull sheds.
They are run in groups of three so that they have a chance to socialise and they are housed in pole barn type structures with a sawdust bedded area at the rear and a concrete pad in front of the feed troughs.
David says: “This, and the opportunity to use the paddocks means that then bulls are used to walking on a range of surfaces. I am always surprised how often they choose to be outside even in the foulest of weather.”
The design of the bull shed has worked so well that David commissioned builders Knapp Farm Buildings to construct another to the same dimensions with the work only completed last summer.
He says: “The cost was around £50,000 and the timing may not have been ideal as it turns out with Basic Payment Scheme monies still to arrive but I think it is really important to have the bulls kept in the ideal environment.”
Contemplating the three week run-up to the Charolais sale on February 16 Tracy says: “It will be horrendous. We will need a marriage counsellor on tap the whole time.”
An exaggeration, no doubt but he and his wife have five years of experience of preparing the Balthayock string for the sales and they take obvious pride in getting every last detail right.
Tracy says: “We will be very busy this time because all our bulls are May and June born so they will be sold quite close together.
“We could not do it without a team of young lads who come along to help us and work really hard. Davie and I will have been at Stirling for the first round of the bull sales to help the Adams from Newhouse of Glamis and Andrew Adam will be back to help us a fortnight later. Helping each other out is the only way it can all be done.”
The whole process is expensive with David reckoning it costs £5,000 per bull to take it from birth to point of sale.
The Balthayock bulls will be taken through to Stirling auction mart on the Saturday before the sale ready for inspection on the Sunday, showing on the Monday at noon and sale on the Tuesday at 10.30am. Tracy will stay in Stirling but Davie will commute the 30 miles from Balthayock.
He says: “Things do not stop just because it is bull sales week. I still have the pedigree herd to look after and we have 150 commercial cows and their young stock here as well.”
It will certainly be a challenging few weeks but hopes are high that the successes of 2015 will run on into this year. There were a number of highlights culminating in the 50,000gns sale of Balthayock Justice at the October Stirling sale. This son of Balthayock Ferdinand had already stood junior champion and reserve overall interbreed at Perth Show in August and was bought jointly by Northern Ireland breeders, Gilbert Crawford and Joe Wilson. It was not only the top Charolais price of the sale but by far the best price of the whole week across all breeds.
Earlier in the year the spotlight was on the young bull, Balthayock Imp as he lifted the breed championship and the Marks and Spencer junior interbreed trophy at the Royal Highland Show. This Blelack Forester son has been retained and will have an important role in the100 strong Balthayock herd in coming years as will the Swalesmoor Cracker son, Balthayock Impression.
David says: “Impression is three years old this summer and has the best performance figures in the country with a Terminal Sire Index of 87 and a Breeding Replacement Index of 91. He is the ideal sort of bull for commercial use.”
Quoting figures comes as second nature to this highly experienced breeder. Indeed the whole process of preparing for the bull sales goes back far further than the intense period leading up to the event. David has long been an advocate of using Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) as the first step in deciding his mating policy for the individuals in the herd.
He says: “I am very pleased with the Breedplan system which the British Charolais Cattle Society is using now. It does not just compare cattle within the herd but with cattle throughout the UK so the figures are meaningful.”
David’s philosophy is that if the female lines incorporate all the best features of easy calving and milkiness then the good bulls will follow. It is common for cattle breeders to rather grudgingly give EBVs their place but only as a secondary consideration after appearance.
He says: “I tend to go the other way and look at the figures first and then at appearance if I am buying a bull. Of course, it has to look right but that is the final deciding factor, not the first.”
Docility is also an important trait much helped by quiet and regular handling. Milkiness is vital too. The average Breedplan EBV is +6 but nothing less than +10 is considered acceptable at Balthayock.
As a result of the recent demand from abattoirs for carcases of no more than 420 kg, it has been suggested that this may result in feeders moving away from Continental and particularly Charolais cross cattle and towards the traditional home breeds. David thinks this is “entirely wrong.”
He says: “The right type of Charolais bull will produce cattle with exceptional live weight gain and food conversion efficiency and in the skilled hands of feeders who will adjust the protein/ carbohydrate balance between steers and heifers and feed to meet their chosen market, the extraordinary flexibility inherit in the Charolais breed can be used to their advantage whether their target is the production of short or long keep cattle.”
He does, however, think pedigree bull breeders should consider that as well as breeding bulls which calve easily while maintaining exceptional live weight gain EBVs, and above breed average EBVs for scrotal circumference and eye muscle area, it would be wrong to ignore the EBVs for fat depth and inter muscular fat.
He says: “These point to slightly earlier maturing bulls and in the ever changing demands of the market, this may become increasingly important.
Not too many 80 year olds are comfortable in front of a computer screen but when asked how long he spends poring over figures, David replies: “Hours, days even. Actually it will add up to weeks but it is very worthwhile and I get great satisfaction from seeing the results on the ground. The stockman’s eye is still important but I find the Breedplan Mating Predictor a very useful tool. ”
Seeing the quality of the Stirling line up it would be hard to disagree. There are sons of herd sires, Swalesmoor Cracker, Maerdy Grenadier and Ugie Echo in what is a very evenly matched team. Another frequently used sire is the five year old Balthayock Ferdinand, a son of the 28,000gns Balbithan Vespasian. Heifers are served at two years old by AI using semen from the easy calving Balthayock Adonis. Ugie Echo has also proved very suitable for use on heifers.
Last year 28 Balthayock bulls were sold, mostly at the Stirling sales in February, May and October. The ambition is to build this up to nearer 40. The herd may be 57 years old but maybe it best days are still to come.