Glenisla, a hill unit on the Angus Perth border, is synonymous with Beef Shorthorn genetics which can be found in herds throughout the UK and beyond.
THE Beef Shorthorn offers beef producers a low maintenance functional suckler cow, one which provides a perfect fit for future sustainable systems, according Major John Gibb.
He speaks from experience having successfully proved the native breed at Glenisla, the family’s 1,377ha (3,400 acre) unit for almost five decades.
He says: “I believe the breed’s maternal qualities continue to be just as relevant as they did when my late father, Harry Gibb introduced Beef Shorthorn crosses in the 1950s.
“Furthermore, it is those characteristics which will enable us to continue to very naturally manage both the pedigree and grading up herds on commercial lines going forward, in order for our hill farming enterprise to continue to be viable.
“Beef Shorthorn bred cows are fertile. We give them three cycles with the bull, they calve by themselves, the calves are thrifty and they make superb mothers. They provide plenty of milk and they certainly look after their calves, a fact reflected in weaning performance.
“At 200-day weaning this season, bulls averaged 1.54kg daily liveweight gain, steers 1.42kg and heifers 1.20kg.
Major Gibb’s son, Nicholas is part of the partnership at Glenisla and is mostly occupied with forestry and game management which includes some red deer stalking. His daughter, Catriona, returned home to Glenisla 10 years ag from a Montessori teaching career in London, now runs the farm with stockman, Ian Burgess.
She says: “All our cattle are naturally reared above 1,000ft. Cows and calves are initially turned on to improved grazing before we move them on in August to graze the open hill for six weeks.”
“Steer calves are sold straight off their mothers in Forfar market whilst bull and heifer calves are wintered inside on grass silage, supplemented with minerals and suitable concentrate.
“This year we have used the quiet wean system - a clip in calf’s nose for five days before separation and it seemed to work, reducing stress and possible pneumonia.
“The emphasis on forage means its management is naturally important at Glenisla. We concentrate on keeping the pH balanced, from 6.0 to 6.5 using mostly calcium lime. Re-seeding each year amounts to around 8ha using modern grass varieties, we include clover and recently we introduced chicory and plantain.
“Our cows are working cows, out-wintered; they thrive on natural grazing and on supplementary grass silage and minerals which enables us to make huge cost savings - we do not have sufficient housing, and labour and straw which comes at a big premium up here. We could calve both herds outdoors, however quite simply for management reasons they come in in early March, just before calving, after which they run out and come in to feed.
“Temperament is very important to us, particularly when day to day management is all down to myself along with our stockman; our cattle are so very quiet, which really helps to ease the workload. In fact, I regard Beef Shorthorn’s docility is one of the breed’s best features. The herd is also demonstrating longevity, averaging 10 calf crops. Our heifer replacements are grazed near home to calve at two years old having achieved our target 450kg at first service; we use homebred bulls with accompanying suitable EBVs.”
The Glenisla brand has been built over the years by annually selling a draft of heifers, and more recently selling bulls to a number of well-known herds. Major Gibb says: “Over 20 years ago, in conjunction with Roley Fraser of United Auctions, we instituted the heifer sale at the October bull sales.
"I believe this led to a greater awareness of the breed and possibly led to Morrisons taking the breed under its wing, recognising that Beef Shorthorn produced top quality eating beef in addition to the breed’s maternal role.”
Confident that demand will continue, he adds: “Whilst we do not know exactly what is around the corner, people will continue to have to eat, and the hills and uplands will have to be put to some use. We have found our cattle perform well on such a low input sustainable grazing system, in fact, I believe every second cow in the country should be carrying Beef Shorthorn genetics, and we are getting there.”
My first memory of Shorthorns dates just after WWII, when my father used to buy about 20 Shorthorn cross Highland heifers from Oban market every second year. They were first put on a train to Pitlochry, then walked the 25 miles to Glenisla, overnighting halfway at Francis Balfour’s farm at Kirkmichael. These heifers would join the existing herd of 40 cross Highland cows and bred to an Angus bull, thereby producing a top-quality Scotch beef.
Meanwhile I had been serving in the Scots Guards for 10 years before retiring in 1965, returning to Glenisla and starting to take over the farm from my father. I had always liked our cross Highland cows and their black calves, but times had changed. Most farmers were using Irish Black Poll and Blue Grey cows for a less hairy calf and we had followed suit. However, when attending a bull sale in Perth trying to buy an Angus bull, I bought a white Beef Shorthorn bull. This set me off on the Shorthorn road.
I was happy and even happier when his calves were born. We were probably the only farm in Glenisla using anything other than an Angus bull. In 1972, I bought my first Beef Shorthorn heifer, Pennan Princess Daisy from the late Bill Anderson. More followed as singles from Uppermill, Dungarthill and Pennan.
At that time, all native bred cattle were very small and were referred to as Belt-Buckle cattle in other countries. Stock people were realising that cattle had to get bigger, which led to that arrival of the Continentals. However, native breeds started to respond. Beef Shorthorns were too small and too fatty and not too popular in the market place. Cull cow liveweights in the 1980’s averaged 500kg to 600kg compared to present day 700kg to 900kg.
We invested in big dual-purpose Dairy Shorthorns from Stockwood and Maxton to blend with the existing Beef Shorthorns. More heifers followed from Newtonhall and the Henderson family at Woodhead. At that time, the Maine Anjou was being introduced to increase size, meat yield and less fat.
Having purchased the herd sire, Balmyle Xpress and built a credible herd, I wished to return to a higher level of purity, which led to imports of bull calves and semen. At this time, I had attended the 1982 World Shorthorn Conference in Canada and my eyes were opened to what was being produced in the Shorthorn breed.
Whilst attending the World Shorthorn Conference held in New Zealand in 1992, I was introduced to Breedplan, the international genetic evaluation system for beef cattle breeders. I believe I was the first to introduce the system to a UK herd. We continue to study EBV’s in our selection procedures.
We also use the Society’s linear classification system which combines all the elements that we would want in a cow and this includes docility which is so important to our breed. I also believe, that in today’s world, polling is a must. Eye appeal is also important.
Over the years, we have used a number of bulls across the herd including Diamond Xerxes, Belmore Fuel Injected, Broughton Park Thunder, Millerston Jamboree and Fearn Wyvis. The majority carried Australian bred genetics which I believe produce correct functional cattle.
Although we only show at Alyth and the Royal Highland, we have won three championships at the latter and one February bull sale. The competition is fierce and we are happy to be part of it. At the end of the day, it is all part of a great gathering.