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Beef special: Centenary year for British Whites

The British White Cattle Society is celebrating the centenary of its herd book this year.

 

Clemmie Gleeson went to visit Angela Hamilton, manager of the Woodbastwick herd – the only one to be included in all 100 editions.

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Beef special: Centenary year for British Whites

When Angela Hamilton took on management of the Woodbastwick herd of British White cattle, she did not just take on the day-to-day care of its 35 cows and followers, but also the preservation of one of the oldest herds in the country.

 

The breed society’s herd book is now in its centenary year and Woodbastwick, based near Norwich, is the only herd included in all 100 editions.

 

In fact, Woodbastwick’s history goes back further than that, with handwritten records detailing all the arrivals and departures since the purchase of its first two beasts from a herd at the nearby Gunton Park Estate.

 

Mrs Hamilton says: “Initially, Woodbastwick favoured the red pointed animals and, because of this, new bloodlines were introduced.”

 

It is believed the subsequent hybrid vigour helped the herd survive various disease outbreaks in the early years. It is now known to be the oldest herd of British White cattle in the world and also one of the oldest herds of any breed which has remained on the same farm and under the same ownership throughout.

 

Numbers of the breed dipped in the 1800s and again in the 1970s.

 

The introduction of commercial dairy cattle and continental beef breeds were both a huge threat to dual-purpose breeds, including the British White.

 

The Woodbastwick herd was milked until 1972, by which time the Friesian and Holstein had taken over as the country’s main milk producers.

 

The Cator family remained committed to the breed though and records reveal the lengths they went to in order to secure new bloodlines over the years, including transporting a new bull from Scotland by train, says Mrs Hamilton.

The breed has also been helped along the way by bringing in other bulls, such as the White Shorthorn and White Galloway. This helped boost numbers, but has not been necessary, or allowed, since the Rare Breeds Survival Trust closed the grading up register.


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Cross-bred

 

At its peak, the Woodbastwick herd topped 80 breeding females, which included some cross-bred commercial cattle.

 

“But in 1996, two years after I came here, the owners decided just to maintain a pedigree herd of 35 cows.”

 

Together with stock bulls and followers, this means the total herd has stood at about 100-head since then. Heifer calves are either kept as replacements or sold as pedigree breeding females.

 

“We will keep a couple of bull calves each year, but the rest are castrated and finished for beef,” says Mrs Hamilton.

 

Most of the breeding animals are sold privately, but Mrs Hamilton likes to take a few to the Melton Mowbray traditional breeds show and sale in September each year. It was here in 2017 that heifer Woodbastwick Lauren was the highest priced beast, fetching 2,300gns.

 

Well-marked

 

“She was nice and square and a wellmarked heifer,” says Mrs Hamilton.

 

In the past she would take a team to shows across the country, but she now just attends South Suffolk and the Royal Norfolk Show. Last year she also attended the South of England Show, which also holds British White classes.

Highlights of her British White showing career include a hat-trick of female championship wins with Woodbastwick Poppy at the Royal Show in the late 1990s.

 

“She was my all-time favourite. She just walked into the ring and said I am here,” says Mrs Hamilton.

 

The herd is also entered into the breed society’s annual herd competition, winning the large herd category last year and having been the overall winner in 2010.

 

Having previously worked with South Devons and British Blondes, Mrs Hamilton has a varied experience of different breeds.

 

“The Whites are easy to manage. They are easy calving and with their hard black feet they do not need much with trimming. The females have neat udders and rarely get mastitis. They are generally tough and easy.

 

“While they are characters and always make me laugh, the Whites are very biddable and will usually follow a bucket,” she adds.

 

Their ease of management also makes them great conservation beasts, with the wildlife trusts in Norfolk and Suffolk both recently choosing them for their herds to manage nature reserves.

 

“They are great foragers and do a useful job,” says Mrs Hamilton. On remote areas where other breeds may fail to thrive, the Whites ‘grow a great big coat and carry on’, she adds.

 

As with many native breeds, the resulting meat is well-flavoured and delicious, with a good fat cover and marbling throughout, she adds. But their real selling point is their ability to rear a good weight of calf.

 

“They make an excellent suckler cow. When crossed with a continental bull they are capable of rearing a strong beef calf. Per kilo of calf weaned they are very competitive.”

 

The herd grazes on the parkland at Woodbastwick Hall from mid- April until just before Christmas when they move to their winter quarters in Salhouse.

Housed

 

There they are housed in strawbedded barns for winter. Calving starts in February with only a handful of females calving in autumn.

 

Cows are fed silage and sugar beet and bedded on barley straw, all of which is produced on the estate.

 

Youngstock have access to silage, as well as a youngstock ration and stay with their mothers until about nine to 10 months of age. Fatstock are fed a finishers ration and silage and are slaughtered at about 24-28 months, killing out at about 350kg and typically graded O+ R 3 or 4L.

 

Each year Mrs Hamilton keeps back some yearling heifers and young bulls for halter-training as the potential show team. They stay in the straw-bedded barns for the duration of the show season plus a 14-day quarantine period afterwards.

 

Similarly, any bought-in animals are quarantined before joining the herd and extensively tested. Mrs Hamilton takes herd health and any potential threat to bloodlines seriously.

 

The choice of which females to keep or sell is one of conservation, aswell as personal preference, she says.

 

“We have 12 families in the herd, four of which we can trace back to the original herd book. My job is to maintain those 12 families, so the choice of what to keep is sometimes dictated by this. At the moment I am down to just one female in one family, after a long line of bull calves from her mother I am hoping she will produce a heifer.”

 

The ideal British White has black ears, nose and muzzle, plus four black socks, and the females have black teats. However they can also be accepted into the herd book if they are ‘overmarked’, with more black markings, such as flecking to the body, or ‘undermarked’, having less black than the standard dictates.

 

Red colouring is recessive, so the herd’s red bull Conjuror is throwing some red calves where the dam carries the red gene.

 

Mrs Hamilton has three stock bulls working in the herd. Woodbastwick Conjuror is a red, seven-year old bull who was bred on-farm, sold to another breeder as a yearling and then bought back a fewyears ago. This is his third year in the herd.

 

Woodbastwick Dougie Mac is a home-bred five-year-old, while the youngest is two-year-old Meadowland Pimms, who was bought from a Cheshire breeder in Autumn 2017.

 

Bull calf

 

“He was by an AI Woodbastwick bull, Randolph Turpin. There was little semen left, but I met a breeder at the Great Yorkshire Show and she told me she had just produced a lovely bull calf with one of the last straws, so I was keen to buy him as a weaned calf,” says Mrs Hamilton.

 

The naming policy at Woodbastwick is the dam’s family dictates the first letter of the name while the sire’s name dictates the theme. For example, all of Pimms’ offspring will be named after drinks – the first of which are due this year – while Dougie’s have a Scottish theme.

 

Conjuror’s theme is Roald Dahl.

 

“It is wonderful to look after the Woodbastwick herd,” says Angela.

 

“When you see how much effort has gone into preserving it over all these years, it is a huge honour to be charged with keeping it going.”

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