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Beef Special: Stirling a highlight for Barlow family

The world-famous Stirling bull sales are renowned for attracting some of the UK’s best pedigree bulls which command the biggest prices. Louise Hartley catches up with one family which is preparing to take eight bulls to the event at what will be their biggest sale yet. 

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Held over two weekends in February, Stirling show and sale sees about 1,000 bulls pass through the ring, grossing £2.5-£3 million.

Scottish bulls and buyers obviously dominate the sale in the large part, with provenance and reputation of the seller going hand in hand with bull breeding and quality.

This year, Lancashire Simmental breeders Michael Barlow and son John have entered more bulls than ever before and are looking forward to a promising sale.

Along with Matthew, another of Michael’s sons, the Barlows calve 70 beef cows each year, 40 of which are Simmental. They have established a strong reputation for top quality bulls and females, but acknowledge the challenge of selling at Stirling.
Simmental bull line-up
With eight bulls entered from 25 calvings, John says: “English bulls must at least match the quality of Scottish bulls to make decent money, so we work hard on breeding, selection, feeding and preparation to ensure we are up there with the top.”

John’s passion for selling top quality bulls stems from when he worked with renowned stockman Andrew Reid, Aberdeenshire, during his placement year from Myerscough College, Preston.

Helping manage Fordafourie Estate’s Simmentals and Charolais, John learned the art of bringing bulls out for shows and sales, including feeding and all the preparation which goes on beforehand.

Sales

“Before I came back from college we were not really going to any big sales, selling all the bulls privately.

“Because of other business commitments we did not have the time to do it professionally,” says John, who picked up valuable tips on halter breaking, walking, washing and showing cattle while in Aberdeen.

Bringing his skills home, the business has now been geared up to sell at Stirling and bull sales are a more professional part of the enterprise.
Shift
The biggest management change has been a shift in calving pattern in a bid to better exploit the bull sales market.

John, who has now sold 21 bulls at Stirling since 2010, averaging 5,800gns, says: “Many buyers prefer younger junior bulls at 14-18 months old, rather than senior bulls, aged 20-24 months, as they have not been pushed as hard and can hit the ground running.”

In order to meet this demand, the Simmental herd has moved from calving all year, but mainly in spring, to a focus on autumn calving.

Demand

This year’s Stirling offering will be the first set of bulls from the change in calving pattern, and John hopes the move will pay off.

He says: “Six of the eight we are taking to Stirling are junior bulls. Although I am slightly nervous, I hope we have made the right, calculated decision.”

Hard work has certainly paid off for their Denizes Simmental herd, with the family’s top price at Stirling standing at 17,000gns, secured for Denizes Amazon in 2011. In the same sale, they also had top price female with the female champion, Denizes Nelly, selling for 9,200gns.
Top price

Last February they secured the top price female with Denizes Melody 12, selling with a calf at foot for 5,400gns.


John says he much prefers attending sales rather than shows as they are more about the business side of things. However, John and his father regularly attend the major county and national shows to increase awareness of their herd and advertise their stock to other breeders.


The Barlows dominated last year’s Royal Highland Show, winning the breed championship with their Irish-bred heifer Auroch Eve, which just had a bull calf by Dinton Nautical.

 

Champion


“Securing the top two prices at Stirling in February 2011 was more important to me than winning any show. No other breeder has sold both the top price male and female Simmental in the same sale before,” says John, who has clinched the female champion rosette four times at Stirling.


The Barlows have invested in 13 carefully selected Simmental bull breeding families over the years, only buying accredited stock. The farm is in a four-year TB testing zone, accredited free of Johne’s and BVD since 2011.


One of their favourite buys is the 16,500gns Ranfurly Beauty 5, bought from Northern Ireland’s David Hazelton. Currently holding the record for the highest priced female in the breed, it is in the farm’s flushing programme and its first son, Denizes Exclusive, is now a Genus ABS bull.

Calving

Aiming to build their Simmental herd, which runs alongside Limousins and commercial sucklers, to 100 calvings per year, bull selection is based on a few, select criteria.


“Locomotion and structural correctness – for example, no high tails or ugly heads – are the first elements we look for when picking out bulls to sell. Bulls sometimes have to walk miles when serving cows,” says John.


“Secondly, pedigree is obviously important. We pay close attention to estimated breeding values for calving ease growth rates, as these are what matters for the commercial buyer.”


Breeding includes a mixture of AI and stock bulls, with about 10 embryos put in per year. With the farm also home to a milking herd of 60 Meuse Rhine Issel cows, those are used as recipients.

 

Influence


John says the biggest influence on the herd has been from Ashland Tornado, a bull bought as a four-month-old calf from Pat and Frank Kelly, Ireland. Six of the eight bulls forward for Stirling are out of Tornado daughters.


Denizes Fantastic, a Tornado grandson, is one of the most promising bulls in the Barlows’ pen. At 14-months-old, it is the youngest bull out of the eight and the eleventh youngest in the catalogue. Michael and John plan to take semen from Fantastic before the sale to keep his powerful breeding in the herd.

Nerves

Looking forward to Stirling, John says it is the undoubted highlight of the bull sale calendar.


“Stirling attracts the best bulls, the most buyers and is the most notorious event. The atmosphere is amazing when the bulls are in the ring.”


Admitting he has some pre-sale nerves, John accepts the low milk price has filtered through the whole cattle industry.

 

Demand


The farm’s store cattle are sold at Lancaster auction all year round, selling young stock bulls to dairy farmers. Demand for surplus Denizes heifers regularly outstrips supply, he says.


“We cannot keep up with demand for heifers at the moment and this year we probably sold too many, which slowed down our plans to grow the herd, but ensured we could provide our customers with some Denizes breeding.


“With the market so strong, we plan to reduce Limousin numbers to meet the growing interest in Simmentals.”

Denizes Farm facts

  • 200 beef cattle, including Simmentals, Limousins and commercials
  • Milking herd of 60 Meuse Rhine Issel cows, averaging 7,000kg per lactation, plus replacements
  • Milk supplied to Arla on a cheese contract and dairy bulls sold off-farm
  • 140 hectares (346 acres) across three neighbouring farms
  • Michael and two of his sons, Matthew and John manage the dairy and beef enterprises.
  • Also helping are his other two sons, Thomas, who is studying agriculture at Harper Adams; and Sam, who works for Genus while running his flock of 30 pedigree Texel ewes which he started in 2013

Biggest trailer dealership in UK

Michael Barlow, his two brothers Graeme and John, and their father John senior are partners in a dealership selling Ifor Williams trailers and Equi-Trek wagons.

The trailer business was started by John senior and his wife Kathleen. He made his first trailer out of an old bed frame while working on his family farm. Once made, he hired it out and, as demand grew, the business was founded.

The Ifor Williams dealership started in January 1991 and has grown to become the biggest business of its kind in the UK, selling 12 trailers per day.

Including family members, the business has 20 full-time staff, selling trailers nationwide and beyond, including Ireland, Europe, Libya and Kuwait.

Dealing with new and second-hand trailers, the firm has 100 hire trailers and a parts business.
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