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Farm focus: AI improves genetic potential for newly established suckler herd

Beef producer, Amy Gordon, says switching her herd to artificial insemination (AI) is one of the best things she has done for her business profitability.


Moving towards artificial insemination (AI) is all part of a broader plan for Amy Gordon’s family’s Riddle Farm, Loxhore, North Devon.


She has embarked on a programme of grassland improvement, has tightened up calving from 26 to 11 weeks and is raising the genetic standard of the cattle - all with the aim of maximising productivity from the farm’s 93 hectares (230 acres).


Even before she returned home from studying at Harper Adams University College to work full-time on-farm in 2012, Miss Gordon and her father, Glyn, had laid the herd’s foundations on which she would build.


She says: “We had been in dairy farming until about eight years ago, but the dairy unit needed lots of investment, so we made the decision to switch to beef.”


The British Friesian cattle were bred to a Simmental bull and the cross-bred heifers were kept as the basis of the suckler herd.


“Dad used Blondes on the cross-bred heifers because we knew they would be easy calving and muscle up well,” she says.


However, by the time Miss Gordon returned to the farm, she had not only completed her degree in agriculture, but had also trained and fine-tuned the art of artificial insemination and wanted to put it to use at home.


She says: “Using AI on the farm opened up so many opportunities, and the first thing we did was to switch to the Charolais as the main terminal breed.


“All our calves are sold liveweight at Cutcombe market, and I knew you would struggle to beat the growth of a high performing Charolais.”


Sire choice

Sire choice

Choosing her sires carefully with high Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for growth rates and carcase traits, she also paid close attention to predicted calving ease.


With the introduction of AI also came the opportunity to tighten up calving, which Miss Gordon says was essential to her business plan.


“We wanted to seriously reduce the block calving period for the simple reason we do not want to keep calves through the winter,” she says.


“Previously something born in, say, August would have been sold at three or four months, but by calving everything earlier and selling at eight or nine months, we are covering the overhead of keeping the cow and making money on the sale of the calf.”


This year’s calvings ran within the target 11 weeks, starting on February 26 and finishing on May 18.


“This means we’ll have big, strong calves to sell this autumn, and also have well-grown replacements available for two year calving,” says Miss Gordon.


To keep a supply of replacements she has opted to serve about 20 per cent of the herd to native breeds, selecting Aberdeen-Angus and Hereford with good EBVs for maternal calving ease and choosing some as sexed female semen.


“These smaller breeds tend to do well on our farm, which runs up to 750ft,” she says. “By going for natives, we can keep more animals and produce more calves from the same land.”


Since Miss Gordon’s return to the farm, the suckler herd has increased from 65 to 105 head and two crops of calves have been sold at market, with the third well on the way.

Calf performance

Calf performance

The difference in calf performance through the choice of high EBV sires has perhaps resulted in the most profound change of all.


“Our Charolais cross calves last year averaged 314kg at weaning when they went into the ring,” she says. “In previous years, calves of about the same age averaged 250kg and they had been fed far more concentrate.”


Daily liveweight gain has increased from 0.9kg/day to 1.25kg day (achieved off grass, with creep only added from September) and prices have noticeably improved.


“Our best sale last autumn was for a group of nine Charolais steers, which averaged 360kg and went for £942 per head,” she says.


“Even our average price for the year was £750 for an average weight of 300kg and this includes all natives and heifers,” she adds.


Clearly delighted with their performance, Miss Gordon says while the whole farm strategy, including better grassland management, has played an essential part, the results could not have been achieved without the right genetics.


“The difference between the calves we used to sell and the calves we sell now is like chalk and cheese,” she says.


“Of course the grass is important, but they do not get that shape just because of grass - that comes down to genetics.”


Equally important to the system, she says, is the ability to choose easy-calving sires, not just for the health of the calf, but for the performance of the dam.

Early growth

“Cows which calve easily get back in-calf quickly and that is what the system depends upon,” she says.


“Every day’s worth of growth before autumn is worth £3 per kg, so the sooner she gets in-calf, the better it is for the bottom line.”

A further key benefit she identifies is the lack of any bull at all on-farm.


“You would need four bulls for a herd of this size at the accepted rate of one bull per 30 cows for a seasonally calving herd,” says Miss Gordon.


“Last year, the most we served in one day was 16 cows, and even four bulls could not achieve that.”


Similarly, she says she would have to compromise on genetic quality if she bought her own bulls.


“We choose a range of different bulls to do different things, such as easy calving for the heifers, maternal lines to breed replacements and the best performing terminal sires to breed the calves for market,” she says.


“For instance, Thrunton Fairfax was used last year for his incredible terminal index - in the Charolais breed’s top 1 per cent - and he also has high 400 and 600-day weights, together with short gestations and easily-born calves.


“He was bought for 18,000gns - I could not possibly afford one, let alone four like that to use on our herd,” she says.


Another she has used heavily is Alwent Goldbar, selected again for his top 1 per cent EBVs, including 400 and 600-day weights, as well as eye muscle area, retail beef yield and terminal index.


Despite the added hassle of dealing with AI, Miss Gordon says she has no doubt at all it is worth it for her farm.


“There is no question it is worth it for the high genetic merit bulls we could not afford to buy ourselves,” she says. “But it is also worth it because we do not have to find a place to keep four bulls.”


She says the herd’s high health status is not put at risk. All cows and heifers can be kept and handled as a single group and non-cycling cows are spotted early and dealt with immediately.


“I absolutely love being able to produce a good calf. And I reckon it does not cost any more to buy the semen than it would cost to keep four bulls.”

Heat detection and AI on Riddle Farm

  • There were concerns about heat expression in the absence of a bull but this is said to be unproblematic through regular handling and observation of a calm herd of cows.
  • Kamars and chalk are used, and the cattle are observed for signs of hear for 15 minutes three or four times a day.
  • The herd is brought into the yard every day for the 11-week service period and inseminations during that time become a matter of routine.
  • Conception rates to first service have averaged 75 per cent for conventional semen which confirms the success of heat detection, while even the sexed semen on heifers achieved a 60 per cent conception rate to first service.
  • Anything not seen bulling within three weeks of calving will have a veterinary check and once its health is established, it will be put on an ovsynch programme to kick start the next heat.
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