Consideration for the rural environment and future generations underpins the ethos of the Hean Castle Estate’s diverse commercial interests. Hereford cattle are at the heart of its cattle operation, which are backed by performance recording. Debbie James reports.
There is a common theme running through the enterprises under the commercial umbrella of the Hean Castle Estate near Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire.
High standards are applied to its holiday parks, property portfolio, beach centre, holiday cottages and forestry and firewood business – and to its farm.
The Home Farm had for decades produced milk, originally from a Dairy Shorthorn herd and latterly from Holstein Friesians.
But in 2014 the economics of running a 120-cow herd forced a choice.
Estate trustee David Lewis, whose family have been custodians of the estate for five generations, says: “As was the case with many smaller herds, we either had to invest in new facilities and increase cow numbers or exit milk production.”
Six years on and high demand for breeding stock and an expanding beef finishing enterprise validate the decision to switch to suckler beef production.
Mr Lewis explains when researching cattle breeds the focus was on a native, low input breed.
“The Hereford was the perfect choice,” he says.
“We initially bought from local breeders, including the Laxfield and Studdolph herds, and have grown from there.”
To accommodate the new herd, the estate has invested in a substantial new building with straw-bedded loose housing and handling facilities, with dedicated calving and bull pens.
“It was a significant investment, but if we were going to do it, we wanted to do it right, not just for this generation but for future ones,” says Mr Lewis.
A key ambition was to minimise labour requirements. The new facilities allow the herd to be run with just two staff – David Burnhill and his assistant.
Mr Burnhill joined the workforce a year after the herd was established when John Phillips, who had managed the dairy herd for many years and had taken on responsibility for the beef herd, retired.
The Yorkshireman had previously managed an Aberdeen-Angus herd in northern England.
He brought a razor-sharp knowledge of pedigree beef breeding, applying his understanding of EBVs and performance recording to developing the herd.
“We did make good decisions in those early days and some errors of judgement. We have continued to breed from the good lines and the errors have left the herd,” says Mr Lewis.
“When David started to apply EBVs and numbers to the job, that is when things really started to take shape.”
Mr Burnhill does not hail from a family of farmers. His father was an accountant and his mother a school teacher.
“They encouraged me to do whatever job made me happy, as long as I did it well. I have always worked with cattle,” he says.
His focus is on breeding good breed types and it is a bonus if they also perform well in the showring, he says.
“I want good looks and high health status, as well as the most appropriate EBVs,” he says.
“The Hereford has a lovely temperament and has that milkiness that make the cows exceptional mothers.”
An animal with pointed shoulders has no place in the Hean herd, Mr Burnhill insists.
“I like animals with thicker tops,” he says. “Pointy shoulders belong in the dairy herd.”#
For that reason, some genetics have been sourced from the Australian Wirruna herd.
The result is cattle with great width, thickness and style, but most importantly of similar ‘type’, says Mr Burnhill.
“Netherhall 1 Oz Daffy has bred well for us, as have Wirruna Daffy, Wirruna Katnook, Solpoll 1 Kentucky Kid and Solpoll 1 Pounder,” he says.
Normanton 1 Nuclear has also been used successfully, with progeny including current stock bull Hean 1 Rebel, which was shown with success at the 2019 Royal Welsh Show.
Sires are initially selected by eye or bloodline, which is followed by scrutiny of their EBVs.
The aim is easy calving and low birth weight, alongside good growth figures.
“You have to go a bit negative on calving to get performance, but not too much,” Mr Burnhill says.
“If we can gain another 50kg of weight by using a specific bull, it has got to be considered. It is about striking a happy medium between looks and performance.”
Calves are weaned at nine months using nose flaps, which Mr Burnhill says ‘take the stress out of the job’.
Ultrasound scanning is undertaken annually to assess carcase quality and produce the relevant EBVs.
The extensive use of EBVs has meant cattle are fit for slaughter off grass as early as 18 months, with steers averaging 320kg deadweight.
Cattle are sold to Dunbia on the Hereford scheme and through direct sales too, to the newly established ‘Copper Hog’ butcher’s shop in Tenby.
The estate currently supplies the business with one animal a month, but is hoping to increase this as the business gains traction.
“The animals are slaughtered locally in Haverfordwest and we supply the butcher with a copy of the pedigree certificate and the management report from our software,” Mr Lewis explains.
“These give the customer all the information about the animal. It is a great marketing tool for the rest of the estate too.”
The sale of breeding bulls was initially seen as a bonus with the central focus on producing finished cattle.
However pedigree sales and showing help to spread the Hean name and ‘adds a bit of fun to the job’, says Mr Lewis.
“It is a shop window, which is an important consideration in a crowded marketplace,” he says.
“It is important that the herd establishes a reputation for high quality stock, to enable us to compete with some of the longer established household names.”
The herd first tasted major success in the showring with Hean 1 Noble at the 2017 Hereford autumn show and sale where it was placed reserve junior male champion.
In 2019, further success followed when the herd was placed twice in breed classes at the Royal Welsh Show on its first visit.
Due to demand and good genetic choices, bull sales are increasing.
Notable among these sales is the purchase by Genus ABS of Hean 1 Roscoe in 2019, together with sales to other pedigree herds.
Stock bulls include Roscoe’s sire, Romany 1 Nailer.
His females are now coming through and already making their mark with a daughter winning the breed championship at St Clears Show in 2019.
Another stock bull is Panmure 1 Pedro, which sired Hean 1 Sedgely, which was placed second at AgriExpo 2019.
Northern Irish-bred Solpoll 1 Superduty, was purchased in the spring of 2020.
“Solpoll bloodlines have bred well for us, and we are excited to see what Superduty will bring to the herd,” says Mr Burnhill.
A number of embryo transfers have been completed to maximise the impact of existing leading cow families within the herd.
All bulls are purchased privately to protect the high health status of the Hean herd, which is accredited free of BVD and IBR and is at the lowest level of risk for Johne’s.
Calves are vaccinated for ringworm, blackleg, pneumonia and leptospirosis and the females for BVD.
Adult cattle are vaccinated for IBR and BVD.
Bulls runs with the cows for 12 weeks but the ambition is to tighten the calving period.
Calving got underway on March 14 this year and finished in mid-June, but the hope is to reduce this by two weeks in 2021.
The cattle are at grass from April to October and set-stocked.
The farm has not gone down the route of rotational grazing because a balance needs to be struck with other considerations.
“A lot of the grazing is on historic parkland, it has to look good aesthetically as well as be efficient,” Mr Lewis explains.
The farm has now established a rotation where older leys are removed, and winter wheat is grown for wholecrop to provide an important source of winter feed for finishing cattle and
autumn calvers. This year it will provide bedding too as the quality of the 7-hectare (17-acre) crop was so good it was combined to provide grain for crimping and straw for bedding.
Reseeding is concentrated on growing grass leys with a heavy clover content which helps put an early finish on the cattle, removing the need for those animals to be housed for a second winter.
“We are heading towards being as self-sufficient as possible,” says Mr Lewis.
The ambition is to grow numbers in the 80-cow herd to 150 by retaining home-bred heifers, to improve output and to continue the mission of minimising costs within the business.
“We have got 400 acres in-hand, and when we get to the point of being fully stocked and producing all our own feed and bedding, we will be happy,” says Mr Lewis.
“The herd is never going to be the most profitable enterprise on the estate, but we have always been an agricultural estate and hope to be for many more years.”
Running the herd with the sole intention of supplying good quality beef would in itself be a sound business proposition.
But, he adds: “Breeding quality livestock is a good fit for the ethos of the Hean Castle Estate.
“The name is synonymous with high quality and we are on course to achieving this with the herd.”