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Quality is key to beef production at Glenbervie

This summer, Glenbervie Estate will be playing host to visitors to the World Aberdeen-Angus Forum, providing an opportunity for members to see a prize-winning herd. Ewan Pate reports.

Glenbervie Estate, Aberdeenshire

  • 810-hectare (2,000-acre) estate
  • Three let farms
  • 445ha (1,100 acres) in-hand, including 162ha (400 acres) of woodland
  • 182ha (450 acres) of arable crops, including cereals and rented-out potato land
  • 200 cows calved each year, including 25 replacement heifers
  • Farm manager John Lohoar and two staff; also two gardeners and a part-time gamekeeper/handyman
  • The designed landscaped area around Glenbervie House features a walled garden with a replica of the large original greenhouse constructed in 2012
  • The grandparents of poet Robert Burns are buried in nearby Glenbervie graveyard. His grandfather was a tenant farmer on the estate

Policy governing the beef enterprise at Glenbervie Home Farm is straightforward, unwavering and based on producing the best quality beef from marginal land.

Back in 1992, Stewart Macphie, former owner of the Glenbervie Estate, decided the time was ripe for a fundamental change in breeding policy, which had been based on cross-bred cows run with Limousin bulls.

The decision coincided with the arrival of John Lohoar as manager and, after much deliberation and a number of herd and abattoir visits, it was decided if quality was the number one objective, Aberdeen-Angus, was the breed to go for. There was to be a no crossing policy and the herd would be kept pure and pedigree.

This was more than just a simple farming decision, because the late Mr Macphie and his son Alastair, who has succeeded him, have a heavy involvement in the food industry.

Their Macphie of Glenbervie bakery ingredients business, originally based in Glasgow, moved to Glenbervie, near Stonehaven, in 1973.

It now operates from state-of-the-art premises right in the heart of the estate, with about 250 staff employed in what must be one of the most picturesque factory settings in the UK. This background in the food business gave Stewart Macphie a clear understanding of the importance of consistency and quality, and the beef enterprise, with its 200 cows, has been bred with this in mind.

Mr Lohoar, an Aberdeen-Angus enthusiast who judged at the Stirling bull sales in February, has steered clear of extreme types and selected herd sires carefully to produce a medium-sized cow with good conformation.

The herd has been closed to everything but purchased sires since it was founded in 1992.

He says: “For a foundation, we bought 20 females from the Massies at Blelack, then 37 from Fairoaks, near Inverness.

“Fairoaks females had a lot of Newcairnie breeding in them and, although these were smaller and dumpier than the fashion at the time, they were grand females. These bloodlines are still important in the herd.”

A number of the herd sires are home-bred with purchases made judiciously and always at the breeder’s farm rather than through auction for reasons of biosecurity. In recent years, bulls have come from the Blelack, Tonley and Skaill herds.

Emphasis on herd health has always been there through Glenbervie’s membership of the SAC Premium Cattle Health Scheme. In recent times however, there has been a need to tackle Johne’s disease.

Mr Lohoar says: “We had a significant problem which had to be addressed and we were invited to join the Paraban project. It has now completed its five-year run, but we are working with Paraban Reloaded, which is essentially a knowledge exchange platform.”

Working with vets, a twice-a-year blood and dung testing regime, followed by strict culling of positives, was implemented, along with careful monitoring.

This has resulted in a much-improved situation. There are now no clinical signs of Johne’s disease, with only the occasional blood test positive.

Mr Lohoar says: “If we do have a positive, it is culled within a week. The Paraban project also uncovered an intriguing link between low soil pH and prevalence of Johne’s disease. I am not sure how it works, but it appears lime applications kill bacteria in soil. We are now liming and reseeding continually.

“I am convinced the cleaner a herd is the better and I cannot understand farmers who fight BVD regulations.”

No female stock is purchased and bought-in bulls are tested as soon as they arrive. The 445-hectare (1,100-acre) Glenbervie Home Farm is situated at the north end of Howe o’ The Mearns, between Laurencekirk and Stonehaven, and about 182ha (450 acres) of it is suitable for wheat, malting barley and seed potatoes.

Permanent grassland is steep in places and the soil type is really too heavy for successful outwintering. The 175 cows and 25 in-calf heifers are all housed in strawed courts in November, with calves weaned a few weeks later. The overwintering ration for cows is bale silage, straw, minerals and a small amount of protein, all fed through a mixer wagon.

Mr Lohoar says: “Rations for various batches of cattle are all stored in the computer on board the tractor and it is easy to make up or change rations as we go along. We pay a lot of attention to making good quality, high dry matter bale silage.”

Cows are described as ‘easy care’ in terms of their rations and their April to August calving pattern. Most calve outdoors without assistance.

The marketing programme has been changed over the years. Originally, the plan was to market beef through the Glenbervie Aberdeen-Angus label and, at one stage, 70 Aberdeen-Angus cattle per week were being sourced from a supply group, including their own herd.

Sadly, the aftermath of the 1996 BSE debacle saw the end of the venture. It was followed by a rather disappointing supply arrangement with a major supermarket which thought ‘meat was meat’ and saw little point paying a premium. A deal with a local butcher was far more satisfactory, but this ended when the proprietor retired.

Now, a natural fit has been achieved by supplying all primestock to Scotbeef at Bridge of Allan. Scotbeef has supplied Aberdeen-Angus beef to Marks and Spencer for many years and does pay a premium for the breed.

M&S award

Glenbervie Home Farm received the Aberdeen-Angus Supplier of the Year award last year, presented by Marks and Spencer and its wholesale supplier Scotbeef.

Lorna Foubister, Scotbeef livestock liaison, says: “The competition is open to all of our producers who finish more than 40 cattle in a 12-month period and we took the top 20 producers who fell into the category.

“There were three parts to the competition; the first part was the grades of cattle which went to Scotbeef over the past year and met the select farm criteria of M&S.

“Part two was to choose steaks from each producer and run scientific tests looking at tenderness, succulence and flavour.

“This was followed by a farm visit from husband and wife Peter and Pat Alexander of Mains of Mause Farm, Perthshire, who judged the welfare and appearance of animals, on-farm practices, grassland management and environmental impact.”

Mr Lohoar is a regular visitor to the Bridge of Allan abattoir and is always keen to see how his cattle look on the hook.

All Glenbervie male calves are castrated, except for any with breeding potential, and Mr Lohoar is convinced of the quality benefits of beef from bullocks.

His strategy of breeding medium-sized cows is paying off too, with their offspring producing in-specification carcases weighing 360kg deadweight at 22 months and grading R4L or better. Bullocks are despatched from Glenbervie in batches of 10 and an American-style handling system, manufactured to Mr Lohoar’s design, makes handling and loading easy.

All cattle are clipped before leaving the farm and heifers are marketed differently. Here, there is an added bonus from keeping the herd pedigree. Once replacements have been selected, most of the rest are reared with exports in mind. Working with Hexham-based Eggs Port, Glenbervie has built up a European market for youngstock in Romania and Germany.

Mr Lohoar says: “The latest destination is Spain, with reports coming back to say buyers are pleased with their Aberdeen-Angus heifers and neighbours have been impressed. Hopefully, this will lead to more orders.”

Heifers tend to leave in lorry loads rather than small batches. This leaves only a small number of heifers for sale as primestock to Scotbeef.

All things told, the plan laid out in 1992 has worked well and lived up to Stewart Macphie’s intention of having a ‘saleable label’.

World Aberdeen-Angus Forum

The World Aberdeen-Angus Forum is to be based in Scotland in June 2017 and the Glenbervie herd will have a prominent place in the post-forum programme.

An expected 600 delegates will visit the Royal Highland Show before heading north for farm visits.

During their time with the North of Scotland Aberdeen-Angus Club, there will be a visit to Ballindalloch Castle, Speyside, home to the breed’s oldest herd in continuous existence.

Delegates will also travel to Tillyfour, Aberdeenshire, once the home of William McCombie, one of the founders of the breed, then to Glenbervie.

There will also be herd visits arranged elsewhere in Scotland as part of the post-forum tour. The forum itself is to be held in Edinburgh.

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