With a passion for Aberdeen-Angus cattle, renowned breeder Geordie Soutar speaks to Katrina Macarthur about his family’s dedication to preserving the breed, and his most recent royal accolade.
It is not every day a pedigree cattle breeder is awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List, but this year native Aberdeen-Angus cattle breeder Geordie Soutar will be the sole representative from the county of Angus heading to Buckingham Palace to receive the prestigious silver medal.
Geordie is credited with saving native Aberdeen-Angus cattle from extinction and is hugely recognised all over the world for his and his family’s efforts in keeping and maintaining a global genetic pool of native Angus cattle.
Since the establishment of the Dunlouise herd in 1995, owners Geordie and Julia, son Duncan and daughter Louise, have attracted huge interest from all over the globe for semen, embryos and live cattle from their nine original cow families which date back 200 years in the breed’s first herd book.
Geordie, who is based at Kingston, on the outskirts of Kingsmuir, near Forfar, in Angus, says: “When I found out in November that I was receiving an MBE, I was surprised but absolutely delighted.
“I’ve huge belief in native Aberdeen-Angus cattle and have supporters from all over the world in what I do. It’s great to be credited for breeding these cattle as it’s really just a way of life for me and the family.”
Geordie started his career working with Forfar auctioneering company Scott and Graham, and spent a lot of time working with cattle, particularly Aberdeen-Angus. Thereafter, he was a grain merchant in the local area and during that time decided to look into buying his first Angus cattle.
“From the 1970s onwards, breeders were looking for size and power in Angus cattle so by the time I was looking to invest in native-bred cattle, there was less than 50 left in the country, with the majority bred from North American bloodlines,” says Geordie.
“We knew it was going to take some time to find progeny which weren’t crossed with imported genetics and travelled as far south as Devon and up to Aberdeenshire to do so.”
“Eventually, after 12 years, we secured all nine families having purchased our first female in Carlisle and the second at the old Perth Bull Sales. The more we bred with the natives, the more we fell in love with them and this has led us to be the only herd in the world with all original nine cow families.”
It is very much a family effort at Kingston, with son Duncan, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and daughter Louise, a vet near Kirremuir, both heavily involved in the running of the 50-cow herd which is appropriately named after them.
The strong demand and interest for low cost, grass-fed cattle from breeders all over the world led to the family hosting an on-farm production sale in June 2017.
Around 700 people flocked to Kingston that day to purchase live animals, embryo and semen, with individual lots sold under the hammer to breeders in various countries.
Trade reached a top of 16,000gns for Dunlouise Newman and six frozen Dunlouise Red Nessie embryos sold for 6600gns each.
Julia, who has travelled all over the world with Geordie to see their genetics on foreign ground, says: “The Dunlouise sale really moved things forward and added another dimension to what we do.
“A breeder who attended the sale from Texas was bidding against another breeder on the telephone from Australia – it really was impressive and certainly helped to put our name on the world map.”
Since the sale, the herd has increased exports all over the world, particularly to Uruguay and Australia, with South America being the family’s main market for semen straws and embryos.
Geordie says: “Uruguay has become a major player as breeders over there want cattle that can survive in a hard environment and finish solely on grass using no implants to produce a high-quality beef carcase.
“In Australia, Coles Supermarket is where the majority of producers’ beef is sold and it’s the native Angus that continues to meet their specifications. They want smaller carcases at 280kg, finished entirely off grass but still marbled with 12ml of back fat.
“Overseas breeders want cattle with a vital organ capacity so they can utilise poorer forage in harsher environments.”
Geordie also says that the native cattle can survive droughts in Australia and recover far quicker than other Aberdeen-Angus genetics, and that breeders in South America tend to buy semen straws in big quantities.
“The last order we sent out was 1,700 straws and that was to one breeder who looks after two herds of more than 10,000 cows,” says Geordie.
“In countries where vast quantities of beef is produced we often send 50 embryos at a time to customers.”
Bulls from Dunlouise have also been sold to pedigree and commercial breeders throughout the UK as they look to breed low cost, grass-fed cattle.
The herd calves all-year round and females are regularly flushed to meet demands from overseas breeders.
Cows weigh around 600kg and are capable of calving inside or out without assistance, producing smaller but vigorous calves which are always quick to their feet and drinking.
Calves are weaned at eight to nine months of age and no creep feed is provided, with bull calves fed oats and turnips and heifers given silage only. Those not kept on for breeding can be finished solely off grass at 300-320kg within 18-20 months of age and are sold to MacDonald Brothers Butchers in Pitlochry and Aberfeldy.
“Grass is a major crop here, so the cattle are often grazed on young grass with a lot of clover,” says Geordie.
“There is no magic in feed here and our sheds aren’t suitable for feed wagons so the cows only receive home-grown silage or hay, and get turnips added to their diet prior to flushing.
“We’re fairly rigid when it comes to retaining stock for breeding as Louise and I will go through them thoroughly, and if we have to look at them twice, we castrate the bulls and put the females for finishing.”
The Soutar family is extremely confident that the beef produced from their grass finished cattle is of a very high quality, as it has been shown to be high in Omega-3, and believe more breeders in this country will eventually look to breeding with more sustainable cattle, such as the native Angus.
Geordie says: “There is no question about it – these cattle are going to be the way to go. They’re sustainable, low maintenance and can meet the demands of smaller carcases, yet can still produce smaller but equally thicker steaks, allowing them to be cooked medium rare. If consumers say they are going to eat less meat, they’ll certainly eat better quality beef.”
Julia, who is equally as passionate about the breed, says that the family are at a point where they cannot ‘produce the animals, embryos and semen fast enough.’
The demand is constant and is testament to their hard work and dedication to building up a network of breeders and even friends in many different parts of the world.