The South Devon Herd Book Society celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. Laura Bowyer visited its oldest herd to see what the breed means to them.
Flicking through an 1891 first edition of the South Devon Herd Book, Robert Shinner explains how his family’s farm is home to the country’s oldest pedigree herd of the breed.
It was 1858 when the Shinner family began their tenancy of Stretchford Farm, Buckfastleigh, from the Church Commissioners and they are still the resident family farming there now.
In those days, the South Devon was considered a dual-purpose breed, with half the cows milked while the rest were double suckled.
The Shinners stopped milking South Devons in the late 1970s. This was, they say, partly due to the rise in popularity of specialist milking breeds which the South Devon could not compete with. Increasing traffic on the A384, which splits the farm, also made crossing the cows dangerous at the time.
Thanks to the dual-purpose nature of the breed, Robert says they were able to make a smooth transition from milk and beef production to purely beef, which is where the breed is placed today.
In its 125 years, the society has seen many changes and developments. In 1950, virtually all animals in the herd book were from Devon and Cornwall, says Robert, whereas the breed is now much more spread, with 50 per cent in the South West and the remainder across the rest of the country.
The family runs a 100-cow closed suckler herd, except when buying bulls. Stretchford Farm spans 142 hectares (350 acres), using 28ha (70 acres) to produce cereals for feed, including oats, wheat and barley.
Bulls are sold privately and through society sales
Robert and his son James firmly believe in the capabilities of the South Devon breed.
James says: “No matter what breed the South Devon is crossed with, continental or native, it will always result in a good quality calf with excellent growth potential, strong beef characteristics and a quiet temperament.”
The farm has three stock bulls: Eyton Sunshine 5, Stretchford Icarus and Stretchford Herman 3. Icarus and Sunshine are both producing polled calves.
Robert says: “When we select bulls, we are looking for a strong face, good locomotion, a good top line with a wide thick loin, width and depth in the hindquarters and scope. It needs to stand above the cows in the field.”
James says: “We like to have bulls to produce stock to suit every market place while still maintaining the breed’s characteristics. The breed is so adaptable and can respond to any situation it finds itself in.”
First cut silage sees 36 hectares (90 acres) cut and ensiled with the use of a forage wagon, which allows them to fill the clamp in layers from fields of grass and red clover.
Second cut is 36ha (90 acres) in bales followed by a third cut of just the red clover mix.
Although predominantly a maternal breed, Robert says the South Devon is increasingly being used with commercial suckler herds to breed replacements, or as a terminal sire to produce quality marbled beef.
Bulls for breeding are sold under two years of age, selling off-farm and through society sales.
Robert says: “We are selective with what we sell as breeding bulls. Repeat customers are important.”
All bull calves from the herd have been kept entire since the early 1980s, to sell deadweight up to 400kg. Finishers get 7kg per head of home mix per day, on top of silage.
Two thirds of the females are kept on-farm to enter the herd as replacements. The rest are sold on, either for breeding or fattening. They aim for cows to be between 850-900kg and say income from cull cows is also important to the farm and breed, with many achieving £1,150-£1,300 at the end of their working lives.
It is a high health status herd, free of IBR, BVD and Johne’s, and they vaccinate for leptospirosis as their land occupies 1.25 miles of boundary with the River Dart.
Soil poaching is a problem due to heavy clay land. Cattle are housed from late September until mid-April and calving takes place from late November until the end of May.
James says: “We do not like calving in summer, which is such a busy time of the year for us. We like to spread our calving period to make our cashflow more consistent through the year.”
The area is ravaged with TB and, with the region carrying such a high number of South Devons, the breed’s progression is being affected by no fault of its own says Robert.
He believes more of the breed would be sold further up the country if it was not for the South West’s TB stigma, but semen is available to combat this situation.
The family are heavily involved in the society, recently hosting a show preparation day for young South Devon showmen and last year James was one of three judges of the society’s national herd competition.
Robert was society president in 2014, a year when the breed won the Royal Welsh Fitzhugh Pairs competition, a moment he describes as one to the proudest of his life.
Robert says: “We are lucky to be part of such a progressive and forward-thinking society which encourages and helps its members to record performance, test DNA, and achieve as high a health status as possible for their herds.
“There is no reason to change what we are doing. The breed has enabled five generations of our family to make a living here. It has actually enabled us to recently buy our farm from the Church Commissioners to secure our futures.”
Alongside the cattle, the Shinners keep 250 ewes, comprising Galway crosses and Suffolk crosses, selling lambs through Exeter market.
Lambing in April, Robert says the lambs will grow but their farm does not lend itself to finishing.
They feed home-mix through a snacker later in the year to finish lambs alongside the red clover leys. They like to feed cobs to ewes pre-lambing.
James also runs his own flock of 25 pedigree Jacob ewes. Selling the meat himself, which he claims has a superior taste, he also sells the skins for rugs.
He says: “We are lucky because we have an abattoir three miles away in Ashburton and there is a tannery here in Buckfastleigh.”