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Upsall herd looking to repeat 2016 success at Great Yorkshire

Industry stalwart and noted cattle breeder Gerald Turton is hoping his team of Beef Shorthorns will be in the ribbons at this year’s breed society national show, which is being held at the Great Yorkshire Show. Wendy Short reports.

L-R: George McCulloch, Gerald Turton, Maureen McCulloch and Robin Turton.
L-R: George McCulloch, Gerald Turton, Maureen McCulloch and Robin Turton.

Farm facts

  • Upsall Castle farm is part of the 404-hectare (1,000-acre) Upsall and Roxby Estates
  • The farm includes 149ha (370 acres) of grassland, with the leys re-seeded on a regular basis
  • The land ranges from clay to shale
  • The herd has been performance-recorded since 1996
  • Heifers are served at two years old

Gerald Turton’s 2017 national show team will be led by Khyber of Upsall, a young bull by a son of Mandalong Super Elephant, followed by Jilt 1128 of Upsall, a Grenadier of Upsall daughter. The third team member is Clipper 1113 of Upsall, a heifer by Dingo of Upsall.

Only time will tell whether one out of the trio will match the success achieved at last year’s event, which saw Ury Maid 963 of Upsall crowned breed champion. It was shown by herdsman Ian Park, who has since retired. Ury Maid is another by Dingo, in turn a son of the Australian Broughton Park Thunder. Thunder also sired Glenisla Jackpot, which achieved the record-breaking breed price of 26,000gns at Stirling this year.

Gerald says: “Thunder is a trait leader for birth weight, with figures of +10.9 for calving ease, -1.6 for gestation length and an eye muscle score of +3.3. He has been a positive influence on the herd and has produced some useful females with exceptionally good udders.”

The 80-cow Upsall herd has been grazing the fields on the Upsall Estate in North Yorkshire for more than a century and like other pedigree breeders, Gerald is always on the look-out for new genetics to bring improvements to his stamp of cattle. Over the past three years, he has developed a new line of stock bulls, with the emphasis on ease of calving. One particular animal was produced through a stroke of sheer good fortune, he explains.

“Firefox of Upsall, now six years old, was the result of finding a single straw at the bottom of the semen storage tank,” he says. “It was from the Australian polled sire, Mandalong Super Elephant, which was born in 1971. He sold for a record-breaking price of 30,000 Australian dollars at the time and also broke the record for the heaviest beef bull ever to be put forward at the Sydney show, weighing in at 1,240kg.

“The Super Elephant straw was used on a heifer to produce Firefox, a totally white bull with an excellent record of easy calving on both cows and heifers. He may not fit in with the current trend, but I believe following fashions in cattle breeding can get you into trouble.”

Some 15 breeding bulls aged 16-24 months are sold from the herd each year; either through the breed society sales or to private buyers. At this year’s Stirling sale, Jason of Upsall, a Glenisla Zetor son, attracted a 14,000gns bid from Geoff Riby of Bridlington. At the same event in 2016, Hussar of Upsall commanded the breed top price, after being knocked down at 9,500gns. It sold to the County Antrim-based Glenarm Castle Estates, which supplies beef to a number of high-class restaurants in Paris. A batch of 15-18 heifers is also offered on an annual basis at the society’s November sale at Skipton.

Going further back in time, every male trophy winner in the breed categories in the 2005 Stirling sale carried an Upsall prefix and at that moment, Gerald really felt he had ’struck the right balance’ within his female lines.

He says: “Beef Shorthorns used to have a reputation for being too small and I feel we have reached the right size, with the average cow weighing 750kg.

“The aim is always for a happy medium and the principle also applies to growth rates; the average for our bulls work out at about 1kg a day, up to 400 days. The figure can be increased through additional feeding, but our aim is to avoid pushing the cattle too hard. We want to retain one of the Shorthorn’s greatest attributes, which is to be an efficient converter of forage.”

Ever mindful of the need to meet his customers’ requirements, Gerald has always pursued polled genetics.

“Today’s buyers are looking for the trait to reduce labour costs, but polled cattle are not easy to find,” he says. “Even with polling as a priority, the odd animal with horns will crop up occasionally. DNA testing has been used to identify the polled gene and this practice will be used more extensively in the future.

“The Shorthorn was developed in north east England and has a long history; at one time it could be described as ‘ruling the world’. It was exported to many countries and was known as ‘The Great Improver,’ due to its ability to add beef characteristics to local cattle types.

“It has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past decade and much of the credit for this should go to Morrisons,” he adds. “The supermarket championed the breed with the launch of the Shorthorn beef brand in 2016 and the scheme has helped to highlight its potential for producing good quality beef.”

Roughly one-third of the Upsall females will go to an AI bull, after standing heat is recorded during one of the four daily observation sessions, with the stock bull following on. This generally results in a 60-70 per cent success rate through AI, which is performed by Maureen McCulloch, who works on the farm alongside her husband, George, the herd manager.

Eye muscle scanning is carried out on the breeding bulls at 400 days and a batch of 11 underwent testing this year. They achieved a weight range of 516kg-696kg, with one March 2016-born animal producing an eye muscle score of 112 in mid-May. Beef Shorthorn breeders in Australia have pioneered this work and it is one of the reasons why Mr Turton favours Australian bloodlines. He also likes the Australian producers’ focus on breeding cattle with a good back end and easy calving, a combination of traits which presents many challenges for cattle breeders, he admits.

The calving of the Upsall females begins in January for the heifers, while the cows follow on in early March, after over-wintering on a simple diet of silage and minerals. They are turned out from the straw-bedded sheds in late April, weather permitting, and go on to a rotational grazing system. The herd participates in a health scheme and is BVD-accredited and Johne’s level one, with annual vaccination against BVD and leptospirosis, as well as individual testing for IBR.

Calves are given access to creep feed from August onwards and most are weaned at housing in November. Steers, as well as heifers which are not required for breeding, leave the farm aged nine-10 months, to supply a finishing enterprise at the home farm belonging to Castle Ashby estate in Northamptonshire.
The Beef Shorthorn herd at Upsall is destined to continue long into the future, as Gerald’s son Robin is keen to uphold the family tradition upon his father’s retirement, when he will become the fourth generation in charge of the herd.

“The Upsall herd is a piece of history and it is my father’s life work,” says Robin, a barrister. “I may not be as ‘hands on’ as my father, but we have always been supported by first-class stockmen and with their help, the herd will carry on.

“My father stuck with the Beef Shorthorn through times when it was not as popular as it is today. However, producers have come to realise the breed is both hardy and docile, with strong maternal traits. It is really coming into its own as an easy-care suckler cow which will suit a range of production systems.”

Herd history

The Upsall Shorthorn herd was established in 1908 by Gerald’s great uncle Sir Edmund Turton and continued under Gerald’s father Robin Turton (Lord Tranmire). When Gerald took over the herd in 1960, he evaluated the breed and decided the cows were too small. This led him to purchase the USA-born bull, Hilldale Collynie 100, which possessed the polled gene on both sides of his breeding. A later visit to Canada resulted in the importation of several other cattle.

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