With land stretching across the England-Wales border, Tim and Pauline Ling keep 120 Murray Grey suckler cows, a breed originating from Australia. Laura Bowyer reports.
Vroe Farm in Rowelstone, Herefordshire, is home to the Ling family as well as the county’s youngest herd of pedigree Murray Grey cattle.
Tim Ling, 82, spent a short time working in the City before deciding to pursue a career in farming. On leaving their dairy farm in West Wales in the late 1990s, the Lings were drawn to the area around the Brecon Beacons, having supplied the Michelin star Walnut Tree Inn at Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, with fresh, raw Jersey cream.
The couple took on a tenancy not far from where they are today and continued to milk Jerseys. However, when their tenancy finished in the wake of the BSE outbreak and amid the fall in value of milk quotas, Mr Ling decided to stop milking.
The couple moved to Vroe Farm and bought 30 Friesian cross Limousins. However, Mr Ling did not like the temperament of these cattle and started looking for an alternative for his organic enterprise. He phased out the Limousins quite quickly and flipped the whole herd to the Australian Murray Greys.
Mr Ling’s reason for choosing Murray Greys is quite extraordinary. While researching the breed online, one bull’s name caught his eye – Keighlian’s Wensleydale. Mr Ling was born in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and his father was a doctor in the Aire Valley.
Mr Ling rang the breeder, Doug Storton, in Australia to ask why he had chosen this prefix, only to find they had grown up in the same area. By coincidence, Mr Storton had also been delivered as a baby by a certain Dr Ling.
Furthermore, Mr Storton told how he had visited a carcase competition in Sydney and the Murray Grey had won every competition there. This urged Mr Ling to invest in the breed and he bought what he could from a breeder in Lincolnshire and, since making the move in 2004, he has built his herd up to 120-head, also sourcing heifers from Somerset and Devon.
The Murray Grey originates from Australia and is a result of crossing the Whitebred Shorthorn with an Aberdeen-Angus. The Angus does not cope in hot conditions well, but Mr Ling says Murray Greys have a particular skin pigment which makes them better suited to hot climates and can be preferred by those looking for a breed similar to the Angus.
The breed can either be silver or dun. If you cross two brown Murray Greys, the colouring will be akin to an Angus, says Mr Ling. They are a maternal breed promoted as being very quiet, naturally polled, well-suited to pasture-fed systems, easy fleshing, hardy and thrifty.
The breed society says bulls have easy calving traits and are ideal for producing suckler cow replacements.
Last year, Mr Ling received an email from two Hungarian farmers who found him on the Murray Grey Beef Cattle Society website. One ran 400 Red Angus cattle and the other was interested in keeping the breed.
After the two men paid Vroe Farm a visit, they decided to export 55 yearling heifers and three young bulls back home. They are destined to be crossed with a native silver breed – the Hungarian Grey.
Mr Ling tries to sell all his females for breeding, but the interest from overseas made him more selective in what he sells for breeding.
When livestock are exported they need to be seen by a vet 12 hours before they leave the farm, says Mr Ling.
“There is an amount of red tape which goes with exporting livestock and there are certain rules which you must abide to – the Animal and Plant Health Agency at the Centre for International Trade at Carlisle must approved all transport.”
Mr Ling has also exported stock to Denmark and Germany and is currently trying to sell the first Murray Greys into Holland.
In terms of prime beef, most go to Eversfield Organic Farm, although Mr Ling does sometimes use the abattoir at Merthyr Tydfil. He says: “I have always tried to be someone who retails produce rather than selling wholesale as otherwise you end up at the bottom of the line when it comes to money.”
In terms of beef quality, Mr Ling says the breed is well-known for its marbling. “The breed regularly wins carcase and taste competitions in Australia. Beef is losing popularity in this country and the same thing happened in Australia some years ago. When too much continental blood enters herds, the taste goes downhill, and popularity goes with it.”
He says Murray Greys also weigh well. “Our cows are between 600-900kg and finishers reach 600kg for slaughter, at which stage they could be anything from 18-30 months of age. Most of our male progeny are sold deadweight.”
The farm uses a contractor to scan for eye-muscling and marbling, but Mr Ling says he is not interested in performance recording. The scanner told him his Murray Greys performed just as well as Aberdeen-Angus.
For breeding, Mr Ling uses artificial insemination and natural servicing. The farm’s resident home-bred bull, Vroe Brenden, weighs 1,160kg and its semen is available in the UK. Mr Ling does not keep a bull for breeding unless it was out of a female which calved unassisted as a heifer.
Mr Ling is a member of the Organic Farmers and Growers Association, as well as the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, meaning corn, roots and kale cannot be fed to cattle. All silage is baled and Mr Ling believes he will have to improve his silage if he is to meet his goal of finishing all stock under two years.
Mr Ling says his experience as a dairy farmer has helped him manage grazing. He says: “I do not believe in using fertilisers. Our muck is spread, as well as some lime. We are trying to rotationally graze, but I am a big believer in permanent pasture and paddock grazing.”
A large proportion of the farm is on red clay, however Mr Ling also owns an area of river-ground stretching along the Monnow and rents two miles of its fishing rights. He hopes this will attract visitors to his holiday lets which are under-development. Big bale silage is made on this river ground, which is gravelly-sand.
Due to the farm’s organic status, the cattle have not been wormed for three or four years and Mr Ling says he does not believe the cattle need any treatment.
All of Mr Ling’s stock are housed through winter to stop them poaching the ground.
Inside the sheds he has installed fans to reduce the risk of pneumonia. Straw is chopped and blown into the pens.
When it comes to marketing, Mr Ling says he chooses not to show his stock due to the time required in preparation, travelling and the show itself. He says, at his age, this is something he could do without.