This year will be one to remember for Major David Walter and his staff at Balthayock, as they celebrate 50 years of breeding pedigree Charolais cattle and winning their first ever Royal Highland supreme championship.
Katrina Macarthur visits the farm and finds out more...
Set deep in the Perthshire countryside, Balthayock is a name which has become synonymous with the Charolais breed, particularly at the Stirling Bull Sales, where the herd regularly leads in the show and sale rings.
Just recently, Major David Walter and his team held an open day at Balthayock where they welcomed more than 500 enthusiasts of the breed from all over the UK. Three pedigree Balthayock heifers sold for 7,000gns, 6,200gns and 4,500gns, with the dearest being gifted to the Scots Guard Charity.
It has been half-a-century of hard work and dedication to the breed which has brought so much success to this family run business, as Major Walter explains how the farm and the herd has evolved over the years.
He says: “When I left school, I didn’t have an immediate idea of what to do, so my father sent me to the army where I served for just over 12 years in the Scots Guard and ended my service as the Company Commander of Left Flank First Battalion.
“I enjoyed it enormously, but when they announced they were going off to Borneo, I thought it was time to start earning some money.
“I then spent 16 years working in a stockbroker’s office in London, starting as a trainee contract clerk earning £800 per year. Three years later I became a partner in the business, but the call from home was very strong as the farm had been starved of investment after my grandfather died in 1938.”
Major Walter carried on working in London until 1980 but came home to the 647-hectare (1,600 acre) unit at weekends. He has now been fulltime at Balthayock for 39 years with wife Lady Sarah, and has two sons, Nick and James.
The Charolais story began when the Major attended one of the calf sales at the old MacDonald Fraser mart in Perth, which had put a weighbridge in for selling livestock.
This gave him the idea to inseminate 20 commercial cows with semen made available by the Milk Marketing Board on his Black Irish cows from the west coast of Ireland and Blue Greys.
“I got a bit of stick and made myself a little unpopular for using semen from a European breed, but I still believe it was worth it,” he says, adding that the Charolais cross calves sold for the second and third top price of the day at the spring sale the following year.
“I managed to persuade my good friend and farm grieve at the time, Hector Campbell, to buy a six-month-old Charolais bull calf named Henham Lodge Empereur, for 5,700gns at the first public sale of Charolais in 1969 at the Royal Showground, Stoneleigh.
“We were among the first to start using the Charolais commercially and then in the autumn of that year we bought four pedigree females from France to start our herd, with a further nine imported over the next few years and one heifer at public auction.”
Impressively, Balthayock has never bought-in any other females since and the herd has been built up from the original 14 heifers, with the best of stock bulls purchased at Stirling Bull Sales.
At present, the pedigree herd stands at 100 breeding females, which run alongside 150 Simmental cross Charolais cows which are put to home-bred bulls. A number of breeds have been tried and tested for bulling to heifers, but the Major says he still prefers using the Charolais for easy calving.
The farm is also home to 700 Lleyn ewes, some of which are pedigree for breeding shearlings, with the remainder tupped to Primera and Texels to produce lambs for Highland Glen.
On the arable front, 13ha of crops are grown each year, including 50ha of winter and spring barley, 12ha of spring oats and 75ha of silage for home-use.
“Charolais cattle are lovely animals to work with – they’re friendly souls and have great character,” he says. “They grow faster than any other cattle breed and convert food more efficiently, yet still respond to whatever system they’re being put through.
“We like to keep the herd young and cull out any cows which are not to our satisfaction, so we are able to get a faster genetic improvement in the herd.
“We work out the benefits of all possible matings using the mating predictor program and where weaknesses are evident in a cow’s genetic makeup, we can correct them by using a bull with stronger genes.”
Initially, commercial bulls were fattened and sold direct, but the team at Balthayock found that some of them were hitting the 400kg deadweight before they were 12-months-old therefore could not be sold as bull beef.
“Our butchery system in the UK doesn’t seem to lend itself to very good cattle anymore and we now have a restriction of 400kg deadweight which doesn’t make any sense at all,” he says.
“Why are we killing Charolais cattle at that weight when they are still performing and growing at their fastest and most efficient rate before they have reached maximum productivity?”
While yearling cattle sold through United Auctions’ Stirling Centre in the spring usually average £1100 at 500kg, the achievements made with pedigree cattle over the last 50 years at Balthayock have been phenomenal.
Pedigree bulls from the herd often sell between 10,000gns and 20,000gns, with a top price of 50,000gns achieved in 2015 for Balthayock Justice and 46,000gns in 2018 for Balthayock Minstrel.
Success in the show ring continues to strengthen every year, but this year’s Highland Show was the icing on the cake when they landed overall beef champion with Balthayock Nessie, a two-year-old heifer by Dingle Hofmeister, which has bred extremely well for the herd.
“I remember selling the champion bull in the 1970s for 1700gns so we’ve come a long way,” says Major Walter.
“It’s tremendous winning so many show tickets and securing big prices for bulls but I get the most pleasure and satisfaction out of buyers telling me how well our bulls have done for them.
“We have sold a heifer and bull to Southern Ireland, but the home market is our market. I do sell a little semen from bulls which I feel will help improve the breed nationally, but you can’t expect to sell semen at £50 per straw and bulls for 10,000gns. You have to choose one or the other and I like selling bulls.”
Major Walter is extremely thankful to his ’wonderful’ team of stocksmen and women who have worked at Balthayock over the years, and says he owes them a huge debt of gratitude.
The business has now employed five generations of the Campbell family too, including brothers Hector and John.
John and his wife Joan have retired after 37 years, while their son Alan, who is one of the five employees on the farm today, has complete responsibility of all cropping and tractor work. Hector is also retired but still returns on a part-time basis.
Barry Douglas is also part of the team, while dedicated husband and wife stockman duo Davie and Tracey Nicoll, joined the team in 2009. They are a huge asset to the business, bringing out award-winning stock at shows and bull sales.
“It’s a funny place Balthayock – people don’t seem to like leaving so it must get under their skin,” says Major Walter.
“I like to feel I share the farm with my staff. It’s a joint venture.”