A decision to import five Parthenais heifers four years ago has paid off for one family of Cumbrian beef farmers, as Alex Robinson found out when she met them.
On meeting the Duerden family at their farm in Dalton-in-Furness, it is obvious the Parthenais breed is here to stay.
Husband and wife team Mark and Carolyn, partnered with son James and daughter Emily, run 30 pedigrees alongside a 100-head commercial suckler herd on 90 hectares (222 acres) at Killerwick Grange.
Prior to their French acquisition, the Duerden’s suckler herd consisted of Longhorn cows crossed with Limousin-bred bulls. But the Parthenais has cemented itself as the family’s top choice thanks to its combination of heavy, lean fleshing and easy calving ability. Their shared aim is to gradually phase out the other breeds in pursuit of a pure-bred suckler herd.
The catalyst for the venture came when James’ uncle, Simon Duerden, Colne, loaned Mark a Parthenais cross bull.
James says: “We were so impressed with the growth rates and temperament of the youngstock, we decided to look into buying some females from France.
“After extensive research, it became apparent Parthenais beef was a highly sought after market leader in France.
“The French breeders have been successful in safeguarding the breed from outside influences; they knew they were onto a good thing.
“We have spent a lot of time overseas, establishing relationships with some of the leading Parthenais producers.”
The five pedigree heifers imported in 2013 were each sold in-calf for the following season and with heifer calves at foot, so the Duerdens had a solid foundation herd.
Quality genetics have been at the heart of the Killerwick breeding programme from the start and James ensures only the best sorts step foot onto the farm.
“We have imported females from several different lines, many which have been successful in the showring.
“The demand in the UK is certainly growing, so we also brought stock over for other breeders. We imported the four-year-old Parthenaise bull Fatal as the keystone to start the Killerwick Parthenaise breeding programme. Estimated breeding values in the progeny have constantly exceeded our expectations.”
“This has meant at present all the pedigree progeny are kept for breeding purposes. Heifers are kept as replacements and bulls are sold on.
“We have two main stock bulls on-farm and the demand for our home-bred bulls is hard to keep up with as there is limited Parthenais semen available in the UK.
“Our young bull, Killerwick Lancelot, has recently returned from AI duties, and his straws are now available for the UK and international market.
The commercial herd also uses Parthenais bulls, which are crossed onto cross bred cows and heifers.
James credits the breed for the immense fleshing rates, recording prime Parthenais are killing out at about 400kg deadweight. The mature bull can weigh in at about 1,300kg, while the average liveweight of a cow can range from 750-1,000kg.
“The make-up of the carcase means killing out percentage is higher, meaning more meat can be used at a higher value.
“On average, about 55 per cent of the beef can be sold as choice cuts, opposed to the usually 50/50 split found in other continental breeds.
“The meat is also tender and low in cholesterol, which appeals to the increasingly health-conscious consumer. A growing notoriety with French trained chefs in the UK for the premium beef has seen an increase in supply enquiries.”
The farm follows a spring calving pattern and all heifers are bulled by a Parthenais-bred sire at about 24 months.
Despite being a heavier muscled breed, the increased calving ease is due to the light bone structure, which offers welcome peace of mind. Gestation is on average 280-283 days
While birth weights of calves range from 35-40kg, James is adamant the growth rates are more than adequate. Liveweight gains can be as high as 1.75kg per day and heifers are quick to reach maturity.
Cattle are sold through the market as stores or put through the family’s wholesale business, Duerden Wholesale Meats. Carcases are usually grading about the U + to E mark.
He says: “Due to their size, we have been able to sell stores through the market at 12 months old and we are receiving an average premium of about £200/head.
“The Parthenais temperament is also something which makes management incredibly simple. Unlike some of the other continental breeds, it is relatively placid, meaning handling bulls and youngstock is easy.”
The farm aims to be self-sufficient for most of the year, growing silage, grass and barley wholecrop. Wary of the wet Cumbrian weather, they place a great emphasis on pasture management and have invested in draining systems which ensure the fields can cope with excessive rainfall.
While James believes the Parthenais may be something of a commercial producer’s dream, he admits the breed still has a long way to go before it becomes common in the UK.
“We have done a handful of shows over the past couple of seasons. We were well placed at Westmorland County in 2014 and also took reserve champion at Wigton auction’s store sale last term. The general consensus with the judges has been positive and showing is a great way to engage with breeders and the public alike.
“There can be scepticism towards foreign breeds, mainly because they represent the unknown. It is up to a select few UK breeders to be pioneering and promote the breed’s commercial attributes.
Next season, Killerwick is hosting a Parthenaise open day in conjunction with the society so people can see the potential for themselves. We are delighted with the commercial and pedigree attributes of the cattle. As a family, we are passionate about working with the society and pushing the breed forward in the UK market.”