Placing herd health at the top of their priority list is now paying dividends for the Blenkhorn family. Chloe Palmer visits Elderberry Limousins to find out more.
Buying-in Johne’s shortly after establishing a pedigree herd might have deterred less committed producers, but the Blenkhorn family chose to learn from their early experience.
Now, herd health is central to the management system at Elder Farm and biosecurity standards are second to none.
The family farm near Goole, East Yorkshire, was originally mixed arable and suckler cattle, but when cereal prices fell dramatically at the turn of the millennium, the Blenkhorn family started to think about other options.
The land at Elder Farm is heavy clay and was sometimes difficult, even when cereal prices were good. When prices fell, an emphasis was put on haylage production for the horse market.
The switch to pedigree cattle was more gradual and almost by accident, as Paul Blenkhorn explains.
“We kept suckler cows and a commercial Limousin bull and we were keeping our own heifer replacements because we did not want to bring BSE into the herd.
“Our cows were moving closer to pure Limousin and we realised they made good suckler cows, even without the influence of dairy bloodlines.”
After losing their Limousin bull shortly before foot-and-mouth struck in 2001, the Blenkhorns suddenly found themselves unable to buy another one because of disease restrictions nearby.
Paul says: “We ended up buying a well-bred bull, so we decided to purchase some reasonably priced older pedigree cows with calves at foot from Carlisle to breed some pedigree animals.”
Paul’s sons Barry and Neil have been pivotal to the development of the pedigree herd, but Neil’s first experience of a pedigree purchase was a salutary tale for all the family.
Neil says: “We were quite naive because we had always been lucky with our commercial cows. We were buying from high profile breeders who gave reassurances about health and we thought it was enough, but we did not realise what we were buying-into.”
Neil saved up throughout his teenage years and spent £3,000 on a heifer from a breeder ‘with a big reputation’ at a production sale at Carlisle in 2007, only to find much later on it had Johne’s.
Since then, the Blenkhorns have not left a stone unturned in the search for the disease in their herd. The rigorous surveillance for Johne’s extends to a direct faecal PCR test of every female after calving.
Neil says: “Each cow and calf will go into an isolation box after calving, then we will send a faeces sample away for testing at seven days post-calving.
“She will only rejoin the herd when the test has come back negative and, even then, she will only mix with cows and calves with negative test results.
“The disease is most likely to show itself at calving because this is when the cow is most stressed. It also means if a PCR test comes back positive, we can nip it in the bud without risking spread to the rest of the herd.
“The PCR test is expensive, but it is the most reliable way of detecting the disease. We also blood test the entire herd annually. We now have six years of clear tests, which means we are risk level 1 for Johne’s.”
The Blenkhorn family believes good management is key to maintaining the disease-free status of the herd. This approach extends even to grassland management.
Barry says: “We never spread muck or slurry on grazed grass, only on land before the plough, and there is no mixed grazing. We only winter sheep on the haylage ground.”
Biosecurity standards are rigorously maintained. Visitors to the farm are asked to park their cars at the gate and phone for permission to enter, and everyone is required to disinfect before walking through the gates.
No-one is allowed to come from contact with other cattle and visitors are asked to wear a clean set of clothes.
The Elderberry herd is not a closed herd, but purchasing decisions are driven by health considerations first and foremost, whether it is female replacements, recipients or bulls.
Mr Blenkhorn says: “We only buy-in from the highest health herds and we tend to buy from France because everything is pre-tested for IBR. The herds have also generally been Johne’s free for at least 10 years.”
Their latest purchase, Intrepide, was imported from France in December 2016 and has already created quite a bit of interest online.
In its first year at Elder Farm, the Blenkhorns will be quite selective with regards to cows it runs with, but in the following year, it will be used more widely and semen will be offered for sale.
Despite having two stock bulls at Elder Farm, AI is used regularly on many cows.
Barry says: “We choose bulls individually for each cow and we are always looking for a bull with good calving ease genetics.
“We choose the odd bull with stronger terminal traits, because we like to produce bulls suited to a range of different jobs.
The farm's three-year-old stock bull Intrepide.
Eleven-month-old Limousin bulls.
“We avoid double muscling and hard calving genetics and this has paid off because in the last year we have not had to use the calving aid once.”
Neil says: “Most of our females are French or they are out of French cows we have bought-in. The French breed more of a maternal cow, because they do not cross-breed and so are looking for a cow with excellent fertility, which is a good mother with plenty of milk, because they are not introducing dairy genetics.
“These cows work well for us because we are trying to balance terminal and maternal traits to produce bulls with enough market relevance, but keeping our cows how we want them.”
The herd calves in a series of windows through the year, with a peak between February and April. This ensures bulls are available for sale all-year-round.
Calves are weaned at about eight months old and leading up to this will be creep-fed a 16 per cent protein pellet.
The goal is a ‘good, sensible growth rate’, so concentrate is fed to restrict growth rates to no more than 1.5-1.6kg/day after weaning.
Neil says: “We do not want them to grow too fast or fat, because we do not want any leg or fertility problems.”
At 13-14 months old, males considered insufficient quality to be kept on for selling as pedigree animals will be sold fat through either York or Selby market.
Barry says: “We might consider the legs not good enough, or think an animal is a bit plain, or perhaps growth rates have been disappointing. We find our rejects are in the top 5 per cent of animals sold through the fatstock ring though.”
Nearly all of the family’s bulls are sold privately and some of the interest is generated through their website, as the family do not show animals.
The exceptional health status of the herd is now being sought out by buyers, according to Paul.
“Many buyers are now asking the right questions about herd health. We hope people will recognise and put a value on our health status, because it has been a lot of work and cost for us to achieve and it has a real value for the buyer.”
A Facebook post of a heifer and calf walking across the yard generated one of their most prestigious sales yet.
Neil says: “We received a call from an Irish semen company which had seen the picture of Elderberry Galahad. They came to see the calf and bought him and now he has sired more than 170 registered pedigree progeny and thousands of commercial offspring.
“Without the herd’s health status, this export sale would not have been possible.”
As the reputation of the Elderberry herd grows, the family would like to capitalise on this and expand.
Increasing numbers from 35 breeding females to 75 cows over the next couple of years will be facilitated by the construction of a new shed.
It is designed with the input of their veterinary consultant to ensure it provides the healthiest environment possible.
Neil says: “We want to steadily increase numbers and improve the quality of our animals so we can sell more for breeding.
“Next year, we will have more than 50 calvings. We are not trying to chase rainbows, but rather we want to have some good cattle we can be proud of.”
Limousin cows with six-week-old calves.
Alongside the pedigree herd, the Blenkhorn family runs a hay and haylage supply business, selling to professional and private equestrian yards across the local area.
They make about 7,000 small wrapped haylage bales and 3,500 large round bales which they deliver to more than 75 customers.