Using artificial insemination across an entire suckler herd might seem like hard work but the Robinson family, from Northumberland, believe it pays off. Angela Calvert reports.
Producing quality suckled calves to sell at a premium is the main focus of the Robinson family business.
To do this Ian Robinson, who farms with his father Nicky and mother Anne, believes using the very best genetics through AI is the best way to achieve this.
He says: “We do use a stock bull as a sweeper but by using AI across the majority of the herd I can use a variety of the very best bulls. You can spend a lot of money on one bull which may not turn out to produce what you want plus it might not suit every cow and I like to match bulls to specific cows.
“It does create a lot of work all-year-round – it is much easier just to put a bull in the field with the cows but I believe it is worthwhile as it is ensuring we are producing top quality cattle which attract a premium in the sale ring.”
Ian is the third generation of the family to farm at Bog Hall, Capheaton, Northumberland, and his 15-month-old son Harry is already showing a keen interest in the cattle.
The all grass farm is home to 120 mainly Limousin cross British Blue cows with plans to expand to 150. Ian says: “We do not have any arable which allows us to keep things simple and means we do not have to invest in expensive machinery and we can concentrate on managing the stock.”
Until nine years ago dairy was the main enterprise, but with further investment needed if this was to continue the decision was made to switch to a suckler herd.
Ian says: “I did not want to carry on milking cows as my real interest is in suckler cows, so we made the switch and started putting some of the dairy cows to a British Blue to breed them up and there are still some of their progeny in the herd.”
Some heifers are kept as replacements and additional heifers have been bought, with Brian Hall, from Ainstable Hall, Carlisle, a regular source.
All progeny is sold as stores, with about 10 per month going through Hexham mart and a few to private customers.
Ian says: “We are aiming for the top end of the market and selling quite a few potential show calves which have gone on to have a lot of success.”
The best price achieved in the sale ring so far is £4,300 for a heifer which was champion at Hexham’s 20th anniversary sale in 2015 and sold to the judge Harry Emslie. It then went on to win at the Thainstone Spectacular before selling on for £6,000.
Calves sold to Andy Nicholls, Staffordshire, have also enjoyed great success, with Dolfy Duke taking the baby beef steer championship and reserve overall at the 2015 English Winter Fair and the steer championship at Beef Expo in 2016 when Master Monty, another purchase, won the baby beef supreme at the English Winter Fair.
About two-thirds of the cows calve from March to May and the remainder from August to October to ensure a steady supply of cattle to sell throughout the year. Although there are plans to calve about 20 cows in January in the future to hit the baby beef market and to run a few Galloways to produce native-bred cattle – again to broaden the customer base.
The oldest cow in the herd is 12 years old and heifers are usually not served until they are 22-24 months old as Ian likes them to get some size and maturity.
Semen from five different Limousin and British Blue bulls is currently being used across the herd. Trueman Idol, Lodge Hamlet and Mereside Godolphin being particularly successful in the past but a lot of time is spent researching bloodlines and Ian admits it is almost an obsession, something his partner, Anna can vouch for.
He says: “I go to all the Limousin bull sales at Carlisle as I like to see what the bulls look like and how much they make and will then follow their progeny and decide if there are any I might like to use in the future. I also study the results of commercial cattle classes to see how the winners are bred.
“I like bulls which are not too big and with a bonny head. Most importantly, they have to be right on their plates either side of the tail as these are the hardest muscles to get right.
“Cows should be feminine with good shape but they have to milk well. You can give calves all the creep you want but you cannot beat milk.”
Managing the cattle takes up all of Ian’s time. He says: “If I am not calving and am doing AI. We calve everything inside and monitor them round-the-clock. We have only had two caesareans in recent years, both on the same cow, but with the type of calf we are breeding we do have to give about 80 per cent of them a pull.
“Likewise, with AI it’s a case of watching them all the time. We use patches on their tails. You have to be well set up for AI with a good handling system and be able to keep the ones you are watching close to the buildings, but because we were in dairy we are familiar with using AI so we are comfortable with it.”
Cows are AI’d for six weeks and then run with a sweeper bull. An 80 per cent success rate is achieved and cows are pd’d in November. They are expected to produce a calf a year, although some may occasionally be given another chance depending on what they have bred in the past.
Ian and Nicky appreciate they are fortunate to be close to Hexham mart which is renowned for its store cattle sales and where they regularly top the trade and take the top awards.
The mart holds five special store cattle shows and sales a year and the Robinsons always select a steer and a heifer to take to each one. These are then sent away for show preparation and handling for three weeks before the sale as Ian explains: “I just do not have time to do this but it pays off to send them away. Winning the show and getting in the top prices with them raises our profile and not only for these cattle but has a knock-on effect on the other cattle we are selling as well.”
The commercial sheep flock of 450 Texel cross Beltex ewes is managed by Nicky, with assistance from Ian at lambing time. A Beltex ram is used across the flock and Nicky also has a small flock of pedigree Bluefaced Leicesters.
Lambing takes place at the end of March and lambs are sold from the end of June, with about 25-30 going through Darlington mart each week from then on.
Nicky says: “We are aiming for the premium lamb market with our Beltex crosses but we may reduce sheep numbers in the future as cattle increase and may focus more on pedigree Beltex and breeding rams for ourselves and to sell.”