THE ABERDEEN Angus Forum, which has been at the forefront of our thoughts for the past months, has come and gone.

The weather on the day our visitors came to the Borders couldn’t have been much worse in the morning, but faired up after lunch when our guests came to Roxburgh Mains. Although it didn’t really seem like it to me, the weather men reported that, following the driest May, we have had the wettest June ever in South East Scotland. “Be it dry, be it wet, nature always pays its debt.”

Before we welcomed 300 international visitors to the farm, I looked at the Aberdeen Angus Review of 1978, which reported the World Forum held in GB the previous year. At the conference, which was held in Aviemore, Dr John Stamp, at that time the world authority on scrapie, talked about the cost of disease in British agriculture.

Dr Dick Barlow of The Animal Diseases Research Association spoke on controlling genetic defects. Before DNA analysis this could only be done by keeping a herd of known carriers, mating them to a new bull and then waiting to see if any of the calves were defective. If clear, the bull could be used more widely.

Growth, or rather lack of it, was discussed too. Dr Charles Smallwood, Dean of Agriculture at Texas State University, said the meat trade wanted animals with live weight between 500 and 540 kg. Angus breeders thought it a big ask. Neil Massie thought we were producing the wrong kind of female, with the future maybe in a cross with the Charolais.

Sir Henry – now Lord – Plumb told us about the ramifications of the EEC – now EU – which we had joined five years before and advised the menfolk to choose their breed of cattle like they choose their wives. Andrew Biggar extolled the virtues of grass and chastised us for our failure to utilise its potential. Jimmy Stobo told us that we were obsessed with live weight gain.

Both Billy Arnott and Tom Brewis spoke about getting the Angus into a position where it competed with the Continental breeds. Their note of realism contrasted with many others who were quoted. Further good sense came from Willie McLaren, who advocated performance recording, which was unheard of then.

I don’t think anyone at the 1977 Forum realised what a long hard slog the Aberdeen Angus was to endure before it was once more acceptable to commercial breeders. I was a commercial breeder then, using Angus, Shorthorn and Charolais bulls. I knew fine which breed left the dearest calves at the Autumn calf sale, but needed the native breeds to breed our cows.

In 1978, with some friends, I went to the bull sale at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, USA, and had my eyes opened by the cattle there. For the first time I saw bulls that weighed a ton (that’s how they spelt it then) in commercial condition. It sparked enthusiasm for the Angus breed which I never lost and carried me through the dark days.

As I watched the judging by two prominent Limousin breeders at last month's Royal Highland Show, I mused at the change in the Aberdeen Angus breed over the period since the last Forum held in the UK. Many of the young bulls would have weighed 800kg at 400 days and most of the heifers would have looked good as commercial cattle in everyone’s herd. Growth is now governed by the upper limit of 400 kg deadweight set by the meat trade. It is no use having animals that reach that weight under 365 days as we can’t call the meat “beef” so the parameters are set.

Analysis of success factors in the pig and poultry industry, which because they can manipulate the environment to a degree impossible for cattle breeders, has always placed great stress on both improving growth to a market weight and on feed conversion. The top Angus are where they should be for growth, so much of the emphasis now should be on refining the breeding process by building in qualities less obvious in the live animal.

Ease of calving, because of misinformation provided by a minority of breeders, will only be cracked by stronger will from the breed societies. Provided we don’t compare 400-day-old animals on an equal basis with those months older, carcase evaluation of the live animal is sophisticated and accurate. Feed conversion and its more advanced development, Residual Average Daily Gain, is developing and will become increasingly important. DNA analysis will add to the accuracy of forecasting those factors we already measure provided the measurements taken of live animals and their carcasses are accurate.

The breeds which will benefit from new techniques fastest will depend both on the perspicacity of their main breeders and also on the size of their gene pool. Apart from advantages in selection options, the effect of breeders manipulating data to benefit themselves will be exponentially reduced.

So the Aberdeen Angus marches on, or maybe backwards, from when the breed was ‘real’. Many of our overseas breeders, whatever their thoughts, were complimentary about British cattle. In contrast Harrison O’Connor of Montana is quoted as being “saddened greatly to see the Aberdeen Angus totally polluted in its own country. There is no way it would survive outdoors back home in Montana.”

It is interesting that Mr O’Connor chooses to castigate UK Aberdeen Angus on account of its hardiness. In 1982 I travelled 8500 miles by car through thirteen states of Western Canada and USA. Everywhere I went, the ranchers told me that Montana was the best cattle country on the American continent.

In our own herd, many of our cattle are descended only one or two generations down the line from cattle that throve well in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Dakotas. These states are much tougher on cows than Montana and even more so Scotland, the genetic base for the ‘real’ Aberdeen Angus.