Efficient low input, low cost systems are for the now and the future, says Shona Calder who is finding that the Beef Shorthorn is playing an increasing role as an added value functional suckler cow, on her family’s LFA unit at Braes of Grandtully, Aberfeldy.

“To run a profitable enterprise, we need healthy livestock that are able to convert forage and thrive on low intervention management, and we’ve found that modern Beef Shorthorn cattle are best suited to this hill farm,” said Shona, who farms 260ha made up of 170ha permanent and rough grazing, 40ha of silage and hay, 3.5ha brassicas and 9.5ha barley.

“Beef Shorthorn have good growth rates, are easy fleshing without the use of large amounts of expensive inputs and equally important, they meet with a ready market demand.”

The Calders – Donny, Shona and their son, John, run together two closed, split-calving herds alongside a 250 breeding ewe flock producing store and finished lambs.

The first herd, a commercial unit of 31 Shorthorn cross females and 26 followers, produces home-bred suckler replacements with surplus heifers traded. While the second, the Grandtullybrae pedigree herd, numbering 40 breeding females and 27 followers, breeds heifers for fellow breeders and bulls, for pedigree and commercial producers.

Steers and heifers failing to make stringent requirements for breeding from both herds are eagerly sought after by finishers for Morrisons Shorthorn Beef scheme.

Shona added: “Both the commercials and pedigrees, are great foragers and graze out on rough grazing up to 1100ft until mid-October, after which the weather dictates the winter regime. Adult cattle thrive throughout the winter on ad-lib pure forage diets – straw, silage and hay; and we don’t feed any supplements other than minerals.

“If the ground is hard the cows remain outdoors. Unfortunately, the milder winters restrict where we can supplementary feed forage, hence, some are fed in an outside court, but they still have access to grazing.”

Both herds are fertile too, with currently 83% of spring herd and 86% of the autumn herd calving within the first six weeks. Both are on target to reach at least 95%.

“Overall, both commercial and pedigree cows and heifers calve themselves. New born calves are soon up on their feet and their mothers encourage them to quickly suckle quality milk which is reflected in 40-week weaning weight.”

Figures show they typically record between 43% and 59% of the dams’ weight, with the mature weight of the cows averaging 650kg.

The Calders also find that smaller cows wean calves at a higher percentage of the dam’s weight, making these cows the more efficient workers.

Furthermore, the family is calving the heifers at two years – to save time, save money and improve efficiency.

“We find heifers are reaching 460kg target weight at 14 months, they calve down at an average 540kg and get back in calf to calve the following year providing a quicker return on the investment. In fact, progeny from one of our sires is outperforming this target with calves reaching 410kg at 10 months and 480kg to 510kg at 14 months.”

It was not only the breed’s low input requirements, but also its temperament and easy-care nature that encouraged Shona to develop the pedigree herd which was established over 20 years ago, after the Calders acquired an additional seasonal let and decided to invest in cattle.

“We initially purchased a mix of native and continental cross suckler cows and tried various sires to produce weaned calves for selling through the store ring, before being introduced to Beef Shorthorn by John Redpath from Alyth.

“At the time, I knew very little about the breed, however, I immediately took a shine to these cows which were quite happily feeding round a straw ring feeder, seemingly oblivious to atrocious November weather – horizontal rain and a biting wind.

“After a bit of haggling, we persuaded John to sell us Knowhead Lorraine, our first pedigree Beef Shorthorn cow, or heifer to be exact. Four weeks later, she calved outside by herself, she had plenty of milk and was totally at ease with us around her calf. We kept the calf as a bull and 18 months later, put him over some of our cross cows and heifers. We went on to purchase more pedigree Shorthorns in the following years, and retained our own replacements to build to current herd size. The rest is history.

The Calder's aim to breed sound working animals that are fit for all terrain and use Breedplan to help select replacements and monitor herd performance.

“When looking for a bull, I use EBVs to select on the traits I require for herd improvement along with percentage accuracy. However, this information has to be tempered with visual assessment.

“Cows and calved heifers are also linear classified, which helps me look at the animal more acutely taking into account each part of the cow rather than seeing her as a whole.

“If there is a repeating fault in the animals, I know to look for a bull that might improve this weakness. I was generally pleased with the outcome from the first classification assessment and most had a respectable score for their age,” added Shona.

The family also take herd health very seriously with both herds members of a CHeCS scheme and annually test for Johne’s, IBR, Lepto and BVD.”

Shona says demand for the breed continues to escalate from both the pedigree and commercial sector with Grandtullybrae bulls having been sold to both pedigree and commercial herds as far and wide as Papa Westray in the north right down to Norfolk.

The herd also has heifers for sale for the first time with next month’s Bull Sales entries including a bull and five heifers.

“For the first time in almost a decade due to herd expansion, we have surplus pedigree heifers for sale, whilst last year we sold yearling Beef Shorthorn cross heifers and were contacted shortly afterwards by two separate parties looking for more.”

The suckler herd continues to focus on Beef Shorthorn genetics too. Shona added: “We tried various continental bulls, however, they didn’t fit for various reasons, including impact on cow size and calf growth rate.

“Furthermore, Beef Shorthorn-sired stores were commanding market prices similar to continental crosses whilst Beef Shorthorn cross heifers were starting to make inroads as suckler replacements.

“Consequently, we replaced the continental bull with a Beef Shorthorn which has enabled us to produce a medium size cow, improve temperament and increase milk and motherability.

“It’s these qualities and the ability to economically produce beef which are giving us and other suckler producers confidence in the sector at a time when we don’t know exactly what lies ahead in terms of support and trade opportunities,” she says.

“Whilst Scotland and the UK as a whole is not self-sufficient in beef production, I also believe that demand worldwide for quality Scotch beef will continue to grow. Add to that the requirement for animal health and traceability on all meat imports, and I don’t think we have much to fear.”