Feature: Patsy and Rob

It takes a keen eye, good stockmanship, and a lot of hard work and determination, to start breeding pedigree livestock but there is no doubt it is a lot easier if you have been reliant on the breed in question on a commercial basis for a number of years.

For the Duff family, the introduction of a pedigree Simmental herd to Pitmudie, just outside Brechin, has been a natural progression with this red and white breed having made up both the female side of their 120 cows and the terminal sire for almost 50 years now.

Having bred finished young bulls and breeding heifers at good money and replacement females for years, it was nevertheless one of the youngest members of the family who was encouraged to take the herd to the next level, when Heather looked to the breed as an added interest after doing well in YFC overwintering calf competitions.

That was in 2011 and Heather and indeed her family - parents Arthur and Jennifer Duff, Arthur’s brother John and his son also John - have never looked back since.

“I got the show bug through Young Farmers and breeding pedigree Simmentals seemed the obvious choice when our cross cows are more or less pure-bred,” said Heather.

“Simmentals make really good cows because they are great mothers producing large amounts of milk and calves with tremendous growth rates.

“They are also a great breed to work with as there are so many different types within the breed. You can get thick, easy fleshing types that will produce calves that finish quicker than others of you can get bigger, cleaner types for breeding good big framey cows,” added Heather who has also completed an honours degree in agriculture at Craibstone.

Arthur was easily convinced on the concept of introducing a pedigree herd too having first used a Simmental bull in the early 1970s.

“We have tried all the other breeds and the Simmental is the one that works best for us as we can retain the females we need and finish everything else off home-grown feeds,” said Arthur who together with wife Jennifer and Heather are based at the 600-acre upland farm at Pitmudie which sits at 600-1000ft above sea-level.

Brother John and his son on the other hand farm seven miles away further down the hill on the 400-acre part owned/leased Broomknowe unit which is mostly arable.

Such is the growth potential of the breed that the Duffs sell all their young bulls not suitable for breeding from 12 to 14months of age at around 400kg deadweight.

And, being young bulls, 95% of them produce U grades meaning they attract additional premiums which up until the spring of this year saw them easily make £1400-£1500 through ABP and Highland Meats.

Females not retained for replacements have been sold privately for breeding at 22months of age for that bit more too.

Fertility is always good too with the Simmental with less than 5% of the herd failing to hold to the bull at Pitmudie although heifers don’t calve until they are three years of age.

The big worry over the past six months however has been the continued downturn in the beef trade and the fall in carcase weights now demanded by the processors, which has wiped well over £200 per head off the price of a young bull.

While their finished cattle and indeed everyone else’s have taken a hammering this year, the family’s pedigree Simmentals have fortunately enjoyed their best couple of years to date.

At the Highland Show, last year, the family not only bagged their first red ticket at this national event with the in-calf heifer, Pitmudie Havana, but also the female championship and reserve overall.

This year after several prize rosettes at Ingliston, Pitmudie cattle stood reserve at several local shows, with Pitmudie Irish Mist scooping the breed championship at Perth Show.

“Showing makes a huge difference as it gets your name out there and lets people see the type of cattle you’re working with and looking to sell,” said Heather, who added that Neil Caul has been a huge help both at shows and sales in assisting to bring out their cattle.

Even better, is the fact that the dozen or so females bought at commercial prices to establish the herd are paying off, with an increased number of better quality bulls sold at Stirling and privately.

It was nevertheless a pedigree female that was originally purchased for the commercial herd that set the ball rolling. That was in 2008, when Drumsleed Twinkle was bought at Stirling alongside another privately from Gerald and Morag Smith’s Laurencekirk-based herd.

It was Twinkle that gave Heather her first taste of success as she bred Pitmudie Beaujolais, a young heifer that scooped several top awards and championships at local shows. Her first son, Pitmudie Everest sold for 5000gns. Sadly however, she was badly hurt in an accident travelling to the National breed show at Kirriemuir, and has never been able to breed since.

Females bought in specifically to establish the pedigree herd in 2011/12 include Drumsleed Carina, the dam of the Highland show winner, Pitmudie Havana ¬- along side others from the Delfur and Cairnorrie herds.

Stock bulls that have stamped their mark on the pedigree herd to include Corrick Caesar which was promoted from the commercial herd at Pitmudie to breed good thick beef cows and bulls. Other top breeding bought in bulls include Overhillhouse Eragon, Corskie Elder and Hiltonstown Ferrari.

“We’re looking to breed good, correct bulls with a bit of size and shape,” said Arthur.

“We look to run the pedigree cows as commercially as possible and running on an upland farm with plenty of steep braes means we have to look for bulls that are particularly good on their feet and legs with strong bone.”

It’s a breeding policy which is starting to bear fruit too, with numerous bulls having sold at 4500-5000gns over the past few years either privately or through the sale ring.

The past year has also seen prices head north, with the Stirling Bull Sales in October witnessing a top price of 7200gns for Pitmudie Inverurie, a Corskie Elder son.

And, at the sales in February, the family enjoyed a personal best selling the Hiltonstown Ferrari son, Pitmudie Imperial for 8000gns.

This year has nevertheless been far from easy for farmers with the fat trade on its knees, so the Duffs are all to aware of the difficulties selling the six bulls they have entered for this month’s Stirling sales.

However, if you want a natural, easy fleshing bull you know where to come. It’s not as if the Pitmudie cattle have an easy life of it at 1000ft above sea-level, and it is a long winter.

As it is, the cattle are quite often housed from mid-October onwards on straw bedded courts, where they get access to a home-grown silage/straw/mineral mix only. There is no fancy feed provided for these cows which calve from March onwards and are often housed until May when the grass comes.

Calves are brought up naturally and without creep feed until mid summer, but then, the Simmental has always been a great, milky female and mother, with the added benefit of producing good big growthy calves

“The Simmental really is one of the best breeds to work with because there are bulls out there to cater for everyone’s needs,” said Heather who also works part-time for Agri-Lloyd.

“We have a forward-thinking society too which is looking at how classification systems and genomics can assist in commercial and pedigree cattle breeding. There are also now a good number of polled Simmental bulls in the country so it’s only a matter of time before an increasing number will be on the market which will aid farm management for all,” concluded Heather.