Feature : Patsy and Rob

Charolais cattle are renowned for producing cattle to big weights but they are also noted for producing some of the most efficient beef in the world being the ultimate terminal sire for many.

“There is nothing to beat the Charolais when it comes to growth and weight gain,” said Michael Durno who breeds both Charolais and Simmental cattle at Auchorachan, Glenlivet, alongside his father Leslie, wife Morag and their family, Craig who works in a local distillery and Emma who is at Glasgow University.

“Simmentals come pretty close to reaching the weight gains but a Charolais will always come out tops when you take in deadweight and killing out percentages,” he added.

To get the best of both worlds, Michael relies on the two breeds with the Simmental making up the bulk of this 110-cow autumn-calving herd and the 50 head that calve over two slots between January and February and then again in April/May.

All bullock calves are sold store at a year old through Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre, with the Charolais crosses not only regularly producing the top awards but also several of the lead prices. The best of the Simmental cross heifers are kept for replacements, with the remainder meeting a ready demand and sold privately for breeding at a premium.

At Thainstone’s sale at the start of the month, Auchorachan not only won the award for the best pair of stots but also bagged the red, white and blue sashes for the top pen of four heifers and lead pen of four bullocks.

Add to that second prize tickets in the pairs of heifers and individual heifer calves and it was another good day for this well-known business which regularly appears in prize lists, having bred former champion winners at the local mart, the Royal Highland Show, Thainstone Christmas Classic and the Spring Show.

More importantly, despite the downturn in the beef trade, the Auchorachan calves sold well, albeit down on this time last year. The Charolais yearling stots which included a handful of Simmental crosses averaged £1052 against £1095 last year, while the heifers levelled at £979 compared to £1023 at the same sale in 2018.

This year’s stot calves were also 21kg heavier than last year and that was with creep feeding introduced at the same time as normal from the end of July.

“The finishers in Aberdeenshire look for the Charolais cross calf out of the Simmental cross cow because that’s what leaves the biggest margin in the fastest period of time,” said Michael, who also sells pedigree Charolais, Simmental and Salers and even Aberdeen-Angus bulls privately.

He does nevertheless look for a particular type of Charolais bull to breed from.

“I’ve always looked for a carcase bull, a show calf sort of bull to breed from. I don’t want a big rangey Charolais and I don’t look at calving figures. I look for a bull with good muscle, mobility and length,” said Michael adding that he has never had any particular calving problems with the Charolais or any other breed but then he knows how to manage in-calf cows and heifers.

“Most of our heifers are calved to the Salers to calve at two years of age and after that they are split 50:50 to calve to the Simmental and the Charolais. All are calved inside and fed a dry cow ration of mostly straw, silage and minerals on the run up to calving and if it’s dry at all, they get out to the grass for a couple of hours exercise.”

It might be a more dairy cow approach to calving, but it is certainly paying dividends at Auchorachan, as despite the phenomenal grass growth this year, Michael has not had any problems with cows being too fit at calving. The only difficulties he has are down to calves coming the wrong way or cows bearing twins.

And, with few calving problems and fertility issues, cows – last into double figures and are worth a pretty penny at the end of the day too with most selling for well over £1000 through Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre. Just last week, one of the herd’s best pedigree Charolais cows, Advie Edna selling for £1370 last week.

With this 1100ha upland farm, which includes 750ha of hill ground, home 50 pedigree Simmental cows; five Salers, five Aberdeen Angus and five pedigree Charolais, the business is nevertheless fortunate in that home-bred bulls can be used.

It’s bulls from the family’s own Glenlivet Charolais herd that have often produced some of the best commercial calves too. In recent years, Glenlivet Single Malt produced a lot of show calves, while this year’s crop, mostly by Glenlivet Laird - a son of the 9500gns Beechtree Gladiator that sold to Milton of Noth in 2016 and used on hire – has bred the best calves since the 10,000gns Welsh purchase, Castellmawr Daniel at Stirling.

Michael is also proud to admit that he has never bought ‘an easy calving bull’ and buys stock bulls on appearance and pedigree.

Current stockbulls include Hollywell Neville, bought last October at Stirling for 7000gns and Glenlivet Nelson, a twin-born calf out of Glenlivet Hiphip which was also born a twin and sired by the twin-born bull, Elgin Lee, a former stock bull at Auchorachan.

“Your eye is your merchant. You can see just by looking at a bull if he is going to be easy calving or not. If a bull is heavily muscled you wouldn’t want to use it as a maternal sire – it’s not rocket science,” he said.

In saying that, some muscle is needed for ease of fleshing, which is where confusion is emerging in all breeds when it comes to testing for the double muscle myostatin gene.

“I really don’t see the point of testing for it. It’s just another cost to the farmer which he can’t afford. Not all animals within the one breed reproduce the same. Just because you have Charolais it doesn’t mean you have difficult calvings and just because you have Salers it doesn’t mean you have cattle with temperament problems or cattle that are difficult to finish,” he said.

“There are fleshier Charolais out there that will produce offspring that will finish quicker than the big rangey types but there are also big muscly bulls out there that could be more difficult to calf, but a lot depends on your cows too.”

And, with various types of cattle in all breeds, he believes there is no need to switch to the native breeds which have become more popular in recent years.

“Why would you want to move away from the Charolais as a terminal sire when the breed can finish earlier than anything else and at any weight you want.”

Instead Michael is more concerned about being able to source good Charolais stockbulls from high health status herds when Auchorachan has been a Level 1 for Johnes for the past five years, and there are few herds rated at this level within the breed.

While Michael is in charge of this busy cattle enterprise which is also well known for breeding pedigree Simmentals with four bulls forward for the sale at Stirling, Leslie attends to the 600 North-type Blackface ewes run on hill ground.

With regular reseeding of the in-bye fields, these ewes which run up to 1200ft above sea-level, produce lamb crops of 150-160% with all progeny finished off grass and rape to 21kg deadweight with all sold through Woodheads of Turriff.

Add to that a further 30-40 acres of spring barley grown for feed – with some still to be harvested, and up to 2000 bales of straw that is bought in the bout and transported home and it’s a busy time for all.

Let’s just hope the next month’s weather is a bit more favourable than it has been. A good dry spell would go a long way to ease stress levels and so too would some buoyant calf and bull sales.