Selling pedigree cattle at big four and five-figure prices will always be headline news, but it’s not all glamour – there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind the scenes and profit margins that can easily slip in to the red.

It’s an all too easy trap to get into, but one that can be avoided by focussing more on easier managed stock that perform well on forages instead of expensive concentrates.

Pedigree Limousin breeders, David and Maggie Kelly from Netherhall Farm, Kirkby Lonsdale, know all too well how easy it is to concentrate on the big money at the expense of commercial reality, but they had the foresight to switch their breeding policy before it was too late.

“We had pens of bulls eating their heads off on really expensive cake” said Maggie, speaking at the British Cattle Breeders Conference in Telford.

“They didn’t all make it to the sale either – there would be the odd one with an attitude problem and then a few with feet and leg issues which meant they had to be sold through the fat ring. These cattle were extremely expensive to keep too with calves on creep feed practically from birth and a feed wagon that was in the yard every week,” she added.

Yet, from the outside, many would have thought they were, being well known for breeding top show and sale winning cattle with bulls and heifers to 20,000gns and 24,000gns respectively.

Add to that the stress of the auction ring, halter training, pre-sale inspections, and buying a new stock bull when you couldn’t trust the ages or the EBVs, and the couple became completely disillusioned with the market.

The other problem they discovered was feeding cattle to reach society sale targets often meant fertility was compromised.

Maggie added: “Canadian research shows that fat bulls with a backfat thickness of 10mm produce 60% fewer sperm cells, sperm of poorer quality and a higher percentage of inactive, abnormal sperm, than lean bulls with a back fat 4mm.

“The detrimental effects of overfeeding are also believed to be related to excessive fat deposits in the scrotum, which interfere with normal temperature regulation, causing overheating and possibly testicular degeneration.”

And, with difficult calving bulls – even when selecting bulls with easy calving EBVs – resulting in sleepless nights, caesarians, dead calves and ruined cows, the couple soon ran out of steam and admitted they were not making any money.

There light bulb moment came in the spring of 2013 on holiday to New Zealand when they visited Haldon Station in the South Island, where Paddy Boyd block calved 1100 Herefords – on his own.

“These were good cattle with not too much bone, milk and great carcases,” said Maggie adding that the couple was so impressed by these Herefords they then bought the autumn-calving portion of the Ervie Hereford herd based in Stranraer and were equally impressed at how they performed.

“They calved by themselves, they grazed and they also milked. In fact, they were so easy calved, we put a L1 Hereford bull on to our Limousin heifers just to calve them and avoid doing damage and our commercial Limford was born.!

The Kellys were indeed so taken by their new cattle they looked into Line One Herefords which were developed in America and have been at the forefront of beef cattle since the 1930s.

Some of the top Hereford cows in America, New Zealand, and Australia, were flushed for the couple, with Ian and Diana Locke of the Wirruna Poll Hereford stud in New South Wales, providing the first sire for their embryos in Wirruna Daffa.

“We liked his conformation, fabulous length and loin – meat where it is worth the most,” said Maggie.

“Our Herefords are not as big as the Limousins, but they don’t eat as much and make better use of the grass and need less silage. Two big square bales a day for 84 in-calf Herefords for three months on a diet and we keep 80 cows and calves plus stock bulls on 120 acres.

“We rotationally graze all the cattle and use electric fences to divide fields. We are keeping more stock on the same amount of land, and have reduced our fertiliser bill by 30%. Hereford cattle are so much cheaper to keep and they are easy calving, with a short gestation, fertile, healthy, quiet and they have a good carcase,” she added.

David and Maggie no longer get up during the night to calve their Herefords and they are much more relaxed allowing the cattle to calve themselves unless there is a problem.

And, because they calve themselves, there is less work, fewer antibiotics and pain killers for the cattle and themselves, fewer prolapses and no caesars, the Herefords are more fertile and last longer.

They are also so much more docile than Limousins therefore handling and checking of grazing stock is easier, faster and safer. Quieter cows also enable the calves to suckle easier and therefore take in more colostrum, reducing the risk of disease while also bolstering daily liveweight gains.

Docile cattle have also been shown to suffer less from stress, reducing disease, while also ensuring calmer cattle at slaughter and more tender meat produced.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, the couple has discovered size really does matter.

"All bulls have their scrotal size measured and recorded into Breedplan and it has been proved that the bigger the balls the more fertile the bull is," said Maggie. "Our Hereford bulls have much bigger balls than the Limousin bulls did but then research shows that double-muscling in beef bulls results in reduced testicular development.

"It has also been proven that scrotal circumference links to female fertility making a bull's siblings and daughters more fertile and able reach puberty sooner. It is estimated that for every extra 1cm increase in scrotal size is a four-day decrease in the time it takes a heifer to reach puberty.

"Our Hereford heifers happily calve at two, unlike the Limousins. We record gestation length from insemination date or bulling to birth date. We can only record gestation if we have the dates – no guestimates, it is a true recording. Last year 147 cows were recorded, and all calved before the due date, heifer calves average 278 and bull calves 280days. Some cattle have longer or shorter gestation, and this is a big factor in calving ease. Cattle with long gestation lengths generally give birth to large calves, since the foetus is growing fastest at the end of gestation. One study showed that each extra day of gestation adds a pound or more in size of the calf."

Maggie also added that Hereford beef also contains inter muscular fat and therefore some of the best in the world compared to Limousins that kill out really well but the F94L gene which most Limousins have, has been found to cause a 20% reduction in inter muscular fat.

FACT file: Farm size 900 acres rising from 360ft at river bottom to 800ft on steep hills. Grass growing area with 1160mm or rainfall.

Netherhall team: David and Maggie Kelly, daughter Harriet and Patrick Booth

Livestock: 200 pedigree Hereford cows calving March-May inside on silage only and commercially on grass all summer. Heifers calve at two years of age. No creep feeding, instead creep gates in fields enables calves have access to the best grass as they forward graze in front of their mothers. Calves weaned in autumn and receive 2kg feed per day for a month during the transition period. Challenge is keeping weight off females for calving!

Fertiliser: 44 units of nitrogen on the silage ground and 25 units on the grazing ground annually

Herd recording: Birthweights and milk figures measured by weighing the calves at birth and at 200 days. All bulls and heifers scanned at 14months for carcase traits.

Herefords mostly kill out at R4L – what the abattoirs demand and carcases ideal for supermarket packaging.

ONTHE spot

Best investment: Hereford embryos from America and Australia

Best advice: Dont make it difficult, make it profitable

Favourite restaurant: The Etna in Lancaster

Most inspirational farmer: Ian Locke, Wirruna Herefords

Where you would like to be in 2030: Green side up!