PRODUCING strong and good quality commercial calves which can be sold straight off their mothers at a young age seems far from easy, but for one Perthshire farming family who rely upon the superior weight gaining attributes of the Charolais, it’s a system that is most certainly paying its way.

Andy Cameron, along with his wife Pam and their two children, Ross and Joanne, who farm at Shanry – a 340-acre upland unit at Rait, near Scone – are strong believers of the Charolais having used it as a terminal sire on their 70-cow herd for more than 20 years now.

“Our main aim is to produce a strong and sellable calf which can be sold off it’s mother between seven and nine-months-old,” commented Andy, who took over the running of the business from his father John, 25 years ago.

“In these days of wafer-thin margins, a Charolais cross calf which is quick growing, early maturing and easily fleshed, is one of the very few commercial calves that has the chance of making profit for both the breeder and the finisher at the end of the day.

“There is nothing easier sold in the store ring than a Charolais cross, even Charolais cross heifers as they finish just as well as stots. The Charolais breed gives the flexibility to finish stronger calves intensively or take them to the maximum weight off grass.

“They have great growth potential and can finish at a younger age too,” added Andy.

Proof of these statements is in the first batch of last year’s crop of Charolais cross calves which sold through United Auctions, Stirling, last October, where the Camerons sold eight-month-old stots to a top of £1100, averaging out at £1048 and 319kg. The heifers sold on the same day peaked at £1090 for the first prize pen of eight and cashed in to average £997 and at 406kg.

More so, within that batch, there was a few Limousin cross calves bred out of heifers, which, despite being older, averaged out £137 less than the Charolais cross calves.

“We have been fortunate the last few years to have had a few repeat buyers at UA, Stirling. It’s a great centre for selling as it’s location is second to none for attracting buyers north and south. In fact, a lot of the Charolais cross heifers sold there go north, while bullocks go south,” said Andy, adding that there is a strong demand at Stirling due to their being fewer Charolais’ on offer there compared to other centres in the north like Thainstone.

Like many other beef farmers who use the Charolais as their terminal sire, it’s the Simmental cross suckler cow which fits best to the big, French breed and as a result, is this basis of this beef enterprise. The herd, which is spring calving due to the previous high costs of straw for bedding in the autumn and winter, is almost always outwintered.

“The Simmental cross cow clicks nicely with the Charolais bull and they have a good temperament which allows myself and Pam to easily work away with them ourselves. They’re docile animals and always give plenty of milk.

“We are so fortunate to farm in a part of the country which allows us to outwinter the cows too. Not only does it reduce costs significantly, considering we have to buy in everything apart from home-grown silage, but it keeps them well exercised and fit but not too fat for calving,” said Andy.

While this is primarily a spring calving herd, calving kicks off in the last week of January and Andy finds that the extra costs occurred are off set by having a heavier calf to sell in the back end. The main bulk however calve from mid-February onwards.

Scanning, which is carried out by Archie MacGillivray, is particularly important for the Camerons as the calving shed can only hold between 15 and 20 cows at any one time, so with the help of accurate calving dates, this allows Andy and Pam to bring in cows off the hill as close to their calving date as possible.

“Although the cows are outwintered every year, we like to have them in for calving to avoid problems and to make sure calves are up and sooking. Once settled with their calves and moved over to another shed, they’re outside when the grass appears at the end of April or beginning of May,” explained Andy.

But, with just 3 barren cows at last year’s scanning and as a result, 92-93% calves sold, there were few if any calving problems. In fact, Andy commented that they have only had one caesarean in the past six years and that was due to a twisted stomach.

“Since introducing the Charolais as our terminal sire 21 years ago, we have found we haven’t had to calve anymore cows to when we previously used Simmental bulls. Too many bad calvings are blamed on the bull but considering the amount of shapely, narrow cows which are kept nowadays, bad calvings can occur in any breed,” pointed out Andy.

He continued: “I would say the easy calving characteristic in the Charolais has improved since we began using the sire. The Charolais can also be used successfully over any size of cow that has a bit of width.”

Such is the easy calving, that cows at Shanry are fed a fairly basic diet, with home-grown silage fed all year round, supplemented with a lifeline bucket and an iodine bolus given six weeks before calving. Depending on the silage quality, some concentrates can be given after calving to give the cows that extra boost.

Calves are offered creep feed (Harbro’s beef stock nuts) from late June onwards but Andy comments that due to the consumption of the cow’s milk, the calves don’t really start taking advantage of the feed until September.

While the oldest calves and the majority of stot calves are sold at UA’s spring show and sale in early October, younger calves are kept back for sale in November. However, this year, the Camerons have kept back six heifers which be sold at the annual Aberfeldy show and sale held at UA, Stirling.

“I find our calves really shift when the longer days come in and I see a particular increase in growth between February and April. The six which we have kept on to sell later this month will likely make £50 more than those sold straight off their mothers,” said Andy.

Selling suckled calves is a relatively new market for the Camerons though, as before, male calves were finished for bull beef and sold between 11 and 12 months of age. But, due to the price of barley being so volatile, as well as more straw needed for bedded courts, the Camerons made a move from this system and have since seen a demand for suckler calves. They’ve also been able to concentrate more on the suckler cow in the winter.

At Shanry, they aim to buy big long, shapey stock bulls that have good tops and that are good on their legs. Breeding suckled calves, they also consider good growth weights and calving values of potential stock bulls.

“If there are two good bulls side by side that I like the look of, I would go with the one that has better figures,” pointed out Andy, who mainly buys bulls at UA, Stirling, although in the past has bought bulls privately.

One of the best bulls ever purchased was Balthayock Gunsmoke ¬– a Balmyle Churchill son which is still going strong at eight-years-old. He was bought in February 2013 and since then has produced growthy calves which have been easy calved.

With all heifer calves sold off the farm, each year half a dozen BVD accredited bulling heifers are introduced to the herd, usually sourced from Stirling or Huntly and in the past, in-calf heifers have been bought at Thainstone.

Outwith the beef enterprise, Shanry is home to 250 Cheviot Mule and Texel cross ewes which are tupped to the Texel and Charollais to produce lambs which are finished off grass and tail enders off rape, with a proportion of Texel ewe lambs sold privately. Seventy of those ewes lamb in March, while the remainder lamb alongside 130 ewes which the Camerons manage for the neighbouring unit, Balmyre.

Given the fact that the Charolais has produced impressive weight gains in suckled calves which have left a reasonable margin at the end of the year for this business, there is no disputing that the Camerons are full of positivity for the Charolais breed’s future.