By Jacqueline Pettigrew

For the McConnach family of Drumneachie, near Aboyne in Aberdeenshire, the Simmental cow will always be the cow of choice, with calving ease, temperament and longevity high on their priority list.

The father and son team of Alasdair and Philip live on the original homestead, with its 200 acres of rented ground at Drumneachie part of the Dunecht Estate, along with their 300-acre owned farm of Galton, eight miles away.

Alasdair was born at Drumneachie, where the family mainly bought in store cattle and fattened them, and he bought Galton, which sits further in land, in 1977. “The land at Galton rises to around 400 feet above sea level”, explains Philip. “it’s very good soil, free from stones. We would love to be able to re-build a derelict house that sits at the steading, so that I could be nearer where most of the cattle are housed in winter, but the farm sits within the Cairngorms National Park, and so things are not that easy!”

Alasdair reminisces “When I bought Galton in 1977 it was really run down. The place only had one gate … and it had a broken bar! I had to put in long hours and a lot of hard work. I grew a lot of tatties back then. I grew Pentland Dell, Pentland Squire and Wilja and got £170 per tonne back in 1988 – that was big money. I grew some great crops, in fact in 1985 I won a prize for the best malting barley in the area. Those crops set me going - back then I had a big overdraft, which I was paying 20% on, but was making a bit of money. Now I have no overdraft but we aren’t making any money” he quips.

Alongside his arable crops, Alasdair introduced the Simmental breeding females in the late 70s, and the herd is now up to 120 breeding cows, nearly all Simmental crosses, which are very nearly pure.

The team run five stock bulls on the farm at the moment. Three of those are Simmentals, Corker, Corskie Ajax and Corskie Fin. Fin was purchased in Stirling in October 2015 from Iain Green for 7000gns. He is a son of the 45,000gns Bel Dhu Capercaillie.

“We are really pleased with Fin’s calves and look forward to seeing how his female daughters go on and breed for us”, says Philip. “When we pick our bulls, they have to have good heads, we like to be looking at nice cattle and that helps when we sell our breeding females, and they must be quiet with a nice temperament - that makes the job a whole lot easier and safer when often I’m working on my own. We have never looked to buy huge bulls as we have that all the size we need in our cows, but they must be a good shape.”

“The Simmental has always been a firm favourite here. They calf easily and are very milky, they are very efficient and suit our land, the calves mature early, and the batches of calves we rear look very level, and uniform in type and colour. They are also very versatile and can be put to any breed of bull successfully”.

Despite their fondness for the Simmental, the family have recently brought in two Aberdeen-Angus bulls, a decision which wasn’t taken lightly, as Philip explains. “We used to run three Simmental bulls and one Limousin, but when the time came to replace the Limousin we decided to go for the Aberdeen-Angus - as there is a premium paid and they are easy calving.

“We have always been delighted with the Simmental calves, but no one wants to pay for big animals now, so we are having to move with the times and produce much smaller types”, explains Philip.

The first Angus bull, Tillyfour Papa Joe, was bought in May 2017, followed by his full brother, Tillyfour Paymaster, a year later. Both were bought privately from Ian Mathers.

“The first calves are now on the ground and we are really pleased with them”, says Philip. “One thing we that has taken us by surprise is how quick these Angus cross calves get up and suck, it wasn’t something we’d been looking for but was an unexpected surprise and an added bonus. Time will tell how they do weight and price wise, it will be May before the first batch heads to auction”.

Calving is split between Spring and Autumn, although this past two years, a smaller batch have calved in December. “That wasn’t intentional”, explains Philip. “However, it is something that has worked really well and plan to do in the future. They were calving at a time when we are quiet with other work and they could then be turned out to grass and weaned after the mastitis-risk had passed”.

The calves come inside from October, into open fronted sheds and are fed the family’s own home-grown silage and barley, along with some Norvite pellets, while the in-calf cows and bulling heifers remain outside.

Of the heifers, some are kept as replacements and the rest are sold in May through the breeding ring at the Thainstone. “Our breeding heifers sell well”, says Philip. “In March 2017 we sold a batch of 12 to a top of £1600 and 264p, and to average £1446.67 or 254p.

The Simmental-sired bullock calves have always done well in the auction ring. Last February, 28 Simmental cross steers, weighing around the 600kg mark sold through Thainstone to average 227p, and reached a top of £1390 per head or 240p per kg.

This year’s batch of 19 bullocks sold at Thainstone averaged £1204 per head, or 210p per kg, with the 18-month-old steers selling to a top of £1360 per head and 219p per kg.

“Other than bulls, we buy in very little cattle, which helps prevent bringing in disease. With any replacement heifers that we do need to buy in, I’m looking again for those with a good temperament, and nice heads on them. While the heads don’t matter at the end of the day, I want to be able to enjoy looking at them” says Philip.

“We want to be feeding the cattle as much of our home-grown fodder and grain as possible to keep our costs down, and of course they are all bedded on our own straw.”

In recent years, the family have grown around 100 acres of Concerto barley for their own use, along with a further 100 acres of Concerto and Planet certified seed, which is then sold through ACT.

“Last summer’s good weather meant that we had an additional 100 bales of straw that we were able to sell on, which was a bonus. The heavy clay soil here really suited the long dry summer. By doing all the field work ourselves we can keep costs lower and it also means we get the work done when the weather is perfect and when it suits us. We are well known for keeping our machinery spotless, which keeps their value high when we come to trade anything in”, says Philip.

It’s very much a family affair, with Philip’s mum Elizabeth keeping all the book work up to date, and his wife Julie helps out when she can, although her hands are fairly full with two-year-old Jack and 14-month-old Callum to look after.

“My brother in-law, Steven Beattie, also helps out when we need a hand. Steven works in Aberdeen, so I think the farm is a bit of a release for him”, says Philip.

Father Alasdair still works on the farm every day but admits things have changed a lot in farming over the years and not necessarily for the better.

“Keeping cattle is the easy bit nowadays” he says. “It’s all the paperwork and officials breathing down our necks that takes up all the time. They don’t seem to trust us to do the job we grew up doing, we need to be out working with the cattle, not stuck doing paperwork for days on end. It bothers me that this country can import meat with no traceability no guarantee of how they have been reared or fed, and yet in this country we have no-end of legislation.”

So, what does the future hold for this busy family? “Thinking practically, I am thinking about bringing the cows numbers down and then finishing all our own cattle – and in theory the Angus should fatten quicker, but we will wait and see” explains Philip.

“As for the bigger picture, I’d like to hope that Jack and Callum will want to take on the farms when they grow up, but who knows where farming will be then.”

“My biggest worry just now is the fluctuating prices both when buying in the likes of fuel and fertiliser, which at the moment is how farming is unfortunately, that said, I am very proud of what I’ve achieved and the business that we have built, and I wouldn’t want to change it, it’s a lifestyle, and one that I hope stays in the McConnach family for generations to come” says Philip.