By Chris McCullough

ONE of Northern Ireland’s best known Simmental breeders is celebrating the herd’s 50th anniversary – which puts it firmly in the ranks of the oldest in the UK.

Kilbride Farm Simmentals is run by the Robson family, at Doagh, near Ballyclare, in Co Antrim, and under normal circumstances would have been selling its stock at pedigree sales in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

However, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the family – Billy Robson with sons, Michael and Norman – have decided to run a timed online sale from August 19 to 21 which will be offering 17 in-calf and yearling heifers from all of the main cow families within the herd.

This export qualified sale will be hosted in conjunction with Ballymena Livestock Market and MartEye and will give buyers a great opportunity to purchase some of the best bred Simmentals in Northern Ireland.

The Kilbride Farm herd was founded by Billy in 1971 with the importation of four Simmental heifers from Germany, followed by another six the following year, also from Germany. One of those original four heifers turned out to be a half-sister to Scottish Neff, probably the most famous and influential Simmental beast in the world.

Over the next 50 years, the Robsons have only purchased a small number of specially selected females, the most significant one being Carn Eunice, bought from Jim McCarrroll, in Donegal. She became the matriarch of one of the best known families in the breed, with around 400 'Eunices' registered in the Kilbride Farm herd to date.

Today, the herd stands at 100 pedigree cows with offspring sold around the world. Billy, now 85, has witnessed big changes in the breed and farming during his career.

He said: “We have around 100 pedigree cows and register 100 calves every year. We also run a commercial pig enterprise with 350 sows on a birth to bacon unit. The farm is run now by my sons, Michael and Norman, but I still maintain a keen interest as well.

“We are one of the largest and longest established, most successful herds in the British Simmental herd book. Our bulls have won more supreme championships at the Perth/Stirling sales than any other herd and our genetics have been exported and been successful around the world and we are accredited BVD and Johnes free.

“The Simmentals of today have developed immensely compared to what I started with. When I think back to those first imports, they were quite plain and shelly. Even the first champion bull that we sold in Perth in 1985 would not be even considered by today’s farmers.

"Today, the British Simmental is much more beefier while still maintaining their maternal traits like easy calving and milking ability,” added Billy.

The past 50 years have gone past so quickly for Billy and his family but they have given them a lot of pride from what are in Billy’s words 'modest achievements'.

A bull that had a huge influence in the herd was Orage, which was bought in France in 1980. Michael added: “In 1980, we purchased Orage from France and he really put the herd on the map with his progeny dominating shows and sales and winning many performance tests.

“He increased the average 400 day weight by more than 100kg in our bulls. In 1992, we took two of his first sons, Lester and Lewis, to the famous Perth Bull Sales where they sold for 5000gns and 4500gns.

"Two years later, a son of Lester became the first bull to weigh over 800kg at 400 days. He went to Perth and sold for a then breed record price of 8000gns. In 1985, Orage then gave us our first Perth champion called Perry and he sold for 6000gns.”

Some of the noted cow families include the Eunice, Dora, Gina and Iris families, but when it comes to the best bull ever bred, Billy has his favourite. “It has got to be Kilbride Farm Newry, which was born at the turn of the century and had a super growth rate topping 848kg at 400 days. He was the sire that had most calves registered in the Simmental herd book from 2000 to 2020.

"We sold 4000 straws of pedigree semen from him and AI Services sold tens of thousands of straws of commercial semen from him,” he said.

The Robson family enjoyed great success with their Simmentals in the show rings during their early years of breeding, including showing the first ever Simmental inter-breed champion at the RUAS and the male and reserve champion at the Royal Show.

However, back in 2000 the family took a decision to cease showing as it was not making any contribution to the business, and customers were demanding higher health standards.

Billy added: “We thought this could be most easily achieved by not taking stock out and bringing them home again. Our policy of concentrating on bull sales has been very successful and we are very proud to have produced seven supreme champions at the Perth and Stirling sales, achieving many high prices up to 22,000gns. It is always satisfying to see bulls we have bred doing well in other herds and with AI companies.

“We have participated in performance recording schemes since these were first available in the early years, and these play an important role in our stock selection. We also began introducing the polling gene into the herd thirty years ago, and about half the females are now polled,” he said.

During the Covid-19 era it was not practical for breeders to take stock across the Irish Sea to the mainland sales because if it didn’t sell it could not be brought back home again for six months.

The Robsons sold bulls online and half of them went to purchasers over the water to customers from Wales right up to Orkney.

Their online sale is offering 17 heifers from Kilbride and first up for sale in the anniversary event is Kilbride Farm Eunice 291K, a full sister to the 10,000gns Kilbride Farm Gruffalo, which is breeding very well both in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.

“Her dam has been a great breeding cow and her grand dam, Eunice 2 was a tremendous breeding polled Milnafua Graduate cow on whom a lot of our polled breeding was based,” Billy said: “We still have three daughters in the herd all breeding very well. She is in calf to KF Jetstream P, and is due on October 29, 2021.”

Another Eunice for sale is Lot 4 Kilbride Farm Eunice 297K out of a very strong Corskie Damario daughter, with Cairnview Snazzy and Seaview Prince and her maternal half-sister, Eunice 278JP, by Imperator PP, has been retained and is calved with 'a super calf'.

Buyers should register on the website ahead of the sale and click on the Ballymena Livestock Mart link to the sale.