Photographs by Emma Cheape

COMMITTING to a breed and making sure it earns its keep must be at the forefront of any pedigree breeder’s mind.

Hamish and Margaret Sclater, at Denhead of Dunlugas, near Turriff, have made sure their Deveron Aberdeen-Angus herd works for them, whilst maintaining size, quality and bloodlines.

The couple run their cattle on rented 400 acres, with 170 acres of this used for malting barley and 20 acres let for seed potatoes. They also winter 400-600 Blackface hoggs for Glenavon Estate, from Tomintoul.

“We used to buy and feed 800 lambs,” explained Hamish, “The hogg wintering is my concession to slowing down and having more time to ourselves.”

“We went into cattle 25 years ago, with a view to trying to make them our ‘pension’.”

The couple have 60 cows calving this year, with the goal being a figure of 80. Hamish explained that they could have had this long ago, but in his eyes, the pedigree job is about quality, not numbers. They came to the farm in 1988 after Hamish’s father, Bill, now 92 and retired, and the business was split between Hamish and his brother, David.

“My father had Aberdeen-Angus, so they were the breed I knew best. With the premium price and ease of management, I thought their future was bright,” added Hamish.

Margaret added: “After we moved here, Hamish did say that if he ever thought of having cows, I was allowed to shoot him. Thankfully, I didn’t possess a gun and it’s worked out fine.”

Margaret works full-time for ACT, an agricultural supply company in Turriff, but it’s clear they work as a team at home. They have two kids – Kevin is a hydraulics engineer in the oil industry, working between Australia and Malaysia, and Nicola is a business analyst with SSE at Peterhead Power Station and is married to a local farmer.

Hamish is 61 now and their Limited Duration Tenancy ends in 2027, so they admit that, with neither of their kids taking on the farm, they’re looking at what will be their end game.

However, even with the potential dispersal of their herd now less than a decade away, nothing’s winding down at Denhead and they’re gearing up to head to Stirling with a team of three for the breed’s talismanic bull sales.

For five years, until last year, they sold their bulls privately, but in 2018 took the plunge again and headed back to Stirling – with great success! They saw three bulls draw in a total of 25,000gns, with a top of 10,500gns. They also topped the averages league table.

Hamish admitted that Stirling is a challenging place to go and if you’ve not got it right, it can be ‘a long weekend’. They have three mid-April-born bulls going this year. “I think these bulls are that wee bit stronger than last year’s. It’s a lottery though, so we’ll just need to wait and see,” said Hamish.

“Their EBVs are all extremely high, they also have all positive calving ease direct figures. They averaged 1060kg as at January 9, which was still four weeks from the sale.

“They’re the heaviest bulls we’ve had in a while. The herd health status is also excellent, having been both Johnes and BVD accredited since 2011.”

They practice a fair amount of line breeding and the most important bull to have influenced their herd was the American-born, TC Stockman 365. Born in 1993, a lot of their bloodlines can be traced back to him.

Their current stock bull, Rulesmains Egbert, was bought for 10,000gns at Stirling, last October, having won at the pre-sale show.. He carries a bit of their own blood back into the herd as, in 2011, the couple took the female championship at Stirling with Deveron Jasmine Erica, which was bought by Andrew Hodge, of Rulesmains for 4800gns.

Egbert is her great, great, grandson and he originally caught Hamish’s eye at last year’s Royal Highland Show, where he stood junior male champion – chosen for the rosette by none other than Hamish himself.

Hamish said: “Being asked to judge the Highland was a massive honour, it was a once in a lifetime judging role – not a task I took lightly.”

He was delighted that his top picks went on to win the native team group of three. “One or two people suggested that my champion was too ‘fat-stocky’, but in my opinion, if you went to a sale with a line of bulls of that type you would come home very happy.”

Hamish and Margaret keep about a dozen bulls a year for sale, selling the commercial side at home and taking the cream of the crop to Stirling.

“We’re able to sell bulls at home because our EBVs are quite good,” Hamish explained. “The first things folk look at are calving ease, milk and growth, and we have the numbers there to back these things up. There’s an ongoing debate about the value of figures, but if the buyer believes in them, you must have them.”

Margaret added: “Our new stock bull, Egbert, brings a lot to the party although he doesn’t have the greatest calving figure, but with the type of cows and the figures we already have, we can balance that out, we are sure he will be a great addition.”

The Sclaters share their stock bulls with Ewen and Gill MacGregor, at Raddery, on the Black Isle, with Egbert the fourth bull they have shared over the past five years.

The herd’s top priced bull to date was one that they sold privately. Deveron Jasper Eric sold to Ireland for £20,000 and went on to be shown and win the All Ireland Championship. Other high-priced private sales have been at £15,000, £14,000, £12,000, with commercial bulls selling for between £3000 and £8000.

In a pedigree herd, the Sclaters are keen to emphasise the importance of female bloodlines. Hamish said: “We bought in several bloodlines to establish our herd and you can still see a lot of them today.

“The Lady family came from the Lindale herd on the Isle of Man, while our Elize and Miss Beauty families were originally from my father’s breeding.”

With most females set to go for breeding, the heifers are aimed at calving as two-year-olds, calving from late March to the end of May. Last year’s heifer calves were weaned in December and averaged 359kg at 240 days. Calves are creep-fed, but older females never get cereals, only seeing forage post-weaning.

As well as making sure they breed well, they’ve made sure to try and get the most out of their cows financially. The couple looked at various ways of building capital and found a way of helping ensure that their females make some money. Hamish explained: “Our cows are all in the Herd Basis. Cows are valued at their purchase price and any gain at the dispersal is not liable to tax.”

Even with their years of experience, the Sclaters are never afraid to try new things. “We’re always looking at new ideas, and that often means technology,” said Hamish. “One thing we’ve started using and are heralding as a success is the ‘Quiet Wean’ system.”

Showing us the yellow pieces of plastic used in this, Hamish explains that it fits into a calf’s nostrils, comes down over their mouths and stops them suckling, meaning that they wean themselves, but without the stressful process of being split up from their dams.

“They were developed in Canada to help respiratory disease,” explained Hamish. “We leave them in for a week and you get far less roaring when you do split them up. This also mean less chance of post-weaning disease as calves don’t need brought inside.”

They are also big believers in environmental schemes. “We’re in a lot of grass-based schemes and the forage cut from these areas is used to feed the cows,” explained Hamish.

“The hedges we have are great for boundaries and shelter, and we’ve also been able to split bigger fields into smaller paddocks, which is great for separating bulls.”

There is also a new shed going up ready to hold 35 cows. Hamish admitted that it’s been ideal weather, so far, for the cattle that have been out-wintered this year, waiting patiently on the shed being finished.

Success with the cattle hasn’t just been confined to the sale ring, they’ve also seen their share of success at shows. Preferring to head to the various autumn and winter calf shows, they’ve won an impressive selection of red tickets.

“We like the back-end shows,” explained Margaret. “We feel that when you show young stock , you’re comparing like with like, so it gives us a good benchmark.”

The Black Beauty Bonanza, at Thainstone, has given them great success. Over the years, they’ve had 22 championship tickets and won the calf pairs title five years in succession. In 2008, they won four out of the five champion rosettes – they didn’t have an entry in the fifth!

But, they admitted, things haven’t always been easy, though. Hamish said: “Things have happened – good and bad – that have got us to where we are today. As much as we love the cattle and the breed, we aren’t doing this for the fun of it, every move we make has to have a purpose.

“The business is certainly stronger now than it has been. We looked at what parts we could influence and put our efforts into making then work better.”

“We’ve certainly had our ups and downs,” confirmed Margaret, “but adversity makes you stronger.”

Although they’ve no fulltime staff, they have three part-time helpers. Mike Dibben does tractor-work, while Ian Matthew and Douglas Cruikshank help with the cattle.

“Ian attends the major shows with us and Douglas is the calf whisperer,” Margaret told us. “Douglas’s canny approach soon has calves responding.”

The Sclaters are realistic about their ‘end game’ creeping closer, but that’s certainly not lessening their desire to push themselves. “We’re weaning 400kg bull calves at 200 days and selling bulls for beef at 400kg at 400 days. I don’t think figures like that are to be sniffed at,” pointed out Hamish

“It maybe doesn’t work out like that 100% of the time but with the right genetics, environment and feeding, it’s an achievable goal and one that we’ll push for. The future of the herd is definitely in the young stock. If the breeding and bloodlines are right, your young stock should be better than their mothers.

“As a breed, the Aberdeen-Angus has come in for some stick over consistency and quality, but they’re a different animal than they were 10 years ago. “Continental breeders have come in challenging established breeders, adding more body and shape to the cattle. You can see what the breed has gained from this.”

The Sclaters are nothing, if not pragmatic about the future. They’ve worked for decades to build their set up and the prospect of retirement isn’t lessening their hunger to build their own herd or help progress the breed.

“When we do eventually ‘hang up our halters’, obviously it won’t be our decision, but we hope it would be a pedigree breeder who takes on the tenancy. We’ve set the place up to be most suited for that and it would be a shame if it didn’t continue, but we’ll need to wait and see,” said Margaret.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, you just have to go out each day and do your best!”