MAKING sure a breed works best for the land you have is often the biggest challenge a breeder can face, especially if your farm is more challenging than some.

For Alistair Busby of Unthank, at Ewes, Langholm a combination of pure black Galloway Cattle and Blue Greys are the team that works best for him.

There are 50 pure Galloway cows at Unthank and a White Shorthorn bull is used to produced Blue Grey heifers.

Alistair lives at Rutherford near Kelso, on his wife Harriet’s family tenanted arable farm. The couple have three kids, Nell, Iris and Arthur.

He has also contracted farmed another local farm for the last decade, where he runs 100 cows and 1000 sheep.

Alistair uses the combination of farms to try and get the best out of his cattle.

At the contract farm they run Luings but more Blue Greys are being introduced as the outwintering system there suits smaller, hardy cows.

There are also 600 South Country Cheviots and 300 North Country Cheviots at Unthank. They are all run on grass and sold fat through Longtown.

Unthank runs over 1800 acres, rising to just under 2000 feet and even from the steading you can see how steep it gets in some places.

Brian Kennedy manages Unthank and has done for 13 years. He’s currently ably helped by his daughter Alison who is fresh out of college.

Talking about his breed choices, Alistair explained: “We’ve always had Galloways. There were 20 Galloway cows when my father first started. He bred Bull Greys with a Whitebred Shorthorn bull over black Galloway cows bull but stopped in 1976.

“I restarted that though and now breed Blue Grey cattle as well as pure Galloways.”

“For me, the future of the Galloway breed is entirely in the Blue Grey,” admitted Alistair.

“I sell Blue Greys over to the contract farm, so we’re self-replacing in that respect.

“I truly believe the cheap to winter Blue Grey cows are the future of hill cows and the Whitebred Shorthorn bull makes the Blue Grey female,” admitted Alistair.

Unthank has been in the Busby family since 1966, when Alistair’s father, Stephen, moved north from Bradford as new farmer having been in the retail business.

Alistair explained: “Dad came to work at Upper Hindhope in 1963 and eventually bought Unthank when he got his share of the family business.

“The Galloway is the obvious breed for a hill cow,” Alistair explained, “there is a huge potential for expansion within the breed as economics drive hill farmers towards cows that will look after themselves.”

Alistair and Brian make some purchases at the Galloway Sale at Castle Douglas but chose to do most of their selling at the later sale at Carlisle.

“We sold a bull to Germany two years ago for 1100gns, at Castle Douglas, which, for the work we put in, was disappointing,” Alistair told us, “we sold a bull at Carlisle the same year for 2600gns, to Andrew Thorpe near Rochdale, which topped the sale, so that just proved to me that the commercial buyers at Carlisle are as good a market as any.”

They sell heifers and the odd bull at the Galloway Sale at Carlisle, and there are four pedigree heifers earmarked for that job this year.

They also sell heifers privately to the contract farm, John Higgs Farms. “They go at 18months for about £900,” explained Alistair.

Annually, about seven heifers are kept, two or three are sold to John Higgs Farms and three or four head to Carlisle.

“Working like that means we have outlets for everything,” explained Alistair, “and we know where we’re at with everything. Our smallest heifers that go fat average 280kg in July and go for about £1050.

“I would rather fatten them myself than sell pedigree heifers at store prices.”

Bulls-wise, there have been several that have left their mark at Unthank.

Rebus of Nether Cleugh was, according the Alistair, their best stock bull to date and he left the herd last year at nine-years-old.

Alistair explained: “he was a great bull for us, and has absolutely left his mark. I would say he’s put an extra 50kg on our bullocks over the years we had him.

“He was bought at Castle Douglas and he would come in off the hill each year almost fitter than he went out, so that to me is a great Galloway bull.”

They are running three stock bulls just now, Mountbenger Galileo – who was swapped for Rebus with Buccleuch Estates – Balgray Mandela, who was bought at Castle Douglas as a two-year-old last year and Barlaes Nero, a rising four-year-old that was also purchased at Castle Douglas.

“We bought the two bulls at Castle Douglas because we felt they were slightly smaller than the most modern type and we need that to produce a cow that is able to maintain herself in tough country,” Alistair told us.

After they’re speaned, the Galloways head to Rutherford and only the breeding heifers return to Unthank. The rest are all sold fat at St Boswell where they’ve averaged impressive live weights of 630kg and deadweights of 362 kg.

“We didn’t sell through the market for a long time because I felt we weren’t getting the premium price that we deserve for quality native beef,” Alistair explained, “we were selling them direct to the abattoir.

“They’re killing out at 57/58% though, that can’t be sniffed at.”

Alistair said: “we’re unlikely to be regularly selling pedigree cattle to the big pedigree breeders, so we need to do the commercial job properly and make a decent margin selling fat, which we do at 30months.”

Their average mature cow weight is 580kg although Alistair feels even that may be getting too big.

He said: “Galloways shouldn’t be massive. They need to be able to do on the roughest of hills.

“To be able to have a sustainable future, they need to be a proper, look after themselves, hill cow.”

The cows are wintered inside over at Rutherford on ammonia-treated straw and on mineral blocks, a combination that they believe both works well for the cattle and keeps costs down.

Alistair explained that he believes the muck is a vital park of rebuilding the soil organic matter levels at Rutherford after decades of arable specialisation and, as a result, straw can be sold to the cows at £7.50 a bale.

Half come back to Unthank to calve and half stay at Rutherford.

The team at Unthank calve in February/March, with their heifers having their first calf at three-years-old.

“If I was to calve Galloways at two, I would need to treat them very differently and push them on and I don’t have the fields or staff for that,” Alistair told us.

“The calves are all reared on the hill and females need to be reaching the right weight before calving to be able to handle that.”

Looking at the future of the hill farm, Alistair is pragmatic. He said: “There are currently nine farms in our valley and none of them are all trees just now but that will definitely change over the years.”

Alistair explained: “For me, the hill farm is in on the edge of not existing.

“In 50 years, there could be none left in the valley if we can’t find a way of producing out of them. For me that will mean growing top quality native breed beef and lamb, but also by harnessing natural biodiversity and I’m hopeful that the general public will embrace this.”

As far as the future of his own farm is concerned, Alistair admits that he, “has no plans, but lots of ideas”.

“We need to wait and see what happens with Brexit. We must be prepared to do what the public are going to need us to do.

“Personally, I think this will mean places running a combination of sheep, cattle and trees. I think that will provide the biodiversity that we’ll need, as opposed to relying on mono-cultures. We’ll need to move on from that”

He explains that finding the balance between the different aspects will be key.

He said: “In 20 years it might be the case that you need a herd of 250 cows to be a commercial operation.

“The best way to do that in the hills will be a mixture of cattle, with Galloways at heart of it, and something else.”

“In America and Australia, they have a grading system that pays a premium for eating quality and in both of those countries, the beef consumption rates are far higher.

“In the UK we are driven by the pied piper of efficiency that is playing the EU beef grading tune. We really need to be addressing that, but there is a long list of issues that you could worry yourself when it comes to both hill and beef farming.”

Alistair concluded: “We need to do the best possible job we can while being prepared to respond quickly to changes in the world around us. If we can do that then there should be a future for farming in the hills.”