Basil Lowman is celebrating his 50th year as beef specialist at SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). In this second of a three-part series, we explore the introduction of the continental genetics, the increase in animal size and the gains resulting from the understanding of genetics.

A memorable milestone for Scotland’s beef sector and Basil Lowman’s career, was the birth of the UK’s first continental beef bull calf – a Charolais – in January, 1967, and the introduction of the breed as a beef terminal sire.

It marked the shift away from 'waist-high Aberdeen-Angus cattle into a transformative era for the beef sector', an era in which he and his wider team have driven much progress and lasting change.

Gavin Hill, SAC Consulting’s business operations manager, said that Basil had always been interested in adopting and applying new technologies, and in doing so, had been instrumental in pioneering many new techniques via his team’s research work.

Science behind the advice

“You have to have science behind advice to have any form of credibility. Basil has always spanned both the research and then the transfer of the findings to the industry in a practical way that was easy to understand; this is very much the mantra of SAC Consulting’s approach and Basil has been an important forerunner for the way that we work with farmers,” said Gavin.

Basil reflected on the importance of the continental genetics in driving change. “The daily liveweight gains of cattle increased dramatically with the introduction of these breeds leading to animals more than doubling in size,” he said.

“The animals were so big in relation to the stock on our farms that, in the early years, farmers had to dig a hole to enable the bulls to serve their cows!”

Henry Graham, a farmer, former bank manager and board member of Lantra, added: “I’ve known Basil since the early 1970s when we sat in adjoining rooms in a Terrapin Building at the King’s Buildings campus in Edinburgh. I was one of the agricultural advisers in the Lothians before joining the Clydesdale Bank in 1979 and always staying on the family farm in Midlothian.

“Basil was always imaginative in his development work and always tested the boundaries. He would have his team and himself feeding the in-calf beef cows at midnight to identify if these cows would then calve in daylight, rather than through the night. He was well liked by his team and a 'Turn Out' beer night was always a date in the calendar that everyone looked forward to.

“He pioneered much of the initial work on condition scoring which is well used today,” Henry added. “The sector, however, was not always in agreement with him, but he was never scared to use the College facilities to test new thoughts such as once bred heifers.

"The use of Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) is also a credit to his pioneering spirit and many will have heard him promoting this subject at beef open days, AgriScot and many other specialist beef events,” said Henry

Condition scoring

Building on the earlier work Basil’s team had done on liveweight gain and milk yields, SAC started researching the benefits of the condition scoring of suckler cows. “The idea was developed in Australia on sheep in the 1960s,” Basil pointed out.

The work focused on how the cow’s condition would impact her fertility, calving ease and, in turn, the herd’s output and profitability. It also encompassed the ability of suckler cows to store energy during the summer grazing period for mobilisation later in the year.

AHDB’s guidance draws on Basil Lowman’s early work, and states that, for most suckler cows, one Body Condition Score (BCS) unit relates to approximately 13% of liveweight.

A spring-calving cow going into the winter with five months until calving in BCS 3-3.5 can use around 0.5 kg/day of body reserves over three to four months. This saves around 145 kg of dry matter in forage.

Gavin Hill added that this early work was the precursor to so much more progress: “Calving ease was the most important trait that Basil drove to get right. This, he then merged in with work on the condition scoring of pre-calving cows to maximise calving ease.

“Basil was instrumental at SRUC farm Easter Howgate using synchronisation and the artificial insemination (AI) of cows to create block calving over very short periods of time, driving an increase in numbers reared, the use of the best semen to maximise genetic progress and inseminating home-bred heifers with better genetics each year.

“He very much drove beef farmers to calf at two years of age and thereby improved profitability by calving heifers down at a younger age. I worked with him on an outwintering cattle project which has now been widely adopted by many throughout the UK.

"Other work included investigating straw rations, feeding choice and the effects of low-protein silage on animal performance; his impact has been far-reaching,” pointed out Gavin

Drive and determination

Gavin added: “To adopt change you have to be shown how it can be done in an easy-to-understand way. Basil always knew change was needed and through his drive and determination, he has worked with the industry showing how changes could be made and what was needed to improve the profitability of the UK beef herd.

Mistakes were made, yes, but often more was learned from this as much as from things that went right. He simply made a difference, which he wanted to do.”

When speaking to Basil he continually references his colleagues: “I’ve always worked in teams and we spark off one another.” One project he cited was the development of ammonia-treated straw, and then grains.

“We worked with a man called Bob Ørskov, who lived in the rumen, not the real world. He developed soda grain, a very strong alkaline and what was important about this treated feed is that it led to very slow digestion.

“The work we did was done on commercial farms, which helped us learn about managing the new systems. One really important lesson was that ammonia-treated grain needed moving five to six hours post-treatment, otherwise it ended up like Velcro!”

Grass finishing

Towards the end of the 1970s, Basil and the team started looking at grass finishing of beef cattle, the first trial was on a farm near Kelso using pure British Friesian steers.

“It was quite difficult to get farmers to use paddock grazing because it was expensive,” he said. “So this led us on to developing buffer grazing by taking out a quarter to a third of the field, monitoring grass height in the rest of the field and using the buffer area to top up grazing if the grazing became too short. If the buffer area wasn’t grazed, it could then be made into silage.”

He also explored the feeding of finishers on other feeds, including by-products such as potatoes adding that, in these early years, there was a practical advantage to the potato grower, which was that the beef finisher removed the waste at no charge.

Basil highlighted how crucial it was to listen to farmers’ concerns, their ideas and their reasons for adopting – or not – a new approach. “My consulting philosophy has always been, advise the farmer, not the problem. Treat each farmer as an individual, identify their passion, assess the resources available and try and make the maximum use out of everything at their disposal.”

Kirsten Williams, SAC Consulting’s sheep and beef consultant, said of Basil: “Having scientific evidence behind practical farm advice gives both the advisor and the farmer, confidence, because – rightly so – when you give a recommendation, a farmer always asks ‘will it work?’

"Where we are strong as a consultancy service is that we have the research as evidence to back this advice ... just as Basil had done throughout his whole career.”