One of the highest and most remote hill farms in Yorkshire is home to one of the oldest and most consistent breeding herds of British Blue cattle – the Greystone herd.

Brothers Alan and Graham Coates run up to 30 pedigree females at Rainscar, near Stainforth, in the Ribble Valley, north of Settle, and on the flanks of one of the Three Peaks, Pen-y-Ghent.

At Rainscar Farm, Graham and Alan Coates Greystones British Blues seem to do well on the hardest of hill ground

At Rainscar Farm, Graham and Alan Coates' Greystones British Blues seem to do well on the hardest of hill ground

The Coates family has farmed at Rainscar for around 100 years and British Blues have been bred on the 1900 acre farm for almost 40 of those since Alan and Graham’s parents, the late Eric and Jane, established the herd in the very early days of the breed in the UK. Jane is still involved with running the business.

The farm comprises of 1800 acres of enclosed fell rising from 1400ft to 2200ft above sea level, with a further 100 acres of ‘lowland’ at 1000 ft. The land is moorland and permanent pasture. Five acres was improved after the war but attempts at cropping it failed because of the weather and ground conditions.

The Greystones herd of pedigree British Blue cattle on upland pasture in North Yorkshire, with Penyghent in background

The Greystones herd of pedigree British Blue cattle on upland pasture in North Yorkshire, with Penyghent in background

It is one of the three highest farms in Yorkshire and the Coates have stuck with the breeds that suit the farm – a flock of 500 traditional Dalesbred ewes and, in contrast, the herd of Blue cows. It is probably the highest farm in the country running a pedigree herd of British Blues – or any pure terminal sire breed.

Over the last four decades the Coates have had consistent success with their breeding, selling numerous bulls privately and into stud and making good prices through the ring at pedigree sales. Three home-bred bulls are entered for the Border British Blue Club sale at Borderway Mart, Carlisle, on May 14.

Alan and Graham were boys when the Greystone herd was established in the autumn of 1982 but they can remember it well. Highlighting how early the Coates were to get into the breed is the herd’s British Blue Society membership number of 28 – numbers now are heading towards 5000.

“We had a herd of Galloway suckler cows which were put to the Charolais bull,” said Graham. “We needed a new bull and we went to see Tom Ashton, at Lawns Farm, Wigan, who had just imported the first Blues from Belgium for himself.

“My parents were interested in the cattle and they agreed they would buy a bull and a heifer in Tom’s first importation of Blues for sale. It was very much unknown territory – no one had seen the cattle before,” he added.

The first two cattle were 10 months old – the bull Fox de Maurage and the heifer, Herpine de Denville. Although at the time the Coates didn’t have much choice in the cattle they bought, because of the complexities of the importation, both animals went on to do well in the herd. All cattle in the herd today can be traced back to them – which is probably unique in the breed in the UK.

In fact, the bull and heifer’s first calf was a bull, Greystone Banko, and it was the first Blue bull to be bought by Genus – then the Milk Marketing Board – for its AI stud. Banko semen went on to sell all over the world.

We well-grown calf from a pedigree British Blue showing that they can thrive on the tops of the hills

We well-grown calf from a pedigree British Blue showing that they can thrive on the tops of the hills

The sale of the 15-month-old bull cemented a relationship with the company which has continued over the years and resulted in Genus buying 22 Greystone bulls, the most recent acquisition of the yearling Greystone Oxford being in February, 2021, as well the purchase of embryos. One of the bulls, Greystone Governor, came near the top in progeny testing trials for all British Blue stock bulls across studs and stock sires carried out by Genus for economic return.

At the time the AI company was quick to spot the market for Blue semen sales to the dairy herd, as well as interest from the increasing number of pedigree breeders in the 1980s – a market for both which Greystone bulls have successfully fulfilled over the years in the UK and abroad.

The first Blue bull was crossed with some of the native bred cows on the farm to produce suckled calves for sale in Hawes but gradually the pedigree Blues took over. “In the early days we used AI and did some ET work to increase the num-ber of Blues. We also bought in a few cows, the most successful being from the Park herd in Northamptonshire which is now dispersed.

"But we found as we did with the Galloway sucklers that they couldn’t deal as well with the conditions on the farm as the home bred ones,” said Graham.

A thriving herd of Pedigree British Blue cattle on upland pasture in North Yorkshire in the shadow of Penyghent

A thriving herd of Pedigree British Blue cattle on upland pasture in North Yorkshire in the shadow of Penyghent

“We haven’t bought in any pedigrees, apart from bulls, for about 20 years now. All the herd’s bloodlines can be traced back to one or both of the original cattle. Even the stock bull we have been using for eight years goes back to a daughter of Heroine. The herd is closed and it is Johnes level 1, which it has been for 10 years, and it is BVD accredited, with the SAC health scheme.”

One of the most successful bought in herd sires, Almeley Ginola, bought for 20,000gns in 2013 from Graham Morgan, Herefordshire, is still working in the herd at nearly 10 years of age. A few of his daughters are in calf to an AI homozygous polled bull and the Coates are looking forward to seeing the calves on the ground.

Other successful sires include Newton Blues Chico, bought as a half share with Mark and Elaine Hartley, Pendle Blues, which is still being used at Greystone. Recent AI bulls used have been Goodyhills Emperor and Pendle Bruce, which produced November-born calves. Other AI sires used this time are Tenace de la Praule, Greystone Poncho and Goldorak de Fontena.

The herd is not performance recorded and sires are selected by eye and on pedigree. “We are trying to breed bulls with a bit of size which have plenty of length and to avoid calving difficulties. We want them to produce calves which are not too big but have plenty of growth in them once they are born.

The next gen Greystones British Blues just about ready for sale

The next gen Greystones' British Blues just about ready for sale

“They have to have good legs and mobility as do all our cattle to cope with the hilly and rocky terrain on the farm. If the ground is not too wet the dry cows and heifers graze out on the enclosed fell and limestone outcrop which is about a mile away from the farm. People who come to Rainscar to look at the cattle are amazed that the herd thrives up here. They think they must have come past the farm further down the valley!”

The hardy Greystone cows are long-lived. Three of the four old cows sold in 2020 were over 15. The oldest cow in the herd today has produced 11 consecutive bull calves, the first 10 selling to average over £5000. Most of the bulls have been sold privately.

As well as sales to Genus and to Lancashire-based Norbreck Genetics, private sales to pedigree breeders, suckler herds and dairy herds, and both live cattle and embryos have been sold to North America and main-land Europe.

The Coates have also enjoyed consistent success in the pedigree sales ring. Their top price was at the Carlisle, May, 2008, sale when Greystone Bonzer sold for 18,000gns. He was by the previous herd bull, Adagio du Stordeur, rated one of the best bulls to leave Belgium and he left naturally calving lines.

The following year, Greystone Cannon made 11,000gns at Carlisle's January sale to the Penfro herd, but the best sale average came in January, 2017, selling Greystone Kellogs for 11,000 gns to Richard Mowbrays' Droit Herd, and two others to average 9000 gns for three Ginola sons.

Bulls also regularly make good money and top prices at the CCM Skipton pedigree sales to both beef and dairy breeders.

Surplus heifers have usually been sold privately but, after lockdown, some were sold in November at a sale at Skipton, which worked well, selling to 4300 gns. The Coates are keen to support the sale again as there are a lot of heifers coming on. The interest in the sale prompted them to set up a Facebook page as Greystone Herd.

The Greystones herd of British Blues thriving on upland pasture

The Greystones herd of British Blues thriving on upland pasture

The entries for the Carlisle May sale all have Ginola breeding. One is a Ginola grandson, but sired by the well known Jalon de Martinpre. The others are Ginola sons, one from a Jalon de Martinpre cow, the other is the full brother to Norbreck Genetics' Greystone Noveltee who is out of a Valide D'al Gote cow. The imported Valide won nine county shows in 1999-2000.

Cattle are housed from mid-October to mid-May at Rainscar. The aim is to have the cows calving in two six week batches from early April and in Oc-tober-November to managed the workload for the brothers who can then get on with summer work. Herd fertility is good with only the odd cows dropping back into the next calving group.

At housing the cows are fed bale silage and straw and they may get some concentrate post calving. Heifers, which calve at 2½ to three years old, are fed an increased amount of silage. Calves are fed some creep although this is difficult with mixed grazing with the sheep.

Quality beef from the high hills of Rainscar Farm

Quality beef from the high hills of Rainscar Farm

The majority of the Dalesbred ewes are bred pure and lamb from mid-April. The Dalesbred bloodlines go back to the early days of the Coates family farming at Rainscar and they have remained the breed most suited to the farm.

Draft ewes sell well at the October sales at Bentham mart. Wether lambs are sold finished through Bentham with some over wintered and sold store in the spring.