This year, the British Limousin Cattle Society, celebrates its 50th Anniversary and there can be few more dedicated to the commercial attributes of the breed as both a terminal and a maternal breeder than Margaret Penny, who together with her husband, John, own one of the largest herds in Scotland at Shannas, Peterhead.

Officially, 2022 is actually the 51st year of the Society, but with so many regulations relating to the covid pandemic last year, the celebrations for this big anniversary were put back a year.

It's been a long awaited event, and as one of the earliest breeders in Aberdeenshire, the couple has been looking forward to it more than most, with Margaret first trialling the Limousin after John had been on a Buchan Meat Producers’ trip to France, in 1979, to view the cattle in their native homeland.

John was so impressed by the quality he saw there that the breed has been a hot topic for debate at Shannas ever since. All visits in France were to pure-bred herds where the progeny produced superior carcase grades to those finished in Scotland at that time. Furthermore, the cows were making £1000 per head as cull females – more than 40 years ago!

The Pennys retain 18-20 heifers for breeding of which a handful are always sold privately   Ref:RH0807221110  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

The Pennys retain 18-20 heifers for breeding of which a handful are always sold privately Ref:RH0807221110 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

Such was John’s enthusiasm for the breed that the couple purchased their first Limousin bull, Harvest Polaris, within the next few months, at a small breeding sale at Carlisle, to use over their Aberdeen-Angus cross cows, and, they’ve never looked back since, with Limousin cross females retained from the first crop of calves as future replacements.

“The whole selling point about the breed in the early days was that they were easy calving, producing calves with great carcases, and that’s exactly what they are here today,” said Margaret.

“Our first lot of Limousin cross calves were easier calved and quicker to get to their feet than some of the other breeds we had tried, and, they produced better carcases when finished on farm. All our Limousin cows and heifers calve themselves and we never have any bother with them, unless a calf is coming backwards,” she added pointing out that they are also easy to work with.

“I really like my Limousins. I walk through them every day and they are very nice cattle to look at and work with. Yes, there are some strains that are more difficult to work with than others, but ours in general are particularly quiet.

“Limousins are also the best breed for the butcher when you see how well they perform at fatstock shows up and down the country, year in, year out, and all the finishers are keen to buy them,” she added.

In previous years, the 75-cow Aberdeen-Angus cross cow herd was split between spring, summer and autumn calving, mostly to a Charolais with heifers to an Aberdeen-Angus, with all, bar replacement females sold finished.

Now however, such is the ease of management of the Limousin as a pure-bred female at Shannas, that 90+% of the herd is pedigree registered. Furthermore, cow numbers have increased to 130.

In contrast to most pedigree herds, the Shannas enterprise been built up from just three foundation females, with the first pedigree heifer being Ruadh Unice, a 1600gns purchase from Norman Cruickshank, at Carlisle, which produced the couple’s first home-bred calf, Shannas Betty, in 1986.

The herd is bred for temperament and mothering ability  Ref:RH080722259  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

The herd is bred for temperament and mothering ability Ref:RH080722259 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

Unice was followed by Burton Topaz, bought for a similar amount, and the French-bred, Regate that sold with bull calf at foot for 3600gns at Jim Cruickshank’s dispersal – an outfit for which Margaret had to cash in her savings for!

By concentrating on quality rather than quantity, the Pennys have won the small, medium and large Scottish Limousin Herds competitions and each one on several occasions too, as herd numbers increased.

“Limousins are a good all-round breed that work really well here, but, we built the herd up gradually, by only retaining the best females. We’ve learnt over the years that if you use a bull with a fault it takes three generations to get rid of it, so we always look to buy correct potential stock bulls with easy calving figures and plenty of milk,” said Margaret.

“We do go by eye first, with the figures used as a guide, but we never look to buy anything too extreme.”

Their cattle are performing without having to spend a fortune on stock bulls too. One of the best breeding bulls has been Ronick Jalopy, a 6000gns purchase at Carlisle in 1998, that bred a lot of good females and bulls over a number of years.

Other former stock sires that have made their mark on this 480-acre upland unit include Dyke Thunder, Craigatoke Bart and the home-bred bull, Shannas Magnate, a six-year-old bull that is still going strong, by Alagils Inkerman – bought at Carlisle for 5000gns from Dingwall-based breeders, Alasdair and Gill Macnab.

Their most expensive purchase to date has been the 14,000gns stock bull, Maraiscote Pomagne, bought last year at Carlisle, with the first of his calves also proving promising.

Such purchases may not have been headline grabbing, but the Penny’s breeding policy is paying handsome dividends when they have a long list of regular buyers looking to purchase males and females privately.

Heifers calve and join the herd at two and half to three years of age  Ref:RH080722266  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

Heifers calve and join the herd at two and half to three years of age Ref:RH080722266 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

And, while they do sell some of their best at society sales, which in the past have reached 8500gns, such bulls are not fed to the limit to ensure costs of production are minimised. In fact, potential sale bulls are summered at grass.

“We’re not good keen at showing our cattle, but it’s amazing the number of people who just phone up looking to buy a heifer or a bull privately and the same people come back, so they must be doing ok with them,” Margaret added.

Most years, the couple retains 18-20 heifers for breeding of which a handful are sold privately either as in calf or maiden. Some are also cashed through Aberdeen and Northern Marts' Spring Show at Thainstone, or at their breeding sale in June. The remainder are finished at 20-24months of age on a forage-based diet with home-grown cereals. These are sold through Morrisons to produce 390kg U+4L carcases.

A similar number of bulls are sold privately every year too, with those that fail to make the grade, finished on a home-grown cereals mix and cashed through the same outlet, yielding E and U grade carcases.

At Shannas the herd has been built up Gradually by only retaining the best females Ref:RH080722262  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

At Shannas the herd has been built up Gradually by only retaining the best females Ref:RH080722262 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

The real beauty of the breed though is the fact that the cows are run the exact same way as a commercial herd, with the added bonus of being able to sell a few pedigree bulls and females at a premium.

Furthermore, with John and stockman/general farm worker, Keith Johnston, keen on growing cereals and reseeding fields, the bottom end of the herd can be finished off home-grown barley and oats. In previous years, dark grains have been bought in, but last year the couple experimented with Maxammon-treated barley, which proved more effective and efficient.

There are however still three calving groups – spring, summer and autumn, with heifers joining the herd at 2.5-three years of age.

Depending on the weather, the 90 spring calving and 20 winter calving cows at Shannas, are brought inside to straw bedded courts in November and provided ammonium-treated straw only until they calve after which they are given additional silage.

The remaining 20 summer calving cows come inside at the same time buy have access to ammonium treated straw and silage. All calves are introduced to creep feeding early August.

Only the summer calvers give birth outside in a bare, old grass field, in July, to reduce the risk of calving issues, although Margaret has found she has more issues with flies and mastitis at this time, and therefore often ends up walking individual cows into a crush to administer tar or Spot-On to them.

Being easy calved, the couple has few if any problems with fertility too, with most years seeing only a couple failing to hold to the bull, with weaning percentages, based on the number cattle holding to the bull, working out an an impressive 96%.

“I do like my Limousin cows and we get on well with them. We don’t do anything fancy like AI or flushing, we just use bulls naturally it works well here. We’re happy what we’re doing and our Limousins make money,” Margaret concluded.

The Pennys herd are particularly quiet as they walk through them everyday Ref:RH080722258  Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

The Pennys herd are particularly quiet as they walk through them everyday Ref:RH080722258 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

FARM facts

Family farm: Margaret attends to the cattle, while her husband looks after the cropping side of the business alongside general farm worker, Keith Johnston.

Farm size: 480 acres of which 180 acres of arable to include winter and spring barley and oats, mostly grown for home-grown feed.

Herd size: 130 cows which stem back to three foundation females – French female, Regate; Ruadh Unice and Burton Topaz. Average weaning percentage 96% with 98.5% barren most years.

Cattle sales: Outwith best bulls and females retained for breeding and those sold privately or at Thainstone Spring Show, or ANM breeding sales, remainder sold finished off grass and home-grown feeds through Woodheads, Turriff.

ON THE spot

Best investment? "French-bred female Regate."

Biggest achievement?: "Still trying – see below!"

Best Limousin you’ve seen and why?: "Group of French-bred Limousin heifers we saw on a breed trip to Brazil in 1998. We've been trying to emulate that type ever since. The heifers were just beautiful, feminine cattle full of breed character and quality."

Way forward for the Limousin breed in the next 20 years?: "There will always be a market for the Limousin provided breeders concentrate on the joint maternal and terminal sire characteristics of the breed without getting too extreme."

Favourite pastimes outwith farming?: "Yoga and reading."