PRODUCING the best paying and the most profitable commercial calves year in year out is never easy, but according to one Aberdeenshire farmer, it is feasible when you rely upon the Charolais sire for its impressive weight gain attributes, and more so, its continued strong demand in the market place.
For Rhys Anderson, who is the third generation to farm at Burnton, Laurencekirk, with wife Hazel, their son Jamie (2½) and full-time employee, Fraser McGill, the Charolais has very much been at the heart of his business since day one.
In fact, it was Rhys’ great-uncle, the late Alex Anderson, who was one of the first to import the big white French breed to the UK in 1965, before Rhys’ dad, the late James, carried on the herd and held the Charolais breed record for some time when he sold Mearns Olympus for 28,000gns at Perth, in 1979.
Though he is no stranger to the breed, Rhys has focused more on its commercial aspects, producing top-end Charolais-sired calves which are sold through the store ring at Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre, many of them to repeat buyers.

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Yearling stot calves which will be sold at Thainstone in the next 2 months

“The Charolais is the top beef breed sire for me,” said Rhys, who runs 190 commercial cows based mainly on Simmental and Salers cross-genetics across his main 550-acre unit, a secondary 330-acre unit near Stonehaven, as well as 210 acres of let and contract farmed arable land.
“When you’re selling a store beast at Thainstone, nothing can match the Charolais. If you sit at the ringside there you can see why – others sell well but when the Charolais calves enter the ring, there’s an immediate strong demand.”
Like a growing number of commercial breeders, Rhys relies heavily upon the Salers breed to go over heifers, with as many as 30 replacements kept on each year.
“The Salers cross Charolais calves are absolutely tremendous,” said Rhys. “The Salers is an ideal breed for putting onto Charolais cross heifers and breeding milky replacements which will cross well.
“In the past we had used an Aberdeen-Angus on heifers but those daughters didn’t perform so well when they went back in calve to the Charolais for their second calving,” added Rhys, who also mentioned that he used the Simmental on heifers at one time but found calving difficult.  He added: “We never really had big problems calving heifers but the Salers is known to have the biggest pelvic area of any breed and calves are up sooking within minutes.”
In contrast to the replacement heifers, the majority of Charolais cross Salers bull calves are kept entire for bull beef and sold to McIntosh Donald, just before they reach 16-month-old.
“Deadweight buyers tell you that bull beef is not as desirable, but as soon as beef is in short supply, they’re happy to take them,” said Rhys, commenting that although he received a 5p per kg reduction compared to steers last year, the benefits of keeping the Salers entire still made it worthwhile.
Generally, the bottom percentage of steers and heifers are put out to grass for the summer and then brought inside to finish, and it’s this transformation in the condition of the calves from the beginning to the end which Rhys says is ‘amazing’.
While all heifers and the bulk of the main suckler herd are calved throughout the spring, 40 calve during the second half of October to work around the harvest and sowing schedules, which includes 500 acres of arable – wheat, malting barley, milling oats and oilseed rape, and 80-100 acres of feed barley which is grown each year for home-use.
“We have big cows due to the influence of the Charolais and Simmental, but they can handle big calves. Charolais cattle may eat more than other breeds but our cattle have a good balanced diet, grazing purely on grass throughout the summer months and topped up with feed when inside in the winter.
“You don’t have to have showy cattle to have good cattle. They just have to be in the right condition for calving time,” he added, pointing out that the herd is routinely tested for Johnes and has been BVD-free for the past eight years, by vaccinating for BVD, lepto and bovine coronavirus.
In the hope of using as little straw as possible and having to feed less, cows are kept outside for as long as possible according to weather, with both spring and autumn herds mainly calved inside. Once inside for the winter, they receive silage along with straw and pot ale, or sometimes with additional draff or tatties.

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Yearling heifers which will either be kept as replacements or sold at Thainstone

They also have a fairly strict culling system at Burnton based on temperament and fertility. Rhys pays close attention to breeding history, with cows only being given the opportunity of two missed services over their lifetime, or else they’re killed.
Anything that doesn’t make the cut is fed hard for six weeks and sold through the ring at Thainstone. On the other hand, Rhys admits that they are quite hard on the Charolais calves.
“We don’t like to waste hours on end trying to get calves to sook their mothers. If they aren’t up and sooking when born, we tube milk them and it’s rare that they aren’t sooking by themselves very soon after,” said Rhys.
On the progeny side, spring-born calves are vaccinated mid-October and then weaned and housed two or three weeks later. That way, Rhys finds it gives the calves maximum protection before the high stress period.
“Once they’re inside on slats, all the calves’ backs are clipped and they’re fluked and wormed. Some years we have missed the odd calf’s back and it really just goes to show how much they sweat without being clipped,” commented Rhys.
As a result, the first draw of spring calves are sold within the first week of April as yearlings, although Rhys finds that the later calves sell just as well as the earlier lots due to finishers buying store cattle which will go straight onto grass.

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Spring-born calves

Autumn-born calves are usually sold around 15-months-old at the turn of the year depending upon the shed space at Burnton, and the other unit – Nether Quithel, near Stonehaven.
All calves heading for the store ring thrive on pit silage, home-grown barley and a balancing blend from East Coast Viners, and Rhys tends to initially hold off the feeding to avoid the stores peaking too early.
“I am trying to produce a calf between 400kg and 450kg in April, as that’s what the Thainstone buyers are looking for. They could easily be pushed to achieve much higher weights than that, but a 500kg Charolais calf can just make the same trade as a 400-450kg calf, with far higher feeding costs having been incurred.”
That’s clearly working in Rhys’ favour, as this year’s spring calves sold at the end of March included 34 stots which averaged 409kg in weight and sold to average 2.66p per kg or £1087.65 per head. They peaked at £1160 and topped the sale’s p per kg section at 307p. Spring-born heifers not retained for breeding levelled at 2.60p and £1070.
There was similar success with the Autumn-born calves as 2016’s crop which were sold in February, averaged 2.25p and £1106.07 with a top price of £1135 twice.
Praising Thainstone’s service, Rhys said: “You can’t fault Thainstone at all. They provide a great service, from the guys through the back, to the auctioneer and the ringside buyers. I have every faith in them when I turn up on sale day.”
But in order to achieve these results, it’s all about having the cows in the best order and sourcing bulls with good frame, size and confirmation. In the past, bulls have mainly been bought at Stirling or off-farm, and on the odd occasion at Thainstone, with the last dozen bulls purchased having averaged 6500gns.
Two of the bulls to have made their mark on the herd are Gretnahouse Italian, bought in February, 2015, at Stirling, and Woodpark Graduate, a smaller and thicker bull purchased at Carlisle’s May sale, which has produced more ‘showier’ type calves at Burnton.
Commenting on the pros and cons of buying, Rhys said: “I do love going to the bull sales as you have a great show of bulls in front of you to choose from. However, buying off-farm suits both parties, you usually get a more natural bull which isn’t pushed and it saves a lot of additional costs.”

Although there are still four pedigree Charolais females at Burnton, which have bred stock bulls for the commercial herd, Rhys stressed that it’s the commercial cattle that pay the bills, especially in an era where there is so much uncertainty for the industry.
“Our family has a lot of history with the breed but you could throw a lot of money at pedigree cattle, with no guarantee of a great success. In terms of our industry, when you look around the ringside at a mart, everybody is generally in their 60s and 70s – it’s worrying as it just highlights that there isn’t many in the next generation to take over.
“I’ve been running the farm since I was 22, and 14 years later I still feel like the youngster at the mart. It’s early days, but our son Jamie adores the cattle, so I hope his enthusiasm remains into later life!”
Rhys reckoned there is a bright future ahead for the breed itself and there’s certainly no denying that the Charolais is there to stay at Burnton.