COMMITTING to a breed that is low maintenance, but with high outputs, which is also easy enough to work with as a one-man job is essential for a profitable suckler herd running out of the same yard as an existing, and thriving, business, and for the Ward family that breed is the ‘mother of all breeds’, the Simmental.

Set on the outskirts of the hamlet of Newbigging, near Carnwath, South Lanarkshire, the 350-acre site of West Mains has been home to the Ward family since 1983 and was later added to by another 350-acre farm, Millridge. These two farm names combined to create the Westridge herd of pedigree Simmentals run by Gareth Ward, while father Martyn, and brother Chris, run the family’s plant hire business, Ward Plant, from the old quarry site at Westend Wood.

With another 170 acres bought at Brownhill a couple years ago as well as 300 acres at Carnwath Mill a few years prior to that, the total land farmed by the Wards is roughly 1200 acres, with a further 250 acres owned or rented nearby.

“When dad first bought West Mains he started off with fattening stock and created a suckler herd from there,” said Gareth, who resides at West Mains with wife Corrie and their three children, four-year-old Eva, three-year-old Stuart, and baby Duncan.

“He initially bought dairy-bred replacements and used Limousin and Charolais bulls, but then the Simmental influence came in as he started covering the Limousin crosses by the Simmental.

“We had maybe six or eight pure females while Chris and I were in our teens which kept us interested, but Chris’s enthusiasm and ability to operate and maintain machinery led him to work with dad on the earth moving machines. Mum, Joanne, does the admin for both businesses but in the past was always on hand for both calving and lambing times, as well as out of hours work – your typical unsung hero,” continued Gareth, pointing out it wasn’t until 2002 he properly established the herd with the purchase of a few bargain females which he put to bulls from proven families.

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The herd now numbers 70 pedigree females as part of a 350-strong herd based on Simmental genetics, including around 80 native crosses featuring Aberdeen-Angus and Shorthorn breeding.

“We introduced some Angus blood for easier calving and are trialling Shorthorns too, which are having a bit of a resurgence at the moment, but no matter what we always go back to the Simmental,” pointed out Gareth, who works the cattle between himself and long-term friend and stockman, David Robertson.

“Simmentals are very good females and while we don’t want to go down the solely pedigree route, the pedigrees complement the main commercial herd and a good sale brings in that bit extra capital. But the herd is run very commercially with females on slats and any young bulls running in with the cross-bred bulls until we decide what will be kept for breeding or selling.”

Of these 350 females, some 280 calve in the spring time with the heifer portion starting in April followed by the cows from May through to July, with the remaining 70 in the back-end. The pedigree herd is split 50:50 between spring and autumn calving, which allows the team to let a cow slip back if she’s been missed by the bull, but Gareth insists they’re rather strict and will only allow the best to do so or enter into an embryo programme, which has only been completed on a small scale so far.

There’s no special treatment for the pedigree cows, and this continues with the offspring as the pure and the cross-bred calves share the same space until a decision has been made as to what will be kept and what will be retained.

Any male calves are kept entire with around 150 fattened each year on a bull beef system, with sales starting in May/early June. These are sold through Highland Meats and ABP Perth, both of which have a heavyweight cut off so the aim is to produce a deadweight of 400kg to 420kg at 12 to 13 months of age. These kill out between 55% and 60% and achieve mostly U+ and U- grades.

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“We’re doing things a bit differently here as we keep the calves on the cow until they are weaned in late February so the calves aren’t getting a lot of concentrates until then when they receive around 3kg per head before moving on to ad lib. We’re looking to feed the cows in order to feed the calves and make them grow, rather than feeding the calves directly, which also helps keep condition off the cows in the run up to calving,” explained Gareth, who fattens more bulls as well as cut pedigree males in the back-end which have spent a summer at grass before they’re finished and hit 350kg-390kg deadweight at 15 to 17 months.

“We are also feeding the cows to prevent long bone deformity, so look to provide no more than 75% of the cow’s dry matter from silage, with the remainder provided from barley and straw. The big thing with the cows is their milking ability as the calves only get a small amount of creep feed at grass while the cows put on condition during the summer, but milk off this extra weight during the winter, so they really are ‘milking off their backs’,” he added.

These bull calves, which weighed around the 350kg mark in October/November, can easily do 1.25kg while on their mother, increasing to 2.5kg to 3kg per day while fed ad lib.

It’s a similar system for the female calves as while between 50 and 60 heifers are retained each year to join the cross or pure herd, some 40 to 50 are fattened with the aim of hitting between 300kg and 350kg deadweight at 15 to 17 months. These, however, don’t always go on the same ad lib bull beef ration as the males, and instead are offered a barley and straw summer ration.

This, insists Gareth, is only possible thanks to the mothering ability of the females and the easy fleshing ability of the calves, no matter what the sire, as well as the easy-to-do nature that comes with the breed.

“They’re very docile so both David and I can work with them on our own, which is important as it frees up farm staff for other work,” observed Gareth.

“They’re milky and produce very good calves, with heifers calving at two which is a big thing for us. We find them easiest to calve at this age and it fits in with our system. It also makes it easier to choose replacements and we’re still easily getting eight to 10 calves from each female.

“We’re fairly strict on culling and mostly go on feet and temperament, which have both got to be right. The health of the animals is very important to us and while Johne’s is becoming a problem on many farms, we have had only one test positive in the last four years of testing, helped largely by the pro-active approach to health by the Simmental Cattle Society.”

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        These lads and lass are destined for Stirling

The herd may have been founded on bought-in females, but the herd remains closed bar herd sires, of which there have been a few which have made their mark.

Burghbridge Legend, a 6000gns purchase in 2002, was one of the first bulls to do well at West Mains, proving his worth by the fact a few sons were retained and the majority of the herds go back to him.

In 2012, Gareth paid the top price of 19,000gns at the February sale at Stirling for the junior champion, Grangewood Baron, which has since bred sons to 6000gns with a lot of females retained.

More recently, Woodhall Freeman, an 11,000gns purchase in 2015, is another that is breeding well, but Gareth was already impressed by his bull and female lines and knew he would click with the Westridge herd.

“I tend to buy a new bull every two or three years as we’ve always got eight or nine Simmental bulls in work, half of which are home-bred. But we’ll often use a home-bred bull for a few years before selling them on privately, as we like to see what they’ll produce before selling on and it allows the buyer to see what they can produce too,” said Gareth.

Hoping to succeed the herd’s previous best bull sale price of 6500gns, paid by the Green family at Corskie for Westridge Dugan, Gareth has four bulls entered for this year, and one female – Westridge Humble, the darkest of the four bulls, is the only one entered by Woodhall Freeman while Westridge Hippo is by Grangewood Baron, as well as the heifer, Westridge Baron Louise. The other two, Westridge Hadrian and Westridge Hugo, are both by the home-bred Westridge Einstein, himself a son of Grangewood Baron.

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      Westridge Humble is one of the favourites

Females, too, have hit the headlines and peaked at 3000gns at pedigree sales, but the Westridge team sells in the region of 50 to 60 bulling heifers, of mixed crosses, through the auction ring and off-farm each year.

As well as the extensive cattle herd and the machinery enterprise, some 175 acres of barley are grown each year, of which 30 to 40 acres each year is winter barley while the remaining acres are planted with spring varieties. Grown in a three-year rotation to keep the fields fresh for silage production, all the barley is used on farm and makes the Wards ‘just about self-sufficient’.

As if that’s not enough to contend with, Gareth will be looking to lamb 820 ewes this coming season, but there’s a bit of a change going on there as he looks to move from the Scotch Mule as a base to Cheviot Mules, with the Texel-sired offspring also joining the breeding flock. The lambs of which are fattened by September and sold through Lanark and Stirling, as well as Dawn Meats at Carnaby later in the season.

But for now, the cattle side of the Ward enterprise needs to look after itself in order to turn a profit.

“Due to the dual purpose characteristics, the Simmental continues to tick most of the boxes for us here at Westridge and we are hoping to continue improving our herd through careful and informed bull choice in the future,” concluded Gareth.