He calls a spade a spade and at almost 85 years old is still maintaining an interest in the family’s pig farm and pedigree Simmental herd. In his next exclusive interview for The SF, Chris McCullough chatted to Billy Robson OBE about his passion for the Simmental breed and farming in general.

KILBRIDE Farm Simmentals is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year having been founded by Billy Robson in 1971 with the importation of four heifers from Germany.

Today the herd stands at 100 pedigree cows, with offspring sold around the world. Billy will be 85 in June and has witnessed big changes in the breed and farming during his career.

Tell us about your farm?

We have around 100 pedigree cows and register 100 calves every year. We also run a commercial pig enterprise, with 350 sows on a birth to bacon unit. The farm is run now by my sons, Michael and Norman, but I still maintain a keen interest as well.

How has the British Simmental breed evolved since you started breeding them?

There is no comparison whatsoever. When I think back to those first imports, they were quite plain and shelly. Even the first champion bull that we sold in Perth, way back in 1985, would not be even considered by today’s farmers. Today, the British Simmental is much more beefier, whilst still maintaining maternal traits such as easy calving and milkability.

What was the best bull you ever bred?

That has got to be Kilbride Farm Newry, which was born at the turn of the century and had a super growth rate topping 848kg at 400 days old.

He was the sire that had most calves registered in the Simmental herdbook from 2000 to 2020. We sold 4000 straws of pedigree semen from him and AI Services sold tens of thousands of straws of commercial semen from him. He had a big influence across the board.

What does the 50th anniversary of your herd mean to you?

The 50 years have gone past so quickly, but they have given me a lot of pride from what are our modest achievements.

A bull that had such an influence on our herd was Orage, which we bought in France in 1980. Nowadays, it’s somewhat gratifying to be exporting our genetics back to Europe after initially importing them from there. We will be hosting an anniversary sale via a timed online auction, selling 20 heifers in August to mark the occasion.

Pedigree cattle sales were halted when Covid-19 hit. How did that affect your business?

Well, as pedigree breeders, we have to go where the money is and that is Scotland. Over the years, local commercial farmers looking for a bull thought that it was only the second rate bulls that were left in Northern Ireland after Scotland got first pick but that was never the case.

This past year it has not been practical to take an animal for sale to the mainland because if it doesn’t sell, it cannot be brought back home again for six months. So, we have been continuously marketing our bulls online ourselves.

Half of the bulls we have sold have actually gone over the water to customers from Wales right up to Orkney. We have sold a lot of bulls to Orkney over the years.

We have missed the main pedigree sales in Scotland, of course, as that is a good shop window for us – especially if we get a photo or two into The Scottish Farmer. I’m not sure what the future for pedigrees sales is, or under what environment they will operate.

Billy Robson with the RUAS CEO of the time, Colin McDonald, when he was president of the society

Billy Robson with the RUAS CEO of the time, Colin McDonald, when he was president of the society

Balmoral Show moved to its new home in 2013. Did you approve the move?

I was president of the RUAS from 2015 to 2017 and was a strong supporter of the move. RUAS chief executive, Colin McDonald, was the prime mover of that move and will go down in history for doing so. I’ve been a member of the RUAS for 50 years and enjoyed my time as president.

This year Balmoral has moved from May to a September date. Will it happen?

A good question, who knows? On this farm, we took the decision in 2001 to stop exhibiting cattle at any agricultural shows to maintain and improve our herd health status.

However, I have always thought that Balmoral Show, which is Northern Ireland’s national farm show, should be held at the end of the season rather at the start. Therefore, it could host the finals of the breed championships judged at the local shows.

From a pedigree breeder's point of view, it is difficult to have an animal condition built up for Balmoral Show, in May, and then build it up again for the autumn pedigree sales. Unfair on the animal as well.

What do you think of the Royal Highland Show being held behind closed doors this year?

I think that idea is very questionable. It may satisfy the hunger of those breeders who want to show for showing sake, but if there are no commercial customers present, then it’s not going to be much benefit. The atmosphere at the show is unique and will be missed.

Brexit has come and gone. Is UK agriculture going to a better place?

There have been positive and negative changes. The Northern Ireland Protocol will have to be smoothed out.

I was president of the Ulster Farmers Union in 1975 when we had the referendum about joining the EEC. At that time, the UFU fought hard to join as we thought access to a market of nine countries and 350m people would improve farm incomes.

But Europe has changed dramatically today with 27 countries with a lot of Eastern European countries in it for what they can get and that has to be financed by the other members. We, in the UK, have been controlled by a bunch of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels who were obstinate.

I do think, though, the UK government could have sought more guidance from our industry during the build up to Brexit.