My agricultural education started when I was a small boy holding a gate in the sheep folds. By watching the shepherds and being given more important jobs as I grew older by the time I left school I was able to herd a hirsel and eventually run a farm.

In 1982, my agricultural education took a giant leap forward through a Nuffield Scholarship to study beef cattle genetics in North America. I travelled 8500 miles by car over three months and visited 55 ranches and research establishments in Western Canada and the USA, where I was exposed to the thoughts of many of the greatest minds in the beef industry. Three stood out. Martin Jorgensen and Larry Leonhardt have been gone for some time. Dave Nichols died on November 4th.

Jorgensen bred Angus and Charolais in South Dakota. He developed the Rito and Band strains of Angus with selection based entirely on performance, which he certainly got but at the expense of eye appeal. Despite the fact that his cattle were popular with ranchers, I decided then that they would be difficult to sell in Scotland. Jorgensen’s bloodlines were, in the distant future, to play an important part in the development of our own herd. Today his descendants carry the baton with great success, marketing 1700 bulls annually.

Leonhardt ranched at Cody, Wyoming (named after Buffalo Bill Cody). He had based his herd on genetics developed at The Wye Plantation in Eastern USA, which was probably the most famous herd on the planet and well known in Britain. He was a disciple of the manager at Wye, James B Lingle. Jimmy Lingle had visited Britain several times in the post war period in the search for bulls. To the disappointment of our breeders, who were thriving on fat cheques from overseas cattlemen, he disdained the blocky bulls then in fashion.

He sought the bigger kind, which breeders were sometimes reluctant to show him, and which were being sold cheap to dairymen. In all, he took home 29 bulls, bought for modest prices, from the UK and Ireland. Eventually, his own bulls had more growth than ours, so he used them exclusively.

Leonhardt had recently sold the high-performance bulls Shoshone Viking and Shoshone Titan for astronomic sums but had moved on. He was now developing three inbred lines. The first was for terminal characteristics; the second for maternal traits and the third, like everyone else’s, was a compromise of the two. As inbreeding depression set in, each generation looked less impressive than the previous one. He assured me that when these lines were outcrossed the results were explosive. When we came to a large group of heifers that looked downright ordinary, I had my doubts.

Leonhardt was a very intense man who always seemed to be talking about three beasts at the same time. As we walked through the bunch, I spotted a very attractive and much bigger heifer which I assumed wrongly to be older. “Oh, she’s just an outcross by a Nichols bull,” Leonhardt said without much enthusiasm. Two other heifers, which like her were much bigger than the others in the group and oozed eye appeal, appeared later. It had taken me a little while to realise that this was Leonhardt’s way of demonstrating what happened when inbred lines were outcrossed.

Later on my tour, I visited the Nichols herd in Iowa, where the sire of Leonhardt’s three heifers, Nichols Landmark L56 was bred. Dave Nichols with his brother Lee, didn’t adhere to a particular type or strain. He introduced genetics which would move the performance of his herd forward whenever he found them. I thought that the Nichols Herd was the best I had visited in North America and Landmark was the best bull I had seen.

Although we could from Canada, we couldn’t import American genetics then, so I persuaded an old friend, Orrin Hart of the Willabar herd in Alberta, to use Landmark and bought his best son at the on-farm sale. He was very muscular and a completely different type to the bulls than fashionable which looked more like Holsteins. At home, our most successful sire in recent years has been Nichols Expectation. He looks a little different from Landmark however, after forty years, the performance of his offspring blows Landmark’s away.

I never suspected at the time of my Nuffield trip that Jorgensen’s Rito and Band strains, would ever, due to their unattractive appearance, play a significant part in our own herd. Around 25 years ago Douglas Hoff’s Scotch Cap herd had a fair claim to be the top Angus herd in North America. The first great bull he bred, called “Scotch Cap”, the same as the herd, was the top performance bull in the country and had a huge influence throughout the world. He was an outcross between the top show bull at the time, albeit with decent numbers, P S Powerplay on a cow carrying Jorgensen’s tightly bred high performance Band line. The uplift was just as dramatic as it had been with Leonhardt’s three heifers.

Around that time we visited Prairielane, a superb but poorly marketed herd in Manitoba which is off the Angus beaten track. Clayton Canning and his son Blaine had used Jorgensen and Nichols bloodline exclusively. We bought several cows, some very closely bred, and mated them to Hoff’s top sire Limited Edition who carried several crosses of Scotch Cap. The mating of the two line bred but unrelated bloodlines was probably the most successful we ever made.

John Jr, our stockman Logan Campbell and I visited Dave Nichols several times in recent years. His enthusiasm for a beef industry based on science and objective selection never dimmed and we always left inspired. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. My luck was that Jorgensen, Leonhardt, Nichols, and Hoff were my giants.

The education process continues. For then, for now, forever.