Harperley Salers Paul Allison and Tanya Devereux (Allison Devereux Farms) Low Harperley Farm is a typical medium sized County Durham mixed farm sitting at the bottom end of Weardale. When Paul and Tanya took over the farm in 2013, it came with a dairy bred suckler herd of Limousin x cows, and much of the grassland was in a stewardship scheme.
Paul and Tanya never intended to become pedigree cattle breeders. As Paul says, “We just wanted to be better beef suckler farmers. I’m from a heavy manufacturing industry background, where assets are squeezed and production maximised, and a traditional dairy bred suckler herd running on low input grassland in stewardship made no sense to us whatsoever. The land was going back to waste and we had suckler cows with low fertility and frequent calving problems.” The farm has relatively high fixed costs with everything done in house (except spraying), including all the arable and grassland work. Consequently the farm has to have turnover and productivity. “Coming out of stewardship early helped, and although it’s not been straightforward, we’ve got back to the position where we grow acceptable amounts of grass.
Over the last few years, we’ve put up a few sheds ourselves and are close to a stocking rate of 1 LSU per acre with matching winter housing.” Paul and Tanya were dissatisfied with the farm’s existing suckler herd. “We had some good productive cows, but the replacement policy was a game of dairy bred heifer roulette; lucky to land a good one and who knew what disease was being brought in? Essentially our herd was the product of other people’s breeding policies, none of which had anything to do with improving our cows.”
The easy bit was identifying the problems.
The solution took a bit more working out. They came up with an aspirational list for the suckler herd.
- Closed herd, health monitoring and vaccinations for disease prevention
- Increased numbers and stocking density without increased recurring fixed costs
- Pure bred, good natured, easy calving cows with milk, fertility and conformation
- Most cows put to terminal sires
- Best cows bred pure for replacements
- First calving at 23 months
- Well grown young bulls and heifers sold as stores at 12 months
“That was clearly putting us into pure bred maternal beef cow territory. We looked at Beef Shorthorns, Simmentals, Stabilisers, Luings, South Devons, Lincoln Reds and Herefords; there are a lot of breeds out there for the single breed closed herd system but none of them were ticking all the boxes. Fortuitously, whilst driving through northern France, I passed a field full of horned red cows with enormous beige calves and a massive Charolais bull and stopped to ask the man what was going on; Salers; that’s what was going on.”
The couple discovered that the Salers breed was established in the UK and growing in numbers, and that its traits fitted their aspirations. They decided to give Salers a try, and started to build up a small herd of pure and crossbred Salers. “The heifer calves were retained and our Salers numbers grew, but once the traditional suckler herd was dispersed, the farm was understocked. The demand for Salers females has been increasing greatly and boosting our numbers with straight runs of quality heifers at sensible money was not easy. Nevertheless, we had to get numbers up and so during 2017 we imported two loads of heifers from the Cantal Mountains.”
With around 250 acres of grass for summer 2018, the farm will be running 110 Salers cows and calves, 85 Salers bulling heifers and 390 Llyen ewes. The focus at Low Harperley is on producing hardworking commercial suckler cows. They have to be good natured, easy calving (large pelvic apertures and likely to have small calves), fertile, milky and long lived. The bulling heifers are all put to a Salers bull to calve at 23 to 25 months. For the second calf onwards, the choice is made whether the cow goes to the Salers bull to produce breeding stock calves or to the Charolais bull to produce stores. “We don’t think there’s anything better than the Charolais cross Salers system for a commercial suckler herd. It’s no surprise that it’s the only cross you ever see in France; the Salers cows are almost designed for the job and their Charolais x calves are phenomenal, with serious growth and great conformation”. The plan was to have 80% of the cows with Charolais bulls and 20% with the Salers. It’s turned out to be the other way around. Initially the drive was to get the Salers numbers up, but now this has been achieved, Paul and Tanya are thinking they’ll keep it that way. There is a premium on the Charolais cross stores, but it’s balanced by the premium on Salers bulling heifers.
“Having started with Salers to build a better commercial suckler herd producing strong stores, we have ended up being a producer of bulling heifers and a few breeding bulls.” The main Salers stock bull is Rigel Pluto, the breed’s easiest calving Breedplan recorded bull. “We have some his daughters in the herd, but we would be happy if they were all his daughters. The only obstacle to that happening is the market demand for his calves. We probably sold a few too many this year; we set reasonable prices and they flew off the farm. Because we’ve focussed on producing strong, efficient and productive commercial cows for ourselves, the heifers are exactly right for modernising suckler herds.” Pluto’s sons are particularly suited to covering heifers and producing suckler replacements. “We’ve been delighted to see them heading off to work in large commercial herds. We don’t suppose any of our animals will ever win a show, but we like them and they do the job”.
Comparing their Salers cows with their previous sucklers, there has been a major reduction in calving problems, and improved % of calves weaned per cow. “We like maternal lines in Salers, to the extent that we have imported a few heifers out of a Salers milking herd and we are very happy with them. Breeders in France and the UK can influence the way a breed goes and we think we need to stay away from full on terminal traits. The animals that we want to produce are unashamedly maternal animals”. “Some people get into Salers for easy calving and good mothering to reduce the amount of work they have to do for the same number of cows and calves. We went for Salers to get numbers, productivity, output and turnover up without increasing the work. So far, the performance of the Salers very much backs up our decision, and we are looking forward with confidence despite the uncertainties facing UK farming.”