A unique joint breed open day – between the Charolais and Salers – pulled in the crowds to Alun and Anita Thomas’ suckler unit in Bangor, Gwynedd in September, with those attending all impressed with the ‘golden calves’ on show.
Alun farms 275 acres with additional mountain rights at Tyn Hendre Farm which enjoys stunning views across the Menai Straits to Anglesey. The farm itself is nearly all grass, with about 17 acres down to a catch crop of stubble turnips, ryegrass and rapeseed cut to feed his ewes across the winter.
A total of 72 head went to the bull this year, with 11 heifers put to a borrowed Salers bull, and 61 cows put to a Charolais bull. He aims to get all calving between March and April so he can have the resultant calves ready to sell at seven months in October.
“I want the best prices, and sell through Gaerwen market on Anglesey – hitting that first sale in October is key,” he says. “I usually put them in groups of six, and consistently get good returns. This cross bred – nicknamed the ‘golden calf’ grows well and allows me to group them easily, they look like peas in a pod when they go into the ring.”
Alun start in Charolais in 2012, when the single suckler cows he ran were Belgian Blues. He found their udders were too big, and that he was getting foot problems with them as they struggled to use his cubicles due to their size. “I go to the markets quite a bit, and saw the Charolais was the premium animal,” he says.
“I decided I wanted to produce a Charolais crossbred and, at the same time, saw a chance to sell the Belgian Blues and move into the Salers”.
“They are great mothers, very fertile they mature early, so we don’t have any calving problems with the heifers. They wean calves that fit market requirements and have easily adapted to the resources here on the farm. They are also ‘low maintenance’ and I believe they will bring longevity and depth into my herd. Combined with a Charolais the calves put on weight like nothing else so offer me excellent returns.”
He bought the Salers privately in three different groups, paying between £1400 and £1700 a head, and believes they were a great investment. “My aim now is to reduce my sheep numbers and increase cow numbers – up to 100 in the next two to three years.”
Alun runs a tight ship, and admits ‘nothing gets pampered’ on his tenanted farm, part of Penryn Estates.
“Nothing grows like a Charolais,” he says. “They are in big demand at the markets, and the buyer who bought quite a few of my calves in 2016 came back for more in 2017. That’s good news.”
His heifers sold for £750 apiece last autumn, and his bulls at £830. That’s at just seven months of age. “When they’re earning me £100 a month I see that as a good return,” he says. All the weight gain comes from their mother’s and grass, with just a small amount of creep feed introduced before they get sent to market… so they know what cake is when they move to the next stage of their lives.
Alun is relatively confident in the future of beef production post Brexit, and says that as Britain is not self-sufficient as a whole in this sector, he has an opportunity to grow his herd and produce more.
“In lamb we depend on exports, because we produce so much, one of the reasons I am looking to cut back on sheep and increase my herd”.
“Farmers have to produce food. Very few people today remember food shortages, and we have to remember we play a vital role in feeding the nation and caring for the environment. We’ve got to stay positive”.
“If I lose all my subsidies I will be losing between £35,000 and £40,000. That’s a massive hole in my farm income. But it’s no good sitting down and crying about it. The farming community has had a lot thrown at it over the past 20 years – foot and mouth, TB, BSE, for example – it’s survived and we’re still here. We are resilient”.
“I’m planning for the future and looking at my business with a new enthusiasm”.
“That’s another reason why I’m so certain the Charolais x Salers is the beef breed for the future. It meets all the consumers’ and buyers’ requirements and delivers good profit on-farm. I just wish I had started with this 25 years ago!”
“The Charolais x Salers is key to this job. It gives you the best weight gain and the best financial returns. I want something that calves easily and something I can rear without any hassle. And that’s exactly what I have when producing these golden calves.