‘The first cross has better feet and a better udder and although she is a smaller cow, she rears every bit as big a calf!‘
Steven Sandison was born and brought up on a farm in Orkney and left school to work on a dairy/beef farm. He milked for two and a half years until the dairy cows were sold and the beef herd was expanded. For the next seven years he was contracted out part time and worked on four different farms. During that time, he worked with all the main beef breeds and had no doubt in his mind that if he had a farm of his own, he was going to have Simmental cross cows!
In 2002 Steven married his wife Lorraine and today they have three children Carmen, Callie and Glen. The couple bought their first stock in 2003 and rented land at first but were fortunate to be offered a farm to buy in 2006. The Sandison’s owned approximately 230 acres and rented a further 100 acres however recently they have purchased an additional 160 acres which has allowed them to give up most of their seasonal lets and will be farming 380 acres in 2021.
Since 2003 the family were always on the lookout for a breed that was more suitable for calving to heifers. Four years later Steven bought some Salers cross Simmental heifers and they did very well. The next year he hired a Salers bull for heifers and was pleased with the results. The heifers all calve at two years of age. All cows and heifers are housed on cubicles. Cows and calves are bolused for minerals. Calves are sold straight of their mothers at around 7-8 months but do not receive any creep feed, a ‘pet hate’ of Steven’s.
Steven’s original plan was to put the Salers X Simmental heifers back to the Simmental bull and that would make the family’s ideal cow! But they soon discovered that the first cross was a better cow, so 14 years on, they are still criss-crossing the two breeds. Steven said, “the first cross has better feet and a better udder and although she is a smaller cow, she rears every bit as big a calf.”
He added, “ever since I was a boy going to the Mart with my Dad, ginger Charolais stores have always been really easy sold to Aberdeenshire buyers.” He fondly remembered a regular buyer of his father’s cattle saying, “Grey/Silver Charolais out of Angus type cows are easy to finish but they will get patchy if you keep them too long. Lighter coloured, Charolais crosses out of light-coloured Simmental cows or Charolais cross cows, are harder to finish. But the ginger crosses are the best of both, easy to feed but don’t spoil!’
So, Steven and his family made it a priority to always try to breed a cow which would hopefully breed a ginger Charolais! In the early days, the Sandison’s had Charolais bulls of their own but now they just criss-cross Simmental and Salers to try and breed these dark red heifers which will hopefully go on to breed ginger Charolais calves on other farms.
Perhaps this is why one farmers words resonated so much during Steven’s later Nuffield scholarship when he stated, “we hear a lot about farmers needing to improve genetics; a lot of farmers are not using the genetic potential of the cattle they already have!”
It was 2015 / 2016 when Steven embarked on the Nuffield Scholarship, generously supported by the MacRobert Trust, to investigate whether benchmarking targets for suckler cows was achievable? He visited 70 farms in the UK and Ireland and visited farms in Canada, Sweden, and Norway in pursuit of the answers. The whole aim was to find out if it was possible to rear 92 calves from every 100 cows exposed to the bull. Steven said, “I learnt a lot, met some great farmers and saw a lot of cows of all different breeds. One of the main points I learnt was how important the cow breed/type was for achieving a good weaning percentage.”
So, one of the first questions he was asked when he got home was whether he was going to change the breed of cows he used. The answer was no, however, I have absolutely no doubt that this opportunity has influenced the Sandison’s whole approach to farming particularly Steven’s own admission in the report that he had learnt that ‘the simpler a system is, the more likely it is to be profitable’. And this is demonstrated in the number of unassisted calving’s at Millburn Farm, the reduced calving interval, steady DLWG’s and increased prices achieved at market.
In Orkney although the local shows are supported well, stock numbers have been reducing over the years. Steven admitted he never had much interest in showing because he thought his cattle were not ‘show type’ but during his time as the first NFU Scotland monitor farm in Orkney, creep feeding was one of the topics discussed. Steven said, “there were those who were in attendance at monitor meetings who knew how much I despised feeding creep and there still is a fair bit of banter about it!”
So, a few years back, he decided to take a couple of calves to their local show. He said, “we did better in the ring than we thought and ended up coming home with rosettes but there were two things which happened that day which made me more determined to return the following year.”
First, a friend of Steven’s said, “it’s great to see you here with calves for the first time, but you aren’t going to win anything!” Steven replied, “I know that but what makes you so sure?”, “they aren’t Limousin’ s!” The second thing that happened was Steven’s wife Lorraine had been watching at the side of the ring and had overheard someone say, “that just shouldn’t even be here,” referring to Steven’s calf.
If Steven needed any encouragement at all to go back, that was it!! He acknowledged that showing was not his main business and alluded to the fact that he did not think he would win very much but he also conceded that he had enjoyed the experience of showing the Salers cross calves. He said, “It’s our chance to show the public what we produce, and it would be a shame if they went home thinking that all beef farmers have only pedigree cattle or shapely calves.” He added, “it would be great to see more Salers and other commercial breeds at our shows. I think there are a lot of commercial producers out there who would be interested to see what these breeds and their crosses can achieve.”