As we move towards Brexit in 2020 and remaining UK farm support moving towards marginal land Rodney Magowan reflects on the role of Galloway cattle. Can the experience of the Spours family prove useful to Ulster farmers in the uplands?
SPOURS MAXIMISE MARGINS FROM MARGINAL LAND
THE Spours family farm 4,370 acres of tenanted land across north Northumberland comprising large, scattered blocks of heather moorland plus improved lowland.
The emphasis is on self-sufficiency and keeping inputs to a minimum for the enterprises based at Twizell Farm, near Belford, just north of Alnwick.
A herd of commercial Aberdeen Angus cows and a commercial sheep flock along with arable land were the mainstay of the business until 2010 when a block of 1,800 acres of heather hill at Chatton Sandyfords was designated SSSI to help encourage wild juniper plants and protect the many archaeological features...
“We had to reduce sheep numbers on the moorland and there were areas of vegetation that required a native breed of cattle to reduce the moorland grasses and help encourage juniper growth,” said Daniel Spours, who farms in partnership with his brother Richard, father Lawrence and uncle Paul. There are also two full-time staff with casual labour employed at peak times.
“We looked at various native breeds and, originally, Galloways were our second choice. But then the end users we spoke to praised the superior eating quality of Galloway beef and we already knew about the ease of management - de-horning, easy calving and that they were very low maintenance cattle. A big plus as we already had a massive workload.
“They are fantastic, non-selective grazers which we knew would suit the SSSI scheme,” he added.
Five years on from investing in Galloways the Spours are not only reaping the benefits of conservation grazing, but are selling quality meat to a successful nearby on-farm restaurant overlooking the causeway to the world famous holy isle of Lindisfarne.
“The herd was started to help fulfill the SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) scheme requirements, but now with a ready outlet for the Galloway meat we are planning to increase numbers. Our original goal was to have a 60 cow herd with half to a terminal sire but we are going to increase numbers to 90 cows and run them pure bred as we now know the full potential of the breed.
“It was a bit of a leap in the dark but I am really impressed with the Galloways and particularly how well they are finishing,” Daniel added.
The Galloways have fitted into the farming system which is complicated because of the scattered grazing land up to 10 miles away from the home place at Beal.
The cropping land runs to 1,200 acres which rotates with improving the grassland. Of the arable crops, 600 acres is grown for sale with feed grades being utilized on farm. Wheat, barley, oats and oil seed rape are grown as well as fodder beet, kale and sheep feed rape.
The commercial Angus herd runs to 260 cows plus 30 breeding heifers following, all bull calves are finished by 16 months and sold to Scottish beef processors AK Stoddart along with any heifers not kept as herd replacements. All the cows are crossed with a registered Angus bull; although the herd is not registered it is likely that a small pedigree herd will be established in the future.
The Galloway herd now numbers 50 cows, most of which are registered cattle. Before embarking on the new herd, Daniel saw the attributes of the breed at John Carr-Ellison’s nearby Beanley, Powburn farm.
Foundation cows were from Beanley, Miefield and Moor House with heifers from Blackcraig, Romesbeoch, Klondyke and the Nether Cleugh herds added. The aim is to buy larger animals with more frame which the hill land can carry - and those with a good quiet temperament.
Stock bulls are bought from the Galloway Cattle Society’s Castle Douglas sales and current herd sires are Ballavair Marley, Barquhill Frank and Value of Kilnstown, the spring 2016 purchase.
Daniel personally has carried out some AI on the Galloways with success and there are a number of bull and heifer calves by Orinocho of Over Barskeoch on the ground.
While most of the replacements will be home bred, some bought-in heifers will also be included. Next year up to 20 heifers are expected to be added to the herd and the intention is to run three bulling groups to suit the way the hill is split. Heifers are calved at three years old.
The Galloways are calved in the spring from the end of April behind the commercial Angus herd on the lower ground. Cows receive no assistance or housing at calving unless it is required.
“The Galloways certainly do the job and we have seen huge improvements in the reduction of the coarser grasses. The sheep are keen to graze the areas which have been cleared by the cattle,” affirmed Daniel.
“They are very low maintenance and while on the hill they only get a mineral supplement. Weaned calves are housed and fed a maintenance ration of barley and silage through the winter while the cows out-wintered on the hill are fed big bale silage when required.”
Galloway steers are finished between 22 and 27 months old off grass plus roughly a tonne of a finishing diet costing £140 introduced at the turn of the year... The only other inputs, veterinary costs and labour, are minimal.
The first Galloways were finished as bulls along with Angus cattle but the Galloways struggled to reach a weight that would leave much profit as they are a slower maturing breed, but still managed a fairly respectable 300kg deadweight at 16 months. Roughly £900 a head at that time and considering the lack of inputs there was still profit in them.
Then it was decided to run Galloways on another year as steers. This is proving a much better and more profitable system, which utilizes their favourable eating quality rather than losing them to the meat industry as mince.
They are slaughtered at J A Jewitts in Spennymoor and hung for 21 days and processed at Reiver Country Farm Foods, Reston, near Berwick.
Carcasses weigh between 365kg and 420kg, grade R4L and kill out around 55%. Cattle are not regularly weighed before slaughter as Daniel believes adrenalin is the largest contributing factor to spoiling meat so cattle are drawn based on condition to reduce handling and stress.
Since February 2016 roughly two whole carcasses a month have been sold to The Barn at Beal, established almost 10 years ago by farmer and entrepreneur Rod Smith on the mainland furnenst the causeway to the popular visitor attraction Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
The Spours as sole beef and lamb supplier to The Barn restaurant also provide 10 home produced lamb carcasses a month in what everyone sees as ‘very much a partnership’ with Daniel receiving feedback from the chef and customers so that the product can be adapted to suit the real market.
“Sadly in farming generally animals are slaughtered with little or no feedback to the actual producer,” he said.
Head Chef at The Barn at Beal for the last five years, Cameron Waterhouse, is a great fan of Galloway beef and its consistency in producing a wide variety of beef dishes from breakfast sausages to rib of beef, rolled brisket to sirloin steaks. Mince, as well as being made into lasagna, is made into burgers.
Chef Cameron noting that, “The fat content of Galloway beef is perfect for making burgers with just a little seasoning. Most burgers elsewhere include rusk but our meat only burgers are gluten-free, and, as a result, we have been included in guides for coeliacs eating out.
“We have sold around 3,000 Galloway beef burgers in the summer school holidays.”
The Barn at Beal sources local products and Cameron says provenance and traceability are key to the foods produced in the kitchen for the restaurant and bar for both the many passing visitors and those staying at the on-site camping facility.
The Spours family’s sheep enterprise, which numbers 3200 breeding ewes, is split between hill and lowland. This has also been changed over recent years from a traditional stratified flock of Scottish Blackface ewes on the hill and Scotch mules on the lower ground to Easy Care ewes on the hill which are bred pure and then draft ewes are crossed with Suffolk sires on the lower ground.
“We are still producing a similar number of lambs off the hill as we were even though ewe numbers are down 300,” Daniel Spours noted.
The other side of the sheep enterprise is an intensive continental flock of ewes producing E and U grade lambs from three quarter bred Texels and purer which are crossed with Belgian type Beltex rams. The Texels are split 50-50 between Texel and Beltex rams and are run on the better ground and lambed inside from March 25.
This year E grade store lambs out of hoggs have sold at Hexham Mart for up to £96 a head while finished lambs readily make more than £2.20 a kg.
The next major Galloway Cattle Society sale in Castle Douglas, an hour’s drive from Cairnryan ferry, is on Friday, Feb 17. For details browse www.gallowaycattlesociety.co.uk
ph; 01556 502753 or e mail
GALLOWAYS SHINE IN THE GLENS
GALLOWAY cattle, for generations common in the Glens of Antrim, are proving popular in other parts of Ulster including the western Mournes and the Sperrins. As farm support moves from the lowlands to marginal ground this hardy breed has a growing role to play in beef production and conservation grazing.