FROM COMMERCIAL TO PEDIGREE,
SIMMENTAL ADDING VALUE
TO A TRADITIONAL
The Review features Andrew and James Barnes, Hall Farm, Little Lawford, Rugby, Warwickshire, whose aim with their commercially run pedigree herd is to breed the ‘ideal Simmentals’, homozygous polled with good mobility and temperament, with milk and easy calving, and with the carcase qualities to meet bull finishing targets.
Suckler beef and sheep have been integral to Andrew and James Barnes’ mixed farming strategy for over 25 years, and they appear future fit. “Our livestock are helping to maintain soil health and graze permanent pasture and river meadows in the Mid-Tier scheme, along with five-year grass leys we introduce to the arable rotation.”
Simmental came to the fore when the brothers decided to take control of their herd and also add value to the business; in 2018 they planned to invest in the breed and start to slowly grade up the commercial suckler herd. “Finding fertile suckler replacements was proving such a challenge we decided to breed our own,” Andrew explains. “We’d had experience farming
various Continental beef breeds – we used to sell store or finished. However, we did like our Simmentals; they were milky, fertile, have tremendous growth and a quiet temperament. They did a really good job for us.
“When you are choosing a breed, then I think it’s important to have cattle you enjoy working with. For us, Simmentals tick all the boxes and as a family farm, we are happy to have our children around the herd which is important to us. We also want to still be alive at the end of the calving season.”
The Barnes had scheduled to initially buy in pedigree Simmental heifers, that was until Thame Farmers Mart gave them the heads-up that John Rixon was planning to disperse his well regarded Lopemede herd, which happened to be running in a relatively low input system similar to their own. “The opportunity was pure luck,” he says. The Highcross prefix was registered and the rest is history.
“We continue to run the pedigree herd on a pure commercial basis and are finding it is thriving in a forage led system with paddock grazing and aftermaths, extending from immediately after calving in February/March to November. Breeding animals are reared on a silage based TMR, while bulls destined for slaughter are grown on a more intensive diet, to finish at 12 to 14 months at an average 400kg to 420kg deadweight and within spec – R+ and U+.
“Heifers for breeding purposes are selected on various criteria including dam’s milkiness, calving, feet and legs and temperament.
“They are tested for polled status before calving, while breeding bulls are selected according to potential. We have already traded a number of bulls to commercial producers and pedigree herds, selling into pedigree herds is the icing on the cake,” says Andrew.
The Barnes are firm believers in calving at 24 months. “The heifers are sufficiently mature and fertile to serve from 14 months. In May 2022 we bulled 40 heifers achieving 100% conception rate and they are all due to calve within a 55-day window. The heifers are going on to mature at approximately 700kg to 720kg, and we are optimistic that they will last for eight crops of calves.”
Hall Farm, Rugby, Warks
- 324ha (800 acres)
- 150-cow pedigree Simmental herd and followers
- 620 ewes
Highcross herd KPIs
24 months age are first calving
100% heifer scan
700kg mature cow weight
98% calves reared
TOWARDS A 100% POLLED SIMMENTAL HIGHCROSS HERD
The Barnes brothers rate dehorning as one of the worst jobs working with cattle. “Even after adopting the most stringent welfare practices, it’s stressful for both the calf and the operator. The calf doesn’t know what’s happening, becomes stressed and kicks which I strongly believe affects its future handling and possibly its temperament. Dehorning is also time consuming,” Andrew comments.
The objective for their Highcross herd of pedigree Simmentals is to breed a herd that is 100% homozygous (PP) for the polling gene, without sacrificing the breed’s noted maternal traits, growth or shape. And despite facing challenges, within five short years of the programme’s launch, between 50% to 60% of the youngstock born in 2022 have been confirmed homozygous polled PP. “We are thrilled with progress to date,” he says.
“We’re fortunate we’ve had a head start. Lopemede was one of the UK’s first and largest polled Simmental herds which had been developed over 20 years and slowly progressed by sourcing polled genetics largely from Denmark. When we purchased the herd, this was a new concept to us. Nowadays breeding polled cattle is like switching a light on in a dark room.”
Polling is a genetic mutation. The poll allele (P) is dominant and the horned allele (p) recessive.
Every parent has a pair of alleles at each gene, and they pass on one of these alleles to their offspring. A calf will receive one allele (P or p) from the sire and one allele (P or p) from the dam.
Two polled alleles = homozygous polled (PP)
One polled, one horned = heterozygous polled (Pp)
Two horned alleles = homozygous horned (pp)
Animals which are visually horned must have two copies of the horned gene (pp), however visually polled animals maybe heterozygous – they may carry one horned gene and one poll gene, (Pp).
Only DNA testing can accurately distinguish which genes each animal carries.
“After a calf is born, and its sire or dam have already been tested PP, then all we have to do is put the ear tag in, jot down its sex and weight. We are saving at least 10 minutes per calf, as well as the stress,” he explains. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t met anyone else using a homozygous polled bull who would go back to horned and nor would we.”
Progressing the Highcross breeding programme has proved to be a demanding journey for the Barnes. “Sourcing outcross homozygous stock bulls in the UK is very difficult. In fact, only a handful of PP tested bulls have been offered at the breed society’s official sales in the last three years, consequently the majority of the bulls we use are sourced from Denmark where breeders are amongst the most internationally advanced when it comes to breeding homozygous PP cattle with quality conformation, milk and calving ease.”
“The Danish sires introduced to Highcross include Egebjerggards Pesto PP and Rosas Munk PP together with Jaegergard Leopold PP, Vingegaard Lucas Pp, Rosas Munk PP, Rosas Loftus PP, Langmose Ricci PP, Bakkely Pedro PP, Svend PP, and Nygard Ras Pp.”
Apart from the Danish bulls, all other sires used in the Highcross herd are DNA tested to ensure they have the correct combination of poll genes. The Barnes also test every animal pre-sale – at the farm gate or in the ring as well as every heifer pre-calving, for polled status and sire verification. “If for example a bull’s parentage is heterozygous polled Pp, then we are very mindful to inform farmers of the theoretical chances of how many horned calves he could throw.”
He adds: “Having achieved the level of success we have to date with the herd’s next generation, then we believe we are well on the road towards fulfilling our objective to breeding that ideal Simmental – homozygous polled PP with good mobility and temperament, combined with those essential maternal traits – milk, easy calving along with growth, shape and carcase quality meeting our bull finishing targets 390kg to 410kg within 12 to 14 months.”