Focus on breeding female
lines key to producing
‘Future Fit’ Modern Simmental genetica
In the denizes Herd
Herd feature on Michael Barlow and sons John and Matthew, and their Denizes pedigree herd at Littlewood Hall Farm, Lancashire.
Simmentals have been kept at Littlewood Hall Farm in Lancashire since the 1980s, but a shift in focus and a change of breeding philosophy twelve years ago, has resulted in a huge amount of success within the breed for the Barlow family in recent years. In fact, 2022 saw them achieve their top price to-date when Denizes Lancelot sold at 30,000gns, the second top price paid at a UK auction for a Simmental bull, and their nine bulls and heifers sold at auction over the year averaged out at £10,500.
The team includes brothers John and Matthew Barlow, who work alongside their dad, Michael (a past BSCS President),
on the 340-acre unit, all of which is grass. On that, there are 430 head of cattle, including 70 milking cows and the Denizes herd of 80 pedigree Simmental cows. John explains: “We worked away with the Simmentals over the years, selling the better young bulls straight off the farm, but bringing out bulls was never a priority. During my degree in agriculture, I did a placement with Wilson and Geraldine Strachan, working with stockman Andrew Reid at their Balmaud herd in Banff, which really changed my outlook on our own Simmentals. I could see the potential with the breed and I believed we could be achieving a lot more with them.
“We considered what the commercial buyer was looking for – easy fleshing, shapely bulls, with length and back-ends – and from that time on, we began focussing on breeding that type of bull.”
This new objective clearly worked. Since 2010, the Barlows’ seventy-three bulls sold at Society sales in Stirling alone, have averaged £5,600. The family have built up customers for every bull born in the herd – those not sold at Society sales find homes with dairy customers and commercial herds. To breed bulls with the desired attributes, John says it is the female lines they have concentrated on improving and he cites the privately bought bull Ashland Tornado as a turning point.
“We bought Tornado at five months old from Pat and Frank Kelly in Northern Ireland, having researched the bull’s family line. He has gone onto breed some good sons, but it’s his daughters that have been particularly impressive – they have bred sons to 30,000gns and grandsons to 20,000gns. They are very well-balanced females, which is the type we aim to breed; structurally correct, medium sized cows that will do well with various bulls,” says John, who suggests this concentration on female lines probably comes as a result of their dairy background.
“That’s how we think with the dairy cows. They tend to breed daughters like the mother, so if we can get good female lines, they will breed good calves with different bulls. We do a lot of research into bloodlines and study what works.”
This approach results in the Barlows often buying in females from particular family lines off other high health herds and then breeding them with home-bred bulls. The 30,000gns Denizes Lancelot, sold in February 2022 at Stirling, had two generations of home-bred bulls on the sire side, while the dam was Denizes Hannadante, a 13-year-old daughter of Ashland Tornado. Likewise, Denizes Monty, which secured the Barlows their first overall championship at Stirling and went onto sell for 20,000gns in October 2022, is sired by the home-bred Denizes Hamish.
“Hamish is out of our ‘golden cow’ Auroch Eve, which we bought as a calf. She won several calf shows and went onto win at the Royal Highland Show twice. Hamish was her first natural calf and was winning calf shows too, until he broke his leg at 11-months-old. We thought so much of him that we paid to have it operated on and kept him as a stock bull. His son Monty made 20,000gns and we’ve another good son of his for Stirling in February,” explains John.
Along with keeping commercial traits in mind when breeding bulls, the Barlows say the whole herd is run very commercially. Cows are fed on a straw-based diet and plenty minerals and calve between June and September, while heifers calve from 2½-years-old, in February and March, with the calving system arranged with Society sale dates in mind. John says they aim for a 280-day calving interval.
“We’re big on pre-calving minerals and we also make sure we don’t rush calving. In the past, we’d be too quick to feel we had to assist with calvings, but we’ve learned to give them plenty time and they normally calve themselves with no issues,” he adds.
When it comes to deciding which females to breed from, the Barlows are very selective. They go by their Grandad’s theory ‘sell your best, keep your very best and beef the rest.’
“There’s a huge demand for Simmental females and we’ve definitely seen that increase in recent years. They have so many positive traits – good temperament, calving ease and milk.”
“That’s what Grandad always said, and it’s still relevant today. We sell some of the best females privately or at Society sales, but there’s a good market for other types to sell as recipients. There’s a huge demand for Simmental females and we’ve definitely seen that increase in recent years. They have so many positive traits – good temperament, calving ease and milk.
“Our own breeding cows tend to get three chances – if it doesn’t work the first time, we’ll change the bull, but if she’s still not breeding to the standard that we’re looking for, we don’t keep her after the third calf,” says John.
The family sold the heifer, Denizes Eve’s Beauty 7th at December’s NxtGen sale at Carlisle, for 8,000gns. She is a daughter of Auroch Eve, and sired by Blackford Galaxy, another privately bought bull that’s proved his worth in the herd. He was breed champion at the Royal Highland in 2018 and has bred sons to 9,500gns. More recently, Saltire Impressive joined the herd, a bull with excellent figures, including huge growth rates but also ease of calving.
“We do pay a lot of attention to figures because we’ve found they do make a difference. Denizes Hamish is in the top 1% for calving ease – he was a small when born but thrived from that day onwards and that’s what you want. The buyers are noticeably paying attention to figures too – we had eight bulls at a sale recently, four with better figures than the other four. There was a far higher demand for the four with better figures, they sold easily.
“Growth is important, along with ease of calving, but customers are also looking at milk figures. Commercial buyers often outbid pedigree buyers at sales – it just depends where your priorities are. For us, we would rather buy the bull we want than a tractor.”
Despite plenty of success at shows and winning the breed championship at the Royal Highland three times, John says they are not breeding cattle to win a show – they’re breeding for what the commercial buyer wants.
“We’re very much focussed on sales rather than shows but having some success at the shows definitely helped us build up the name of the herd and it’s a good opportunity to break in the young bulls. The main reason we show though, is because we enjoy the social side of it!,” adds John, who has noticed an increase in new breeders over the past 3-4 years.
“It’s a fairly accessible breed for new breeders to get into, compared to some other breeds. If you turn up to a sale with a good commercial bull, it will sell, no matter who you are. From Cornwall to Thainstone, there’s a huge demand for Simmentals all over the UK.
“I think the breed is particularly relevant now. They are a long-lasting, low input breed that can rear a calf – and as costs continue to rise, these qualities are more important than ever,” adds John.