Tregnether herd sees clean sweep of major Simmental awards Simmental team of five Takes Reserve Team Interbreed  Please see here the report from the 2024 Royal Cornwall Show, held on the 6th – 8th June at the Royal Cornwall Showground, Wadebridge,  supplied by the...


by | Jun 3, 2024

We meet with James Hamilton, this year’s NSA ScotSheep host on Wednesday 5th June, based at Aikengall located on the edge of the Lammermuir Hills, Innerwick, Dunbar and where Simmental has a major complementary role to play with the sheep enterprise.

Succession and the freedom to be your own man have always been at the forefront and long-term planning for the Hamilton family – James, Charles and Harry alongside their late father, John.  Harry took on the tenancy of Nunraw in 2010, the opportunity to purchase Barney Mains where Charles is now based came in late 2021, while James remains at Aikengall.  Combined, the three units carry 900 spring calving Simmental cross suckler cows and accompanying finishing unit together with 1,400 Blackface ewes including 700 pure ewes, 700 ewes bred to the Bluefaced Leicester and 1,400 Scotch Mules bred to Texel rams for finished lamb production.

James explains: “While we are each running our own farms, the arrangement provides that critical mass and we’re linked: the extra land has enabled us to expand the suckler herd, Barney Mains has allowed us to be self-sufficient in grain and straw and we’ve been able to develop a complete stratified sheep enterprise.
“We have always tried to build a system that can sustain itself and turn in a profit without support payments, and we are currently as close to that as we have ever been.”
He continues: “After moving from Dykefoot and South Cobbinshaw in Lanarkshire to Aikengall back in 1998, we converted to organic production which was very profitable in the early days due to good organic conversion schemes and premiums on stock of up to £1/kg.
“Organic was in fact the precursor to the current regenerative movement; it was simply a more unquantified ‘caveman’ approach. Without the ability to turn to a bag or a can to solve your problems, we learnt a great deal. It was about building fertility for crops such as kale or barley using good clover-based swards that in turn boosted feed values, clean grazings to reduce worm burdens and closed herds to prevent introducing disease – the list goes on.

“Whilst we took the decision in 2014 to return to conventional production, the lessons we learned haven’t been lost. We like to think we currently farm an intensive system on an extensive basis – we’re exploiting our resources’ potential with minimal input however we like to pay as much attention to detail as we can.

“We are finding what’s good for farm profitability is also good for the environment and carbon efficiency. When we have a good grazing sward with clovers and herbs the soil health and ability to hold pH and fertility is greatly enhanced. Recent carbon tests on upland silage fields have shown soil carbon levels of 15-18%, far greater than the assumed 2-3%. This is a great story to tell and a torpedo to the Bismarck of negative press the livestock industry sustains,” says James.

“Labour is a big issue – we each mange our units singlehanded alongside our wives – Emma, Jane and Rebecca. At Aikengall, I have part time help feeding up along with seasonal help from students at calving and lambing, consequently we need an easy care suckler, one that will look after herself, and Simmental has proved herself to us for nearly three decades.”

“Simmental has got to be the Tesla of upland suckler beef production,” says James Hamilton. “She is a great dual-purpose cow – easy calving, maternal and milky, and is able to extensively rear a quality calf each year which goes on to easily flesh. Furthermore, she is performing off heather hill remaining in BCS 3.5 totally off forage and without any extra cost through to the end of December – weather permitting, which can subsequently shorten the winter period to just four months of the year.”  In fact, Simmental has been the backbone of the family’s suckler finishing enterprise for almost 30 years and is set to continue that role well into the foreseeable future. “While we inherited Simmental when we bought Aikengall in 1998, since then we’ve worked away introducing native breeds to reduce cow size to an average 650kg mature weight and establish a fleshier, more efficient suckler cow and one that will hold her condition during winter. Today’s herd comprises 80% Simmental genetics.

“While we’ve some cows lasting for 10 years, one of objectives is to keep the herd productive and young averaging six crops. We semen test all the bulls before they are turned out, they run with the heifers for four weeks and the cows up to six weeks, and then we scan three weeks after they’re removed in mid-September and anything that’s empty is culled.”  Replacement heifers are carefully selected: “We’re annually introducing 200 head and calve them at two years – we pelvic score and weigh to make sure they’re sufficiently well grown reaching 400kg and fit to run with the bull – either Angus or Lincoln Red. We run them in two groups of 100 head, each with three or four bulls for four weeks as an insurance policy.

“After that first cross, it’s Simmental all the way and we keep these bulls in for two cycles, and again we cull all of the empties,” says James. “Our ruthless culling policy has resulted in herd fertility dramatically increasing and most cows getting in calf in the first turn.”

The Hamiltons run a string of 25 Simmental bulls; they annually refresh with a handful purchased in Stirling and occasionally top up with one or two bought privately. “We work each one as long as he’s fit, usually for up to five seasons. We do pay attention to selecting for calving ease, eye muscle and backfat EBVs however we don’t rely on them. We like a slightly smaller and ‘musclier’ type of bull, since we believe they and their progeny will hold flesh easier.  “We also like those with dark red coats – we believe they absorb more sunlight which in turn helps to keep more flesh on the cattle.”

With some 900 head of cows to calve over the three farms within a space of six weeks then ease of calving is vitally important. “We keep an eye on them and have cameras, however very little intervention is required; the calves are lively and able to take care of themselves in the most part.

“Cows and calves are turned out on to a flush of spring grass and thrive on the upland pastures and hill until nine months weaning at +300kg target weight. Three to four weeks prior to weaning we introduce creep – wheat distillers and barley to help with the transition process. The calves are then built up onto a finishing diet of homegrown crimped cereals, silage, a bit of straw and bought in protein, with bespoke minerals included,” he explains. “All calves are weighed at housing and at two-month intervals to ensure they keep on track.

“The cattle tend to finish in a tight pattern which mirrors calving, at 17 to 20 months of age – steers at an average 390kg and heifers 340kg to 350kg and all consistently grading within the U, R 3 and 4L spec. They’re very well sought after and keenly bid for by Highland Meats, AK Stoddart and Macduff beef,” he says adding: “It is a pleasure to work with the Simmental breed to achieve the type and temperament of cow and finishing beast in the farming system we are striving to achieve.”



Suckler herd performance
24 months age at first calving
95% heifer scan
96% cow scan
80% calving within the first two cycles
90% reared
6 calf crops
17 – 20-month finishing; steers ave 390kg, heifers ave 340kg; U, R 4L

Aikengall, Dunbar, East Lothian

1,900 acres, upland unit, 900’ – 1,200’
450 spring calving Simmental cross breeding females
600 head finishing unit
1,400 Blackface ewes

Thurston Mains
400 acres arable/good grazing lowland next door to Aikengall

Nunraw, Garvald
1,200 acres, tenanted unit
350 spring calving Simmental cross breeding females
1,400 Scotch Mule ewes

Barney Mains, Haddington
450 acres arable
140 acres rough grazing, plus 80 acres grazing next door farm
100 suckler cows

Coreshope, Heriot
2,000 acres upland unit contract farmed with the Walgate family
Running all bulling heifers and ewe hoggs