he Boxted herd owned by Leslie Stevens and his two son’s David and Mark, of Lower Halstow, in Kent, has been recognised by AHDB Beef and Lamb as the Most Improved Herd of Sussex cattle in England for 2013.
The Stevens family have farmed Boxted Farm since the mid-1860s, when they began renting the farm before eventually purchased it in 1918. David and Mark Stevens have been farming the land in partnership with their father, Leslie, since 1986.
David’s grandfather, Gerald, founded the Boxted Sussex herd in 1962, having had success at shows with Sussex steers. The herd’s foundation cattle included seven in-calf heifers purchased from the Copton herd, some of which still feature in the pedigrees of dams in the herd today. During the following 20 years, the herd was grown and enhanced by the occasional purchase of females from dispersal sales. Since then only home-bred heifers have been retained in the herd, which now totals 34 cows.
Nearly forty years of recording
The Boxted herd have been weight recording since the early 1970s and in 2002, the Stevens’ began scanning yearlings, which has enabled them to be more selective and retain only heifers of above breed average weight and above average Beef Values in the herd.
Usually only one or two bull calves are kept from the higher rated cows, the remainder being castrated at birth and reared as steers. As part of the Beefbreeder scheme Signet produce twice-yearly breeding evaluations, which has enabled poorer rated cows to be culled early, resulting in several female lines disappearing from the herd.
|Year||Number of Cattle Weighed||Average 100 Day Adjusted Weigh (kg)||Number of Cattle Weighed||Average 200 Day Adjusted Weight (kg)||Number of Cattle Weighed||Average 300 Day Adjusted Weight (kg)||Number of Cattle Weighed||Average 400 Day Adjusted Weight (kg)|
Over the last 40 years, birth weights and live weight gains within the herd have increased together with the overall size of the cows as shown in the table above. Limousin bloodlines, introduced as part of the Sussex Cattle Society’s breed development scheme in the 1980’s, have had a major influence on these trends.
Speaking about their selection policy, David said: “Having good figures on paper is important, however the animals that are retained must maintain the Boxted standards. This means they must have sound structure, correct mobility, winter hardiness and the ability to put on flesh economically.”
Replacement heifers are selected at between one and two years old, with the emphasis on keeping those with the highest figures and which display the correct breed characteristics. Any surplus females are sold as two year old maiden heifers in society sales.
400 day weight and muscle depth are important values for females within the herd and are equally significant when selecting a bull, although there is also an element of checking them visually, which is where David’s father Leslie plays a key role! They like bulls which have good length, height and muscle conformation, as well as having a good temperament, which they judge by halter training all bull calves.
The bulls currently used on the herd include Piper Polled Duke 1st, a 3 year old bull who was bought privately at 400 days old and sired around 60 per cent of the calves in the herd this year. They also used Holm Place Wellington 5th in place of Boxted Endeavour 1st (shown in the photo below), who has been selected for semen export to South Africa so is unavailable to use this year. Boxted Endeavour 1st is in the top one per cent of the breed for muscle depth and 200 and 400 days weight EBVs.
The Boxted herd has had a number of show successes, winning the breed society’s Intermediate Herd Competition eight times since the year 2000. They are very pleased and surprised to win the Improved Herd Award according to David, who describes improving the herd as a continuous process.
“There’s been an element of natural progression over the last few years, as we’ve been selling off poorer muscled and older cows,” he said.
“Looking ahead, we must continue to improve the breeding qualities and conformation with a lack of fat in order to maintain existing markets and to compete with other breeds.
“Our biggest challenge at the moment is probably finding another stock bull with good figures from an elite herd that isn’t related. We are looking for one now!”