Druk Blondes lead the way
Although a stockman’s eye is an important tool when selecting a new Blonde bull for breed characteristics and structural soundness for example, it simply is not possible to identify a bull’s breeding potential by eye alone as the bull that a buyer sees is a result of an interaction between that bull’s genes and the environment in which he has been raised. For example, intensively fed bulls will generally look superior when compared to lesser fed bulls however they may not breed as well. Buyers need to remember that an animal’s genetics are the only attribute that will pass from one generation to the next. Therefore it is necessary for buyers to remove the influence of non-genetic differences from what they see, otherwise their judgement may be biased towards bulls that are better fed, rather than those better bred. For this reason pedigree breeders and beef producers should use Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) to identify Blonde bulls that are truly genetically superior.
The Druk Blonde herd is owned by breeders Chris Lewis and his stepson, Nick Cobbold of Glebe Farm, Hinton Waldrist, Oxfordshire, along the River Thames. Mr Lewis is passionate about performance recording and has always been a strong advocate of using figures as a management tool. ‘Many people argue that you can judge an animal by eye alone but it’s the figures that really count’ says Mr Lewis.
Mr Lewis was one of the first people to import Blonde cattle into the UK, buying in 15 heifers from France in 1976 and also served as chairman of the Blonde Society for 27 years. Today Chris and Nick run a 150-cow suckler herd, of which 55 are purebred Blondes.
The Druk Blonde herd is now the highest scoring performance recorded Blonde herd in the country. Their overall Beef Value now stands at 34 compared to the breed average of 22. The Druk herd has increased its 200 Day Growth and 400 Day Growth EBVs significantly since the late 90’s whilst managing to maintain its Calving Ease EBV. In addition to this the herd’s Muscle Depth EBV has increased from 2.23mm in 1999 to 5.29mm in 2012 without a significant increase in their Fat Depth EBV.
Chris and Nick preferably buy recorded Blonde bulls to serve their cows, however the choice is limited as there is only a minority of Blonde breeders performance recording their herds at the moment, much to Mr Lewis’ disappointment. ‘There are only three Blonde bulls in the UK with Beef Values over 40 and we own them all’ says Mr. Lewis. Chris and Nick are always on the look-out for high Index performance recorded bull from France or Ireland to introduce new bloodlines into their herd.
The main stock bull on the farm at the moment is DRUK EWAN. This bull has a top 1% Beef Value Index.
The Druk herd’s rate of genetic gain and improvement has not gone unnoticed. They have been recognised by AHDB Beef and Lamb as the Most Improved Herd for the British Blonde breed on numerous occasions. The award is presented by the AHDB Beef and Lamb Beef Better Returns Programme to the recorded herd that shows the greatest genetic gain for commercial traits over a 12-month period.
In addition to this, early last year a consignment of Druk Blonde embryos were exported to a consortium of Australian buyers. After initially discussing the herd’s excellent genetic merit on the phone with Mr. Lewis, the Australian delegate then travelled to the UK to look at the Druk herd. They were so impressed by what they saw that they deemed all of Chris and Nick’ cows to be suitable for embryo export. They then left it up to Mr. Lewis’ own discretion to choose which four cows he thought would be most suitable for flushing on behalf of the group. In total, 73 grade A embryos were exported to Australia.
At Glebe Farm, most Druk Blonde bulls are sold off farm, giving buyers an opportunity to see the sire, dam and other progeny as well as the environment in which the animal has been raised.
Chris and Nick’s commercial herd consists of Saler X Blonde cows which are then crossed back with a Blonde terminal sire. The progeny of which Mr. Lewis likes to refer to as the ‘Druk Composite’. ‘The wide pelvic area of the Saler compliments the size and muscularity of the Blonde extremely well resulting in progeny with good growth and conformation that are easily calved’ explains Mr. Lewis. Hybrid vigour describes the improvement in performance of crossbred progeny compared to the expected average of their parent’s performance. Many traits that are difficult to enhance through within-breed selection can be improved greatly by crossbreeding and exploiting hybrid vigour. Whilst hybrid vigour can enhance growth and carcase traits, it has highly beneficial effects on maternal traits of high economic importance but low heritability such as calf survival, fertility and prolificacy.
All stock not retained for breeding are sold deadweight, and their carcase grades recorded and referred back to each animal’s sire and dam.
Take home messages
- High EBVs can be realised under commercial conditions
- High growth rate can be achieved without the detriment of calving ease
- Genetic gain can still be achieved in high genetic merit herds.
More images of the Druk Blonde herd can be found on Signet’s Flickr account DRUK BLONDES ON FLICKR.
Shane Conway – Signet