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 The Evergreen herd, owned by Alan Derryman from Sidmouth in Devon, has been recognised by AHDB Beef & Lamb as the Most Improved Herd of Stabiliser cattle in England for 2015.

The award is presented by the AHDB Beef & Lamb Better Returns Programme (BRP) to the recorded herd that shows the greatest genetic gain for commercial characteristics over a 12-month period. There is a separate award for each of 10 UK breeds.

Improving the suckler herd

Four years ago Alan decided he wanted to run a higher health status beef suckler herd, which meant breeding his own heifers to replace his existing suckler cows.

He runs a 70-cow herd and progeny on the organically-managed farm, assisted by his partner Gwenan, alongside a 900-ewe flock of New Zealand Romney and Hampshire sheep. The 245 hectare (600 acre) farm also grows some cereals, but the majority is grass and about half the farm is in the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, which is managed in a strictly environmentally-friendly way.

Historically, their suckler cows have been Herefords and Hereford crosses. “We produce commercial beef at 20-24 months of age, raised organically on grass, and then we finish them in winter on silage and a little concentrate feed,” says Alan. “Our aim is to produce meat with good eating quality.

“We wanted to improve the quality of cows and breed our own replacements that would be good mothers and were easy to manage, so the herd could be more self-contained. We only intend to buy stock bulls from now on, having bought eight females in 2011, six in 2012 and 10 in 2014.”

Purchased females

They wanted cattle which were suited to the low input farm, with good fertility. “We knew some people with Stabiliser cattle and they offered what we wanted,” says Alan.

The new females were chosen from performance-recorded herds with Estimated Breeding Value (EBV) figures. “We were particularly looking for good growth rates and maternal abilities, such as Milk and Calving Ease.”

They also signed up for performance recording their own herd. “It’s interesting to see the quality of stock and using the figures develop good breeding females for the herd,” says Alan. Now about three quarters of the cattle on the farm are Stabilisers.

Top bulls selected

One disadvantage of breeding their own replacements is that the bull has to be replaced more often, as he cannot be used to breed with his own daughters. “There is an advantage to maintaining and developing a closed herd and we want to purchase the best sires we can,” explains Alan.

The first Stabiliser stock bull was purchased late in the season, with limited choice, he was in the top 25 per cent of the breed. The next sire to supersede him was in the top five per cent of the breed.

“Then two years ago, we bought Trebartha Noah. Noah was bought privately from the breeder and we knew he was in the top five per cent of the breed, but his figures have improved and he is now in the top one per cent,” says Alan. A bull’s figures can improve when data from recording additional members of his extended family are included in the calculations, which make his figures more reliable.

“We bought Noah because his EBVs offered easy calving and good growth rates. He also had a quiet temperament, was fleshy and full of meat. He has continued to grow and now weighs over a tonne.

“We had 35 of his calves born this spring, which are yet to be recorded, but they look impressive and we are keeping some of his daughters.

“Our aim is that through using Noah we will see the EBVs of our females improve further and we might sell some of his heifers for bulling next summer.

“We are impressed with how quiet all the Stabilisers are and they have all calved easily,” adds Alan. He feels they were the right choice for the farm, with reasonably-priced high-quality sires available to meet his requirements for breeding manageable cattle, which grow well.