The Marcham herd, owned by W Cumber & Son (Theale) Ltd, from Marcham in Oxfordshire, has been recognised by AHDB Beef & Lamb as the Most Improved Herd of Stabiliser cattle in England for 2016.
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 the ten UK breeds.
Manor Farm is a large, mixed estate owned by William Cumber and his son, William (Jr). Their long-established ethos has been to pay attention to the breeding and rearing of high-quality livestock, while being aware of their environment and the effect as farmers that they have upon it.
Manor Farm beef unit manager, Neil Rowe, joined the outfit in 1980 straight from college. At that time they ran a dairy operation, alongside which they were developing their first large, intensive units. Provided from the dairy unit and with additional stores bought in, around 2000 cattle were finished on a yearly basis in a feed lot system.
The Holstein source became less economic by the late eighties and the finishing unit was closed down by 1989. By 1992 they had developed one of the first herds to import pure American Holstein genetics and achieve over 11,000 litres of milk per cow using a three-times-a-day milking system, feeding an American total mixed ration (TMR). This was achieved due to a true understanding of maximising potential through the use of genetics. In 1998 they decided to switch the Holstein to Brown Swiss and converted the livestock part of the farm to organic status. The Brown Swiss genetics were imported from Bavaria and they established the first successful robotic milking system in the UK.
Neil said: “We retained only 15 per cent of the Brown Swiss as replacements and so purchased a high-index Angus bull to use on 50 per cent of the cows. His dairy-cross calves achieved fantastic grades, making the organic Angus beef enterprise profitable.”
The benefits seen from that bull were obvious in terms of growth rate and the conformation of his progeny. This inspired William and Neil to concentrate on science, using estimated breeding values (EBVs) to develop a suckler herd. The dairy enterprise was phased out and replaced with a beef focus from 2008 while maintaining a high health status.
After the Foot and Mouth epidemic in 2001, William attended a Virtual Beef Expo event. Here the Stabiliser caught his eye, a breed using EBVs to monitor genetic progress and produce beef with a low carbon footprint. At this time, multiplier herds were starting to be developed by Big Beef, the Stabiliser Cattle Company in the UK (BIG).
Neil then came across the breed while visiting the USA as part of his Nuffield study tour in 2005 and was equally impressed by the efficient genetic system the Stabiliser provided.
Together they visited UK herds and with guidance from Ursula Taylor and Richard Fuller from the Stabiliser Cattle Company and Sam Boon, Signet Services breeding manager, they were convinced by the genetic value of the breed and went onto a waiting list to purchase females.
Developing a performance recorded herd based on science
Having kept the best of their Brown Swiss x Angus cows, they purchased two Stabiliser stock bulls. In 2010 they started grading up the beef unit, recording performance of all cattle through Signet and purchasing females from Stabiliser Multiplier herds to increase numbers.
They developed two herds; the Marcham herd with 100 autumn-calving cows and the Bradfield herd with 50 spring-calving cows. With two calving seasons each year they increase the use of their stock bulls. Running with the cows for 54 days in each herd, bulls have double the opportunity to work, consequently the cost of calves is halved.
“Calves from the Marcham herd are born outside in September, housed in November and turned out again in March,” Neil explains.
“Calves on this system are at the perfect stage in their life to maximise the potential nutrition from grass. Calves born in autumn 2015 were weaned in July and averaged 1.44kg liveweight gain (LWG) per day from birth to weaning on milk and grass alone.
“Male calves born in the first thirty days of calving are left entire, harnessing the power of natural hormones, around 50 are reared as bulls, and remaining males are castrated to provide flexibility.”
After weaning, steers go onto a TMR grower diet for two months before an intensive ration aiming to finish at 640kg before 16 months. Heifers remain on a replacement diet. Bulls move to the Stabiliser’s central finishing unit, under retained ownership, at ten months old and are sold at a target weight of 330kg deadweight before 13 months and 30 days.
All stock bulls, in-calf heifers and bulling heifers have figures behind them and are sold direct from the UK Multiplier herds. Prices are set according to phenotype and are ranked according to EBV.
With the recent shift toward producing animals for breeding rather than beef, they have invested in a specially designed unit to maintain tight biosecurity and protect the herd from risks such as TB. An increased number will be sent to the Stabiliser’s central finishing unit in the future to allow a greater capacity for breeding and increase to 150 breeding females in the Marcham herd. Through identifying elite cows, they plan to use new sires through artificial insemination to produce young bulls for breeding.
90 per cent of their females are sold as bulling heifers. In-calf cows or cows with calves at foot are sold on their fourth or fifth calving in order to retain a young, progressive herd. The top ten females retained will rank highly on beef index, maternal value and calving ease. The same traits are considered with their bull choices.
“We pay attention to mature weight and frame size to ensure the Stabiliser cow doesn’t get any bigger. A 640kg cow weaning a 400kg calf at nine months is an efficient use of resources, with dry matter on the farm being used for effective calf production as opposed to cow maintenance.” Neil said.
Bulls are changed regularly to progress genetic development and provide a wide gene base. Using three stock bulls across both herds, they get four or five breeding windows from each sire before selling them on. Utilising the Stabiliser Company’s mating programme, they are guided toward best match options for their cows.
Both herds have made good genetic progress over the years. In the last 12 months, the Marcham herd has leapt from a Beef Value of 19 to a Beef Value of 30, much of this difference can be credited to the two recent stock bulls; Givendale Majorleague and Cernioge Back Osian, both with a Beef Value of 54.
Speaking about the award, Neil said “I enjoy working with like-minded producers, interested in genetic progress through science.
“I benefit from really good advice provided from BIG and this has a lot to do with our success.”
Since writing this article William senior sadly passed away in early November.