Articles

The Hillsonherd of Pedigree South Devon Cattle (published in the South West Farmer 2014 by J.Hillson)

Having been presented with this opportunity to promote the attributes of my herd of South Devon cattle, I want to be concise and honest without criticising or condemning other breeds. They all have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, there is no perfect breed.
My personal approach to breeding is similar to constructing a racing car, taking a standard family saloon and tuning it to the peak of performance within the environment I can provide for it. This being a very important factor.
For those thinking of getting into a breed, firstly check-up what breed is likely to suit your proposed system of management. Clarify your aims, what are you trying to achieve, whether it be just good commercial stock, fatstock type animals or show animals, they all exist in every breed and are completely different types within each breed. Getting the wrong type will cause great dissappointment. Find a breeder who speaks the same language as yourself, has a logic and philosophy you can relate to. Make sure your animals come from a breeder who is already doing what you are setting out to do and will tell you exactly how to look after them.
After 36 years of breeding, my cattle have improved from the early days when heavy overnight rain on a September born calf would nearly kill it, to the rugged, high constituition calves that are happy to be outdoors at any time of the year that I have now.
The influence of environment
I cannot provide the best land or the best management so the cattle have to work to the best of their abilities within these constraints. Many other cattle farmers are similarly constrained so I think my cattle will not only suit their systems but also those with a superior environment who will get even better results from my cattle than I can. This should lead to good customer satisfaction.
Recognising performance cattle
To measure the best performing animals their production must be compared to their contemporary’s production on the same commercially viable level of nutrition and use factual data and not predictions. Before doing that get every cows functionality top notch first of all. There wouldn’t be space enough here to air my views on the many facets of breeding but in as much as Eblex produce some very good publications, it is a huge dissappointment that the universally adopted Breedplan system of recording is of very little use in breeding the sort of animals I want. Being heavily pointed in favour of weight gain of an individual, I have no interest and see no relevance in knowing how heavy an animal is as a result of eating a lot of corn.
My personal view is that the concept of animal breeding of all species in the UK needs completely revising. If an animal cannot impress in the commercial world, which is where the quantity market is, then its purpose is very limited.
An american university concluded, after a study on beef cattle, that no beef animal should have less than 25% South Devon genetics within it. That is a monumental statement and if we could realise that potential, the revenue involved is unimaginable.
We are way off the mark and this is because we don’t even measure some of the most important commercial traits so if they appear it is purely by accident.
If we provide a specialised feed right into the animals mouth in as much quantity as it can consume, calve a cow instead of letting her do it, protect them from competition when feeding, keep them indoors when its cold and wet then that animal’s productivity is more a measure of our own abilities than of theirs and by doing so have masked the basic functional commercial traits and the ability to recognise it.
Key breeding tips
• Once a bull has been found which is producing the type of animal required. It is beneficial to use his sons in the herd to increase the concentration of that type. Look at it this way, as breeders what we are doing is constructing a breed of its own specifically to the plan and to the best of its ability in the environment we keep it in, each farm being totally different to another.
• To bring in an unrelated bull will dilute the genes of the good progress that has been formerly made.
• Breeding with very close relatives is a gamble, possibly undesirable and great caution must be taken, although it can improve some lines.
• Using differing female lines with those sons or grandsons of the successful male line will concentrate the good genes to good effect.
The original bovine from which domestic stock is bred would have been wild and a suitable temperament has had to be trained into them. Occassionally, we may have an animal which seems flighty and should be afforded the opportunity to respond to quiet handling, if it doesn’t respond then it is unsuitable to keep but many will respond with consideration and patience.
I will challenge any expert who insists that, “the more purebred, the less vigour”. If this were so Wildebeest or Buffalo would by now be pretty dopey. The “dopiest” herd in the world subjected to the same environment as a Wildebeest would eventually become equally as “wild and vigourous” once the vultures had cleared up the abundant corpses of the failures of course.
What is missing, as previously mentioned is the ability to recognise vigour and I have proven in my own herd that if an animal can calve quickly, unassisted, the calf gets up quickly and suckles by itself and grows well, is always healthy throughout life and can tolerate periods of adversity and regain lost ground without trouble, the resultant animal has adequate vigour for any situation. Even in the crossbred world there are plenty of low vigour cows and when low vigour bulls are used on them, a lack of vigour becomes an issue even within a couple of generations. Lack of vigour is the breeders own fault !

What should we expect of an animal
No animal is a machine, they can have a bad year and they can have losses in production as a result very often of our own inadequacies in looking after them. The best animals might be expected to function well for 90-95% of the time and if you have one who does better than that she is a very valuable and rare animal. They do exist and our job is to increase their numbers. The reliability of a cow’s functionality reigns supreme in a herd, the no 1 aim, from here we can fine tune farther providing we don’t lose any of the basic functionality that what we have been building into the herd. A valuable cow is one which has left a number of very productive and pleasing daughters in the herd. There are many cows who just produce an acceptable, average calf for slaughter and that’s all, those cows have no significant genetic value within the herd.
A good cow must produce a living calf every year. The calving for 90-95% of the time should be totally unassisted, that’s nine out of ten calvings by herself. Also her calves must be lively and suckle unassisted and grow exceptionally well.
As we come down the list of cows in our herds who can deliver my strict demands, their number is probably minimal. After many years of breeding, the majority of my herd functions in this manner. When I started the herd I may have had just the odd one or two.
Recording your best animals
Eventually, I found that I could not remember exact details of every animals productivity, the relationships and their gains and losses. This led, with huge help from Joe Easley, an IT friend, who wrote the Easybreeder program using my required fields where factual historic data is stored and can be converted into a scoring system and is not based on predictions. I don’t think I could make progress with my herd without this most valuable tool.
What is not acceptable in my herd.
• Cows who have caesareans are not acceptable.
• If a cow produces a dead calf she must go herself. Try telling a bank manager to wait until the following year for his interest. This may seem ruthless but it takes out the poorer workers at the lower end of the herd’s record.
• Poor feet which can cripple an animal are not acceptable, they would cause a drop in production due to discomfort losing valuable productivity when there is no need.
• Whimps. An animal which goes and stands in the corner because it is afraid of others who push them away means I would have to allocate time to feed her seperately which of course is not acceptable.
• Loonies. An animal which even after gentle coaxing does not respond and stirs up every other animal first before it will eventually be persuaded to comply is also of no use. Nobody needs to make the job harder by keeping these.
• A sign of an unacceptable temperament is when a cow starts to walk away when you get within about 30 feet of her.
• Poor milking ability is a reason to cull so are unmanageable large teats or small calves at weaning indicating her lack of productivity.
As one Tasmanian South Devon breeder described at a UK convention, he has an imaginary box which has his herd within, what he doesn’t like he throws out, what he likes stays in. Typical “aussie” black and white logic and bang on! Breeding selection is as easy as that.
Temperment
This deserves a paragraph of its own,. South Devons are fantastic in this respect. I can have a field full of animals and single-handedly manage to pick out singles, couples or groups without any effort whatever, saving the stress of rounding up cows and baby calves and the risk of injury to them as a result. After so many years, even I am regularly shocked how good they are to handle and these cattle are just commercially managed and not pampered.
Another valuable tool in our kit is of course, scratching them. They enjoy it and they reward you in return. Keeping cattle requires compassion and interest and an expectation sometimes to have to tend them at very unsocial hours or in very bad weather conditions and without that will increase losses.
My cows calve outdoors and if assistance is needed I expect to be able to do this whilst the cow remains where she is avoiding need to tie her up or get her into a pen, whilst having the benefit of unrestricted room and access to her.
Good commercial traits of South Devons
• I sell yearling store cattle and a realistic target is £1000 for males which is enough to leave some sort of margin for sure.
• Females offer the buyer an animal which will grow to exceptional weights without getting overfat, a very valuable and unique trait.
• Cull cows and bulls are huge and realise big returns.
• Bulls are very amenable and easy to handle.
• The only corn needed is to feed calves through the first winter.
• They have excellent ease of handling.
• The South Devon has an excellent reputation for the eating qualities and flavour of its meat.

An animal must be able to survive with ease, look good and prosper in its natural environment without supplementary feeding or must not run to a continual excessively fat condition either.
Historically South Devons were dual purpose and made demands on the stockman’s assistance. In my herd, independent functionality has had to be bred in and no animal requiring regular help can be used as a main genetic component of the herd.
Coming from this background is also one of the main reasons for the South Devon’s tremendous productive capabilities and this is linked to the type of body fat which originates from its milky background and is in contrast to some beef breeds which lay down excessive amounts of internal body fat as a store for the harsh British winters. The unfortunate part of this is that the heifers tend to get over fat and to meet market demands need to be slaughtered at much lighter weights realising in a lower price. The South Devon is not restricted in this way and females can be sold returning typically as much as £200 per head more on the female side and can compete equally with continentals on the male side.
All in all I am delighted with the way my herd has changed into a more easy care animal with about 90% of calvings being unassisted and calves which get up quickly and suckle by themselves. I have never consciously tried to breed a type other than always using bulls which produced strong coated calves and from that the typical Hillsonherd type is evolving. Other criteria for selection are that I only keep bulls which have be born unassisted and have got up and suckled quickly and I don’t keep bulls which were over 50 kg at birth.
The South Devon is a racing car in that it has the ability, with some fine tuning, of serious performance capabilities. They can consume a lot but also return a lot without placing its own existence in jeopardy which a dairy cross animal might not do.
I think I can sum up my herd as one in which quiet, easily handled cattle, work hard, independantly of me with a high degree of constitution, soundness, reliability, climatic acclimatisation and commendable productivity.
Happy breeding folks!