That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with South Devon breeder, Adrian Rundle, Kestle Farm, Kestle Mill Newquay, Cornwall TR8 4PU, of Kestle Herd in this week’s Farmer Focus segment.
“I am the fifth generation to own the Kestle herd of pedigree South Devon cattle, and we have farmed for many generations – as far back as we can trace.
My family used to milk the South Devon Cattle, and they would take the calves from the high-yielding cows and double suckle them on the low-yielders. They used to milk the same volumes and quality as a Jersey;
As the breed transitioned from a dual purpose to a beef breed in the 70s and 80s, the milkiness has been retained, which makes the breed the ideal suckler cow.
I am a full-time farmer with 50 pedigree suckler cows and 140 head in total, and I also run the Treworthal flock of pedigree Hampshire Down sheep and the Kestle flock of pedigree British Rouge sheep with my son, Richard and father, Roger.
We are increasing numbers and maximising the increased acreage and forage we are farming.
We run a basic system based on forage which the South Devons perform well on, which helps to keep costs down, and additional numbers improve the efficiency of the business.
We farm 350-acres in total – 140 owned and 210 acres on various tenancies.
The South Devon is the ideal suckler cow which thrives on a low costs grass-based system. All of our cows are only fed grass, silage and hay and receive no concentrates.
We out-winter our bulling heifers on Kale, and this works really well with our re-seeding rotation, and cattle thrive.
Moreover, we are a closed herd and can trace our bloodlines back to the original foundation stock for the herd in the late 1800s.
We only buy in stock bulls, and we make use of AI using some of the new genetics that are available and also introducing some of the older genetics back into the herd. We also undertook a very successful ET programme.
Calving season and traits
We calve mainly in March, April and May – this is when we get the main flush of grass, and it suits our system to get the cows and calves out to grass as soon as possible, and then we watch the milk flow and the calves grow!
Overall, we aim for a cow between 800 and 1000kg and like a larger animal because growth is very important to our system.
As a suckler herd, we only get one calf per cow per year, and when this animal finishes, we want to maximise the return from that animal and the extra growth and weight pay.
We also get a great return from our cull cows which greatly offsets the replacement costs.
We base our culling policy around functionality – if the cows are performing, then they stay in the herd – if there are any issues, then we cull them.
Most of our females are retained for breeding, which will be used within our own herd or sold to other pedigree breeders.
These typically sell for £3,000 upwards. We hold the breed record price for a 2-year-old heifer at auction, £7,140. We retain the best bulls for sale to pedigree and commercial herds.
The remaining male calves are castrated and run on a mix of grass and herbal leys, where they are finished between 20 and 26 months with very little concentrates to help keep costs down.
We are looking to maximise the return and aim for a live weight of 750 to 800kg and a carcase weight of 400 to 420kg.
We sell our stock deadweight and achieve grades E, U & R and fat class 3 to 4.
Because we rely on forage rather than concentrates, the growth and carcase weights are really important to achieve the return. Because we finish mainly from grass – a 750kg to 800kg animal will return more than a 600kg to 650kg animal at the same age.
We have been getting £1700 to £1800 for our finished stock, which is mainly from grass, so it is a good return.
We retain our own heifers as replacements – we are in a high herd health scheme testing for BVD and Johne’s, so this helps maintain our own bio-security.
Calving at 3
We calve down our heifers at three as we believe that this will produce a larger, longer-lasting cow, which is important for our system because this reduces the replacement costs, and we find that the calves grow better.
At 3, we find that they need less attention and fit well into our grass-based system.
One calf per year is essential as well as easy calving – last year, we calved 50 cows and only needed light intervention on 2 – the rest all calved on their own.
We make use of a camera at calving, which works well because it stops us from disturbing the cow and also gives confidence that they are getting on with the job, avoiding unnecessary intervention.
For me, the cow is the number one focus, and the South Devon is the perfect suckler cow – low input, loads of milk and a quiet temperament makes them easy to manage.
The high growth rates and increased carcase weights make the difference between profit and loss with a suckler cow.
Grass is essential to our farming system – we soil test our pastures, and this helps us to be able to identify where fertiliser is required, and it helps to inform our re-seeding and soil management policy. 50% of our grazing is permanent pasture.
Looking to the future, we will increase the herd size. We performance record and back fat and muscle depth scan as well as classify the females – these are all important tools to help make breeding decisions and further improve the herd.
The South Devon is the most underrated suckler cow, and I would like to promote the breed further to suckler producers across the UK.
You can put any bull on the South Devon, and you will get a fantastic calf that will grow due to all the milk that the cow will produce.
There is huge potential for suckler farming – especially if we get the marketing right. Suckler-bred beef is the best beef that you can buy – it has the best story and is 100% beef.
This is what supermarkets should be promoting as their premium, finest range.
Also, in terms of carbon footprint – suckler-bred beef – fed on forage takes carbon out of the environment – this will be important in the future, and as an industry, we need to capitalise on this and use it as a selling point.
At the moment, it is really difficult to get supermarkets and butchers to recognise the quality and benefits of suckler-bred beef.
We need to educate the consumers to demand this – hopefully, then things will change – 100% suckler-bred beef should attract a premium over dairy-bred beef.
The Kestle Herd has been around since the late 1800s, and it has seen many changes and challenges but has stood the test of time.
There have been so many highlights over the years, but since taking over the herd, winning the breed championship at the Royal Cornwall Show in 2022 as a Cornishman was a very special moment.
The cattle are suited to the environment and thrive on a grass-based system, which is what the modern-day requirements will require.
I hope to continue the good work of my family and pass on the herd to my son so that he can carry on the legacy as the sixth generation.”
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