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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘Our holy grail is a herd of 100 homozygous polled Limousin cows’ – James Milligan-Manby

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with James Milligan-Manby, Thorganby Hall, Grimsby, Lincolnshire, DN37 0SR of McTurk Herd, in this week’s Suckler Focus.

He discusses his farming roots, a passion for polled Limousin cattle, how having two heterozygous polled parents and still being able to have a horned calf is “particularly frustrating”, and the possibility of writing a book on his journey in the cattle breeding circles.

“Together with my brother Richard, we run a mixed farming enterprise on two separate units, Thorganby and Wykeham, 8 miles apart.

In 2014, we demerged Manby Farms Ltd in preparation for the next generation. We both have four children, two boys and two girls, and so far, none are involved.

There are 2,000-acres of arable on the Lincolnshire Wolds; cropping is wheat, winter and spring barley, winter OSR, and spring beans.

We have 198-acres of grassland with a further 40-acres rented. The grassland is a mixture of wooded parkland, deserted medieval villages and valley bottoms.

Our great-grandfather, William Nainby-Manby, began farming at Thorganby as a tenant of the Brocklesby Estate in 1875; most of the land was purchased in the 1890s.

Our grandfather (James Milligan) started farming at Wykeham in the late 1800s. His parents had moved from Dumfriesshire to Bradford to focus on wool rather than farming.

His mother was Jessie Ann McTurk of Galloway farming stock, from whom the herd prefix is derived.

Lincoln Reds

Originally, we had Lincoln Reds; the McTurk herd is the only survivor from volume 1 of the herd book.

Our father, Stewart, died in 1964, and our mother took over. She remarried in 1968 and farmed as Jeanne Parkes before incorporating in 1976.

At that stage, we also had pedigree flocks of Suffolk, Dorset Poll and Horn and Lincoln Longwool sheep as well as commercial ewes.

As with many native breeds, the Lincoln Reds became unfashionable with too much ‘tutt’ (tail fat) and brisket.

She was instrumental in setting up a Breed Development Scheme where the LR was crossed with continental breeds.

We used the Limousin. The LR had been polled, primarily by Eric Pentecost, in the 1950s and 60s, using the Red Angus.

The crossbred ‘A’ grade of 50/50 heifers were bred back to the LR and the Limousin. The LR bulls could be used as pedigree at 87.5% (e.g. 3rd cross).

As we started crossing back to the Limousin, my mother purchased a Limousin cow, Hortense, from the Burton disposal sale.

She did successful ET work, and the nucleus of the McTurk herd of Limousin was created.

I returned to the farm in 1985 and Richard in 1992. I managed the cattle and him the sheep, with arable done by committee. The sheep were sold away in the early 00s.

I began to focus more on the polling of the Limousin. We also tried direct marketing LR beef to try and create added value.

As we ended up creating smaller packs, it became more complicated to market. We became involved in the William Syndicate.

John Green (of Greensons fame) identified a polled bull, GWHWilliam, in Canada and arranged for his importation. A decent bull, he probably lacked sufficient conformation to make a major impact.

Polled genetics

Still, a useful source of external genetics. Polling was embraced around the world for all the obvious reasons; however, enthusiasm in the UK has always been generally lethargic.

Initially, an inherent recall of polled Herefords in the 1960s was passed down as if it was sacrosanct.

We have gradually made small inroads, and rules made progress very slow, in my view. Polled bulls could only be used at the fourth-generation e.g. 93.75% or E grade.

Assuming you had a 50% chance of a polled animal, a 50% chance of a male or female, then wait two or three years to repeat the probability, and it is easy to see why we are still trying 40-odd years later.

Part of our slow progress was down to the fact that early on, we used horned bulls to ensure the integrity of the conformation.

The North American genetics back then were definitely lacking backend, partly, I think, because they had multiplied their polled stock so rapidly.

Our progress was gradual; we used polled semen and bulls on our horned cows.

Polled genetics were generally hard to find. I think we have managed to maintain a broad spectrum of gene pool influences.

More recently, with the introduction of black Limousin, more bloodlines have evolved. We have used two bulls, in particular, Emslies Hboss and Esmors Jetset, which both had well-respected black Limousin sires, namely Bailea BMW and Knock Glencoe.

Some of the established ‘show/sale’ breeders have started to dabble in polled genetics, which will help move things forward.

Suckler herd

We have 68 polled Limousin cows, with 8 two-year-olds and 16 three-year-old polled heifers to calve this spring, and a further 10 Lincoln Red cows have gone to the Limousin bull.

I would love everything to calve at two, but it does not seem to work for us, and perhaps, it would be easier if we had autumn calving as well.

We are fundamentally an arable farm with cattle to utilise the permanent grassland.

There is potential to keep more animals and move leys around the arable rotation and also utilising cover crops for grazing in the autumn.

This year, we are calving the heifers at the same time as the cows for the first time; historically, it was a month earlier.

It was always quite nice to have the bulk of the heifers out of the way, but it extends the calving season.

Breeding programme

The bulls were in for eight weeks. The heifers ran with a heterozygous polled bull from Northern Ireland called Hannas Oman.

We are ruthless on ‘empty’ females, bad bags, lameness and, above all, temperament when it comes to filling the cull pen.

I have been trying to creep numbers up to 110 but seem to find reasons to move things on.

We have tried using AI on heifers but with limited success. Moreover, we have tried synchronisation, and although the last time was better, it did not really feel as if we had cracked it.

We have a stock bull, Milord, who came from the Chastenet herd in France. He is by Fleuron out of a Tigris cow, and he is sadly only heterozygous.

Homozygous polled Limousin cows

Our holy grail is a herd of 100 homozygous polled Limousin cows. 40 years on, we are still around only 25% homozygous. Sod’s law says it is the homozygous ones that have a mishap or a drama.

We have a homozygous bull, Tredon Oneil, whose sire is a German bull called Volvo. The Europeans have embraced polling much more readily than the British and Irish.

The Germans and Danes, in particular, but the French are now producing strength in numbers and our very happy to promote the concept of ‘sans cornes’.

The world’s major cattle producers in America and Australasia have gone down the polled route. They take an alternative view when it comes to feet and mobility, combined with extreme conformation and risk of calving problems.

We aim to keep a few homozygous bulls to sell (3 just under 2-year-old in the yard now!).

The rest of the bulls are sold through Selby Market, post the closure of Newark, at around 12-13 months.

We try and sell at 600kgs, and with feed costs last year, we lowered the weight; we lost our slot at Dovecote Park, unfortunately.

Heifers are either retained for breeding or finished at home after a summer at grass at around 20 months.

It would be good to soon sell polled heifers for breeding, but it is difficult as, ultimately; we want to try and keep the homozygous ones.

Explaining to a potential customer that a heterozygous bull or heifer is polled, but half the calves will be horned, is not a good marketing speel.

Grassland management

Grassland management is an area of potential improvement. Mob grazing is the buzz trend, but our paddocks do not particularly lend themselves.

The grass itself is tired and needs some reinvigoration, and furthermore, re-seeding parkland and DMVs are not straightforward.

Contemplating the future for suckler cows is not for the fainthearted; however, we have the grassland, and we need to farm it.

Costs are difficult at the moment, but we are lucky that growing cereals, we have a supply of straw for feed and bedding as well as wheat and barley for concentrates.

We try and grow malting barley, so often, the feed barley is bought in.

In May, I worked out that the breakeven price for bulls was 275p/kg liveweight. I feel strongly that Environmental and Stewardship schemes do not properly reward livestock farmers.

Food security is essential. To ensure the next generation is interested, livestock farming needs to be profitable.

There is plenty of room for improvement. Our herd’s fertility should be better; we should be calving more at two; we do pelvic measurements, we pregnancy scan, and we weigh. In terms of cows going to the bull, we should be doing better.

Our efforts to poll the Limousin will continue, but it is a painstaking process.

Having two heterozygous polled parents and still being able to have a horned calf is particularly frustrating.

I would love to write a book about our journey and its ups and downs, but I wonder if anybody would want to read about such a niche story; perhaps your readers at That’s Farming could offer some feedback.”

To share your story, email – [email protected]

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