Don't let rare breed cattle become 'museum pieces', says Norfolk farmer
A Norfolk livestock enthusiast believes the best way to preserve rare breed cattle is to find a viable market for them - and his commercial crosses have raised eyebrows in the rare breeds community.
“If you can find a commercial niche for a rare breed, it won't be rare any more.”
This simple principle has guided Norfolk farm owner Nigel Darling's search for a way to sustain his herds of rare breed animals – particularly his Shetland cattle.
He started crossing pedigree Shetlands with a Simmental bull at Intwood Farm outside Norwich, after learning from a breeder doing the same thing with Highland cattle in Scotland, and the resulting heifers are crossed again with a Limousin bull.
Mr Darling says the results of this three-way cross are “amazing”, producing calves weaned at 400kg from a mother which is half the weight of a more expensive and demanding Simmental cow. At 14 months the bulls weigh 600kg and are sold for around £1,250.
He said the Shetland is as an important factor in the commercial product, describing the rare animals as his “little nuggets of gold”.
But the system also preserves a purpose for his pedigree Shetland breeding herd, sustaining their valuable bloodlines, and keeping them available for neighbouring farms who need native breeds to graze land covered by environmental stewardship schemes.
Mr Darling said: “When I told people what I was doing I thought I would get met with: 'Oh my God, why are you doing that?' Some people in the rare breeds world think it is dreadful what we are doing. But I keep making the point that if you can find a commercial application for a rare breed then it won't be rare any more.
“Otherwise, they just become a museum piece. If we didn't have a commercial use for them I might keep a couple of Shetlands for interest, but I wouldn't have as many as we have got now, and I certainly wouldn't be keeping a breeding bull.”
Mr Darling said most beef farmers also think he is “absolutely crazy” – until they see the results.
“The Simmental x Shetland cows are so easy to get in calf, a trait from the Shetland,” he said. “They give plenty of milk to feed the calves. They are easy calving and we can wean a calf that weighs the same as the cow.
“With all the rare breed cows we have been doing this with, the Shetland is probably the best. The reason for that is the Shetlands mature earlier than other rare breeds, and we can calve the cross-breds at two years old. A Highland cross would need to be nearly three years old. So from a production point of view the Shetland gives you that advantage.”
Mr Darling began keeping various rare breeds “as a hobby” and now has about 13 pure-bred Shetlands, and about 60 cross-bred cows from this and other rare breeds.
The animals calve in late November and early December and are fed maize silage in the sheds until early January, when then they graze stubble turnips on the light land farm. As well as using the farm's 50 acres of grassland in the summer, the Shetlands are used for conservation grazing within environmental stewardship schemes, both on the farm and on neighbouring land.
The farm also has 350 acres of arable land, which is contract-farmed by Honingham Thorpe Farms, while the livestock enterprise is managed by stock manager Paul Monaghan.
Mr Darling balances the demands of the farm with his day job as managing director of Charity and Taylor Electronic Services, which sells marine electronics and navigation equipment for boats travelling to offshore gas platforms and wind farms, with offices in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
“It is always a juggling act, and I am very fortunate that we have a really good relationship with our arable contractor, and that I have a stockman who is just as passionate about the cattle as I am,” he said.
SHETLAND CATTLE: ABOUT THE BREED
Shetland cattle developed in the harsh environment of their native Scottish islands, and were originally bred as multi-purpose animals for crofters – although milk production was their primary role.
As the role of crofting declined so did the Shetland breed and by the 1950s there were fewer than 40 pure-bred animals remaining.
Numbers have increased since then and the breed is becoming a popular choice on conservation grazing projects.
They are easy calving, usually docile, and their small size means they are easily managed, with low production costs.
Their colouring is usually black or black and white, but rarer colours include red, dun, grey, brown and brindle, reflecting the diverse colours present in the old herds. Animals have small, distinctively upswept “Viking” horns.