Family’s Shorthorn herd wins top award

Charles and Sally Horrell, top Shorthorn herd

Charles and Sally Horrell, top Shorthorn herd - Credit: Submitted

A pedigree herd of Shorthorn cattle run on former Roman earthworks in Cambridgeshire has won a top industry award for achieving the most genetic improvement.

It was 16 years ago that Harry Horrell bought the nucleus of his new Podehole herd on the family's farm at Thorney, near Peterborough, by buying three foundation females from the Tugby herd.

It has now been recognised by Eblex as the most improved herd of Shorthorn cattle in England for 2013. The award, for each of the 10 British breeds, is presented by the Eblex beef better returns programme (BRP) to the recorded herd that shows the greatest genetic gain for commercial characteristics over a 12-month period.

Harry's parents, Charles and Sally Horrell, who had moved to Podehole Farm in 1990, also established a flock of pedigree Hampshire Down sheep two years later.

It now numbers 50 head and the flock is performance recorded.

Although the overwhelming majority of the 1,200-acre farm is arable with oilseed rape, wheat and sugar beet, as well as growing maize as a forage crop for winter feeding, there is about 200 acres of permanent grassland. With part of the farm reclaimed after gravel extraction and also the site of Roman earthworks, grassland and a livestock enterprise made sound management sense.

The priority was to identify low input breeds which would cope with the type of forage available on this challenged land.

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When their son started showing an interest in cattle in 1997, the Podehole Shorthorn herd was established. Later in the same year, they were joined by cattle from Tofts with additions from Derryage and Wenmar herds. These early lines have formed the mainstay of the herd, which now numbers up to 60 cows plus followers. Stockman Roy McDonald joined the operation in 2006.

Over the years, the Horrells have found Shorthorns to be excellent grass convertors, which cope well with a low-input system. Primarily a maternal breed, they exhibit strong mothering traits, such as easy calving, docility and good milking ability, and are fertile and easy to handle.

The herd is currently closed, with the exception of bought-in stock sires. It has a high herd health status and been both Johnes and BVD-accredited since 2010.

The herd calves indoors from March and is usually turned out in April. The cattle are brought in again in October and fed over the winter months on maize silage. Calves are weaned at seven months old and wintered indoors from then on. Any surplus stock is finished and sold, with bulls finished at around 13 months old.

They used to calve heifers at two and a half years old in the autumn, but as the Horrells prefer a spring calving herd, this year the heifers will calve at two years old. They will decide whether to continue with this approach depending on how successful it is.

The decision to performance record was easy because the family has recorded their Hampshire Down flock. In the early days, they had a small number of stock on the farm and were able to scan their cattle and sheep at the same time.

As they sell breeding cattle to both pedigree and commercial producers, their potential purchasers want to know accurate background performance information. 'The figures give important guidance to what's going on beneath the skin,' said Mrs Horrell. 'The fact that we're performance recording shows that we're taking the job of producing breeding animals seriously.

'The information we record is verified by the scanning data, which gives us peace of mind and confidence in the animals we're producing, and gives potential buyers confidence in our stock,' she added.

When selecting potential replacement, conformation and mobility are key elements.

The Horrells use a limited amount of artificial insemination (AI) and run two stock bulls. Providing the bulls work well, they will stay active in the herd for a number of seasons. They have one bull on his sixth season and Chapelton Clansman, who is on his third.

Chapelton Clansman has had a great influence on the herd, particularly in terms of growth rates and carcase traits. The family suggests that he is one of the major factors contributing to the herd's success.

The herd is now producing around eight bulls each year that they consider good enough to be sold for breeding. A select few are sold at the Sterling Bull Sale, while the majority are sold off the farm. Females are also sold off the farm and at breed society sales.