Jennifer MacKenzie is an agricultural photo journalist with almost 30 year's experience. Operating from her base in Cumbria, Jennifer undertakes mainly industry-related freelance writing and photography.

Bright Future for Blondes

The Blonde has a bright future according to Mike Harrison whose suckler herd which produces Blonde crossbred calves has picked up a national award.

The suckler herd run by Mike on the Cumbrian upland unit Sleddale Hall, Shap, which produces calves sired by a pedigree Blonde bull, has won the British Blonde society’s biannual UK commercial herd of the year award.

Mike and his parents Henry and Joyce have stayed faithful to the Blonde for the last two decades, breeding both pedigree and commercial cattle.

And the breed which is easily managed and produces quality suckled calves, suits the system on the traditional 1,000 acre Less Favoured Area unit, where input costs are closely monitored and labour is kept to a minimum.

Mike Harrison
Mike Harrison

Sleddale Hall is tenanted from United Utilities which owns the neighbouring Wet Sleddale reservoir. There are rights on Ralfland Common and the Harrisons also own 165 acres.

Stocking numbers to meet the requirements of the Lake District Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme are 1,100 mostly Swaledale and Texel cross ewes and 150 beef cows.

The cows are predominantly three quarter beef bred Belgian Blue cross Limousin and Simmental with the majority of replacements being bought-in.

Cow numbers include the 12-cow pedigree Shapfell Blonde herd which was founded 20 years ago after the Harrisons had used a Blonde bull commercially and were impressed with the calves.

Mike Harrison said: “The Blonde bull produces good conformation calves and now that the export market has re-opened they are in big demand because they are long and lean. I think there is a lot of potential there.

“I believe the Blonde has a good future in today’s UK beef production system.

“The cross-bred cows are easily calved to the Blonde and we have very few assisted calvings, even of heifers and they have a quiet temperament. Then cows and calves thrive on rough grazing which runs from 980ft to 1,450ft above sea level at Sleddale Hall.”

As Mike runs the farm with only help from his father and a man at lambing time, the cows must be easily managed.

To produce an income throughout the year, the cows are calved in three batches – 40 in September and October, 70 in May and 40 in February and March.

The award’s previous winner Bill Thompson, of Fraserburgh, who judged the competition, said: “Mike Harrison’s herd was the obvious winner. His calves are consistently good for both bulls and heifers, particularly considering the type of hard farm he is rearing them on.”

Current senior stock bulls are Forthview Rosco, bought in Perth for 1,700gns in Perth 2002 and Easterton Pedlar bought privately from Scottish breeder John Owen.
Two five year old Shapfell bulls are also being used as well as the November 2003-born Quicks USA bred by Andrew Quick of Crediton, Devon, which sold for the then breed record price in Carlisle in May 2005 of 8,200gns.

A share has been retained in the home-bred bull Shapfell Bongo which was sold privately to Cumbrian pedigree breeder Andrew Stott. The 19 month old bull is sired by Whistley Dollar and goes back to a home-bred cow on the female line. Semen has also been taken from the bull.

The bullock from Sleddale Hall which was reserve overall champion at the Carlisle suckled calf show in October 2007
The bullock from Sleddale Hall which was reserve overall
champion at the Carlisle suckled calf show in October 2007

The success of the commercial cattle at Sleddale Hall is testament to the Blonde and Mike sells bulls mostly at home to both commercial and pedigree buyers.

The herd’s top price is 8,000gns for the bull Shapfell Mastermind sold at Carlisle.

Most calves are sold at around 11 months old. Some heifers are retained as replacements but those sold are in demand as replacements for upland suckler herds.

They are sold through Penrith, Wigton and Carlisle markets and in 2007 the 135 calves sold averaged £642.

At the Carlisle autumn show and sale a heifer made £1,000 and Mike’s reserve overall champion, a bullock, made £900. Both were bought by cattle showman Willie Timms.

The Harrisons have picked up numerous tickets for their suckled calves over the years, some of which have gone on to be primestock show winners.

Another regular buyer is Alan Barnett, of Brins, Shap who sold a bullock in January 2008 at Wigton for 149p per kg, topping the market, and his finished cattle are now in demand for export.

Most of the commercial replacements are bought-in as either bulling heifers or as heifers with calves at foot to generate a quicker return.

Line-up of Sleddale Hall show calves entered for the October 2007 show
Line-up of Sleddale Hall show calves entered for the October 2007 show

Sleddale Hall is a hard farm and winters are long and wet. All the cattle are housed from mid October usually to the end of April either in cubicles or on slats with the calves having access to a straw-bedded area.

The cows are fed ad-lib silage and depending on their size, the calves are creep fed a bought in concentrate, starting at 1.5kg a head a day and increasing to 4kg maximum.

Cows and May-born calves are grazed on the farm’s highest rough pasture which runs alongside the fell throughout July and returning in September.

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