Rodney Magowan visits a Galloway Herd grazing the hills beside Slemish Mountain to hear how this traditional breed is thriving on our uplands and even finding favour as a terminal beef sire crossed with Holsteins.
‘Farm to suit the land you farm’ sums up the thinking of Joe Smyth when it comes to making a living from marginal land running to 290m above sea level and mostly over 220m.
For Joe that means running Galloways, the beef breed that thrives on these exposed open hills at Upper Buckna near Broughshane in Co Antrim, an Environmentally Sensitive Area where shortage of rainfall is certainly never an issue any month of the year.
Though Galloway cattle have been popular on the uplands of Northern Ireland for generations the current Upper Buckna pure bred Galloway herd was founded in 1958.
As Joe explained: “We Smyths have farmed here since the mid 1700s with Galloway and Galloway type stock always about the place, initially as dual purpose cows.
“Later on Galloway bulls were often put to my father’s Shorthorn and Ayrshire dairy cows to produce beef cattle. However the current Upper Buckna Galloway Pedigree Herd was only founded when, as a school boy, I was bought a cow in 1958.
“Kristy 3rd of Racavan came from local breeder the late J B Graham and her breeding goes back to Kristy of Auchengassel brought from Scotland in 1914.”
Today the Galloway enterprise at Upper Buckna is based on producing both pedigree and commercial cattle. Each year at least four bulls are selected and kept to sell on for breeding with the rest finished for beef. No heifers are finished for beef as demand for Galloway cows for breeding always far outstrips supply.
According to Joe the joy of running Galloways is that they can be run at low cost on marginal land to produce carcasses that please meat plants and consumers. A recent batch of 10 steers supplied to Linden Foods averaged 359kg with all grading R or O with no excess fat. All were finished and away by 30 months.
Interestingly Joe sees more milk producers finding a role for Galloway bulls in producing decent beef bullocks out of Holstein cows. Typically one steer by a Galloway bull out of a Holstein cow produced a 460kg O grade carcass.
Heifers from Holsteins put to Galloway bulls are likewise finding a very ready market as replacement suckler cows in lowland herds. That the Galloway produce beef at a profit from marginal land is well demonstrated by Joe at Upper Buckna.
“We keep stock well fed, but not expensively fed. The cows are spring calvers with calves fed on silage and 1.5kg of meal a day after weaning until they go out to the mountain in May. We have easy access to common grazing on 500 acres of moorland adjacent to Slemish Mountain.
“The steers see no meal again until their final six weeks before going to the plant. Instead they only get silage the following winter and until recent times all our Galloways were out wintered. Now civil service interpretation of EU cross compliance rules means cattle come in for the worst of the winter to protect the environment.
“In their final summer steers being finished off grass to go away in October are on 3kg to 3.5kg of meal a day from August onwards.”
Though Galloways are a traditional breed Joe has long taken a progressive approach to breeding cattle with embryos purchased from Canada to increase size. The current eye catching stock bull, Apache of Upper Buckna, arrived 10 years ago as an embryo from the famous Diamond B ranch in Saskatchewan, a herd since dispersed.
“Visits to Canada, including to the amazing Western Agrbition show in Regina, proved very worthwhile,” recalled Joe. “At first live bulls were bought, but as the technology moved on using Canadian embryos has become much more cost effective.
“In Canada traditional breeds still dominate and are being constantly improved to suit the often tough farming conditions on large ranches. Galloway, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus have all been bred with more size.
“By using some Canadian genetics at Upper Buckna larger carcasses are produced without loosing shape or the innate Galloway ability to thrive off high rainfall, marginal land. Cows acquired from leading breeders in Ulster and Scotland helped found our key Kate, Gail and Gay families.
“My very first cow Kristy 3rd of Racavan was especially successful when put to the Scottish bull Plascow Alliance we bought in 1969. He was a grandson of record priced Plascow Norseman and produced Kate of Upper Buckna, the foundation of the Kate family that has been our key cow family this 40 years.
“Gail and Gay are the other main families in our herd and can be traced back to the heifer Gay of Cairnsmore bought at Castle Douglas breed sale in 1995 from Matt Brown. Both families are now matching the success of Kate stock.”
Looking back Joe also noted the input of a handful of other Galloways bought in over this past 60 years. Not least Rusko Standfast, who was 1060kg in his prime and acquired at Castle Douglas from the late T H Gardener. According to Joe this bull really put the Upper Buckna Galloways on the map especially when his daughters were put to Grange Covenanter and Norman of Lochurr by AI.
Locally Joe says the heifer Bellona 4th of Bogstown bred by the now deceased John Bell of Broughshane had a great impact, especially as regards breeding topping bulls.
“Over the years very few cattle were bought in and those that came here had to suit our system of running Galloways commercially. That means we are able to produce cattle that either kill out well at the plant or go on to breed quality stock. Stock that suit a low cost farming system, calve easily and are a pleasure to work with.”