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.

Polled Charolais could be the future

Polled cattle could be the future of the Charolais breed according to Steve Nesbitt whose family’s Alwent herd goes back more than three decades.

Not only do naturally polled cattle negate the health, welfare and labour issues of de-horning cattle but cattle carrying the homozygous polled gene generally are lighter boned and easier to calve.

Steve farms the 200-acre, owner-occupied Alwent Hall near Winston, Darlington, with his father, Doug, and brother, David, running a flock of 120 pedigree Texel ewes and providing a regional retail outlet for Carrs Billington in redundant farm buildings. The farm grows 90 acres of wheat, barley and oil seed rape.

The pedigree Charolais herd started as a hobby now makes up a significant part of the farm business, with bulls selling into five figures at society sales at Carlisle and Stirling.

Steve Nesbitt
Steve Nesbitt

What is believed to be the world record auction price of 70,000gns was achieved in October (2011) for Barnsford Ferny, bred by Tom and Sheena Gatherer, from Inchinnan, from the heifer they bought in Carlisle from the Nesbitts - Alwent Bloom.

“The breeding policy now is to put all the heifers to polled bulls so that we eventually have a herd of high conformation, homozygous polled cattle,” said Steve, who now has three successive years of home-bred polled cattle on the ground.

“Breeding polled cattle is not new - but it is attracting increasing interest now that we have access to the quality of bulls we have today. If someone had suggested several years ago that I would be breeding polled cattle I would have laughed at them,” added Steve, a former chairman of the British Charolais Cattle Society.

Alwent cows and calves
Alwent cows and calves

His enthusiasm for the breed has taken him to numerous countries worldwide where he saw quality polled bulls and females. Steve is a firm believer that Charolais is the superior beef breed on performance, producing naturally-fleshed calves that have an unbeatable weight for age.

“I thought if I could get that sort of cattle into the UK it would work because it would be market-driven because of much less labour on farms. When I first started working at home we had four staff for the same acreage - now there is just myself and my brother and Brian Scaife who works for us in the feed store and helps with the stock,” said Steve.

“Not only does it avoid the work and health and welfare issues with de-horning the calves, but polled cattle are generally easy calving. We’ re now breeding from these bulls with heifers calving at two to two and a half years old instead of at three so, in effect, we’re getting an extra calf for every beast.

“While the calves are smaller when they are born because of their lighter frame they catch up quickly with growth rates. One of the smallest calves born by a French polled bull out of a horned cow weighed just over 40kg.

“It achieved a growth rate of 1.65kg a day bringing it up to the average weight of the calves. It sold at Carlisle in May 2011 for 4,600gns and it had the highest eye muscle score I have had in my cattle,” he added.

Steve Nesbitt
Steve Nesbitt

Steve has imported both homozygous polled semen and embryos from Canada. The semen includes the 100 per cent homozygous polled bulls Hicks Revolver and ACC Hercules.

Embryos by Revolver out of polled heifer Alwent Eugenie, which is within the breed’s top one per cent with a BCCS TI (Terminal Index) of +42 and a SRI (Self Replacing Index) of +49, made the first ever shipment of British Charolais embryos to France.

Eugenie is by the polled Charolais sire, Unico SC currently standing at the Genes Diffusion stud in Lyon, out of Alwent Beatrice. The embryos will be distributed among Genes Diffusion’s group members in France for progeny testing.

Eight month old polled bull calf Alwent Gold out of Alwent Dragonfly and by the French bull Unico
Eight month old polled bull calf Alwent Gold out of Alwent Dragonfly and by the French bull Unico

“There is a very big interest in polled Charolais cattle on an international basis. In future, as some countries prepare to legislate against dehorning, polled Charolais will enable farmers to avoid further red tape,” said Steve.

As well as Eugenie, the herd’s top breeding females are Beatrice, Daffodil and Athena. Daffodil is by Alwent Vogeot and he has a TI of +60 and SRI of +58. Daffodil, out of Alwent Abby, half sister to Alwent Bloom the dam of the record priced bull, has the highest heifer score for eye muscle at 149mm. She has a TI of +73 and an SRI of +68.

Daffodil has been flushed to Dingle Hofmeister and Blelack Digger, two of the UK’s highest ranking Charolais bulls for eye muscle area.

Just under half of the female bloodlines go back to one of the earliest cows Alwent Cream - Alwent Abby was her last daughter. Cream’s first calf was sold to Genus and she had a number of twins which have all bred well.

Alwent cows and calves
Alwent cows and calves

The herd’s leading price was for Alwent Osprey which was junior champion at the Royal Highland Show and was sold at Perth in1999 for 13,000gns. He is a full brother to Alwent Peregrine who was junior champion at the Royal Show in 2000 and reserve champion at the Royal in 2002.

More recently at Stirling in 2009, another Vougeot son, Alwent Dollar out of Athena, sold for 10,000gns.

While breeding female numbers are currently down to 15 there are heifers coming into the herd which is in the top 10 per cent for the breed. As well as aiming to breed a polled herd, cattle have been culled hard with beef values a big part of the decision.

An embryo breeding programme is also being run in the Texel flock with up to 40 embryos due in February. These include 12 embryos from the ewe bought jointly by the Nesbitts for 4,400gns which topped the sale of the adult portion of the Grey Peel flock for Maurice Hardy-Bishop in Carlisle in January 2011. She was flushed to the 18,000gns Allanfauld Rockafeller and the 10,000gns Drumpark President.

At the Twilight Texel sale in Carlisle on December 2, nine ewes sold to average £986. They were in lamb to Rockafeller, Ettrick Rainbow Warrior and Goldies Supreme.


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