‘We didn’t set out to keep cattle – that’s just how things turned out’
SMALL, but top quality, herd of pedigree Limousin cattle grazes the banks of the river Tees at Startforth. The Fairlawns line was established by the late Tom and Pat Ellwood and their daughter, Judith Howson, is committed to continuing their legacy.
When Ms Howson browses the list of Limousin sires in the latest pedigree catalogue, she is mindful of the importance of her choice. Her parents, who set up the herd as they approached retirement from their poultry business, had firm ideas about the stamp of cattle they wanted to breed and she is determined to carry on their good work.
“My mother was passionately interested in animal breeding and took a great deal of care over matching bulls to our cows,” says Ms Howson.
“She was also a well-known breeder of Arab horses and a point-to-point rider, in her younger days.
“The herd is now my responsibility and she is always in my mind when I’m making breeding decisions; among my latest selections are Lodge Hamlet and Emslies Galileo. These two bulls have the length, high growth rates and muscling that will produce good pedigree stock and complement our cows’ conformation.”
Ms Howson, a self-employed bookkeeper, is ably assisted in looking after the half dozen females and followers by her husband, Brian, a heating engineer who was brought up on the family sheep and beef farm near Startforth. In 2011, they took over the herd from Tom and Pat, who had travelled to France in 1980 to purchase their two foundation Limousin cows; Poupee and Poulette.
“They were interested in the showing side and won several prizes at local shows with the herd, taking the Limousin championship at the Great Yorkshire Show on one occasion with a bought-in stock bull, Hartside Helperby, which they purchased from John Thompson, at Penrith,” says Ms Howson.
“The social aspect was also something they enjoyed and they made a lot of friends on the circuit.”
In tracking down further information about the herd’s history, she has uncovered an interesting detail.
“I had a vague memory that my parents had sold several cows to someone in the music industry, but when I studied the movement records, I found they had gone to Michael Rutherford, who was a guitarist in the band Genesis. That was in 1997, when they reduced the herd due to dad’s failing health. But he still loved coming to see his cattle and it gave both of my parents an interest. That is why Brian and I were keen that it should continue. We didn’t set out to keep cattle; it’s just the way things have turned out.”
The Limousin was first imported into the UK in the early 1970s and has gone on to become one of the most popular breeds in the UK. While some of the first imports became associated with a questionable temperament, British Limousin breeders have achieved great strides in improving this trait and Ms Howson is no exception.
“We consider temperament to be the most important attribute in our cows and we will not breed from anything that is not docile and easy to handle. This is especially important at calving time, although we rarely have to intervene and the females usually give birth without any complications, because ease of calving is another vitally important trait,” she says.
Every animal breeder needs a bit of luck and for the Howsons, one “puny” bull calf by Grahams Samson has fulfilled that role.
“When George was born in the spring of 2011 he was very small and he didn’t look at all impressive,” she states.
“But he was out of an exceptionally good heifer called Fairlawns Daisy and he developed into a really good animal. His dam was unrelated to the rest of our females, so we were able to use him as a stock bull. It was just good fortune that he seemed to click with the conformation of our cows.
“Another bonus with George was that he produced many more heifer calves than bulls and some of his surplus progeny were sold privately, with several customers coming back for more of his females. A small number were auctioned at the British Limousin Society pedigree sales at Carlisle, where we achieved a top price of 5,000gns.”
Today, AI is used extensively, despite the logistical problems it poses for the Howsons while they continue to run their own businesses. The system also helps them to maintain the herd’s elite health status, which requires annual testing for the major cattle diseases, including Johne’s, IBR, leptospirosis and BVD, all of which have proved clear.
Ms Howsons says the Startforth location has been ideal because it allowed the herd to be kept away from other cattle and therefore greatly reduced the risk of cross-infection. They will soon be relocating to a parcel of land close by and hope to retain the high health status.
Almost all of the calves that are produced in the closed herd, which mainly calves in spring, go on to breeding homes, with one heifer being purchased for a commercial show career. The Howsons generally sell stock bulls at about 16 months and have two that will be on offer this autumn. Over winter, the cattle are housed on straw, with the females fed a simple diet of haylage. Creep feed is offered in only limited quantities to the youngstock, as the couple feel that pushing for high growth rates is counter-productive.
Ms Howson admits that she is not sure why the Ellwoods chose the Limousin when they went into cattle-keeping, but she has no regrets about their decision.
“The Limousin fulfils all the requirements of modern-day cattle breeders,” she stresses. “It is well-muscled, grows quickly and calves easily, as well as looking attractive. Cattle breeding was very important to my parents and the interest has been passed down to me. I would never switch breeds and it is not about the money; the main purpose is to keep on improving the herd and to enjoy the time that we spend with the animals. The emphasis is on quality.”