From Hilltops to Greater Heights - The British Blue Suits the Farm Best

Driving towards Keasden Head Farm near the village of Clapham on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border, the beautiful scenery and extensive moors lend themselves to the native Swaledale sheep which inhabit the area but it is also home, more surprisingly, to one of the top herds of British Blue cows in the UK. Nestled at the bottom of a mile long chalk track, better suited to a four wheel drive, the farm is a traditional upland unit sitting at around 800 feet, rising to 1350 feet at the tops, where there is extensive common grazing of heather moor. The 500 acres of LFA permanent pasture includes 60 acres of limestone ground. With only 60 acres suitable for silage, the remaining heavy and peaty ground still manages to carry 115 mostly Blue cross suckler cows and 11 pure British Blue cows and followers.

Sheila Mason farms Keasden Head, with the help of her 27 year old stockman, Shaun Taylor, who also works with his father, an agricultural college lecturer, on their sheep farm and has been with her for a year and a half. It is easy to tell from our conversation that they are both hugely knowledgeable and interested in the various pedigrees of the stock which they are producing. Sheila’s husband David and her brother, also David, are indispensable doing two hours’ work each morning, before leaving for their day jobs. Husband David to his family’s coal and building supply business and brother David to Ingleton where he is a TV engineer. Sheila’s mother Hazel, feeds the family (and visitors) with some of the best home produce you can imagine, including homemade butter from the family milk cow.

The family have recently also become involved in building a purpose built building, to enable them to host educational visits for groups of students from all over the country, helping to educate and inform them on farming life. The whole family are involved in the farm, with son James(14) having a small Flock of Blue Texel sheep and daughter Georgia (12) involved with her flock of Zwartbles sheep. Sheila also runs a commercial flock of Swaledale and Derbyshire Gritstone sheep and a few Texel cross ewes. "It’s like a menagerie." She laughs "but everyone has their own interest and even David (husband) has a Jersey Cow which he milks before work and when he comes home. She’s been a great asset not only to the kitchen but she reared three calves last year, including twin Blues and her own calf and this year is again rearing her own calf and another twin."

Sheila first started looking at the Blues in the early nineties and was impressed by what she saw in the early imports. Until that time the farm had traditionally used Herefords and latterly they had tried Charolais but the British Blue seemed to be a natural progression to the type of cattle Sheila wanted to produce. She first encouraged her father to think about the possibility of using the Blue commercially and when the time came to replace the stock bull at that time, she convinced him to try a Belgian Blue, as they were then known and the rest as they say is history.

Replacing the Charolais with the British Blue, allowed them to keep their own suckler replacements and the traditional Angus X cows were steadily replaced by Blue X and Limousin X cows by using the Blue on the cows and the Limousin on the Heifers. "We bought our first bull from, from Graham Brindley." Explains Sheila, "Bringlee Kingsley was a 1993 born bull and was with us for 9 years! We were delighted with what he brought to the herd and he did us a lot of good." Sheila was so impressed by the Bringlee bull that she has returned to the herd on numerous occasions for both commercial and pedigree stock purchasing her first pure embryo from Graham in 2006. With the addition of a Greystone bull from the Coates family at Rainscar near Settle, in 2005, from which they also retained a number of females, the herd had a sound footing which is evident by from the current stock of outstanding commercial cows.

Since then Sheila has continued on an ET programme, specifically choosing bulls which suit the suckler herd as well as the pedigrees and is currently flushing three cows, including Keasden Head Dotty, a descendant of her first purchase whose first flush produced a string of bulls, all of which made in excess of 6,000gns each. The other two current ET dams are Boomer DKNY and Doubliette, an ET daughter of Baron Du Bois Bauloye.

"I always choose a bull by eye first." Explains Sheila, and Shaun and I look through catalogues for semen from bulls which we like. We use a broad selection of Bulls on the pure cows not only to produce the type of stock bulls we like but also to test the sires before we use them further." It is important to me to produce the type of Bull which is long and has some height about it as our main enterprise on the farm is producing bull beef which we sell through Skipton Market and the loyalty of my buyers is very important."

Sheila’s love of the Bringlee lines continued when she bought what she considers to be the most influential bull to date in the herd, Bringlee Bouncer. A son of Baron Du Bois Bauloye, he was purchased in 2008 and has proven to be a particularly good producer of quality pedigree animals, including the Reserve Female Champion in at the 2012 Royal Welsh with Keasden Head Giorgio Bouncer, an ET daughter of Boomer DKNY, which she bought as a heifer from Boomer Birch at Stafford. "Whether I am buying a bull or a heifer it needs to have all of the attributes I’m looking for but it also needs The X Factor, which DKNY had when I saw her and she too has been a great ET mother in the herd."

Bouncer has however also proven to be an outstanding producer of commercial bulls, putting lift and stretch into the commercial bulls, with his progeny regularly commanding top price through the feeding bull ring and offspring taking the Christmas Championship at Skipton in 2012, the Spring Championship in 2013 as well as topping the market on a weekly basis. One buyer in particular, contacts Sheila on a weekly basis to check what she has going to market. He recently called to say he had sold animals bought in the spring to realise over £2,000 each at between 248p – 250p per kilo.

"We sell our heifers through Gisburn Mart at round around 450- 460 Kgs at 12- 14 months and we use Skipton for bulls at around 500Kgs, feeding them on an ad-lib growers ration. We plan to finish more animals in the future but with only permanent pasture and a lack of housing space we sell store if the price is good." During June of this year, her cattle were commanding a rate of around £2.60 per kilo while the finished bulls were realising up to £1500. Sheila tends towards the darker bulls as they give better continuity of colour in the store ring which is more attractive to buyers. Her two current stock bulls again originate from the Bringlee herd, namely Bringlee Campbell and Bringlee Activator.

"We have tried various breeds of cattle on this farm over the years." She says, "However, the British Blue seems to suit the farm best. It allows us to produce our own replacements and does well on this type of upland unit. Hopefully in the future we will continue to develop both the suckler and pedigree herds and we have now joined a health scheme and routinely test, weigh and scan the cattle."

The attention to detail at Keasden Head, in breeding, health and scanning has ensured that the British Blue is set to go from strength to strength on this remote hill farm and is a credit to the investment in time and resources to ensure success.