Ironstone Herd, A Limousin Work In Progress

Preview for Society Open Day 4th July 2009

No-one could argue that the Smith Family of Bloxham, near Oxford don’t appreciate good cattle when they see them. The family name has cropped up time and again at shows and sales of top quality Limousin cattle, as they strive to source the best genetics for improving their Ironstone herd of pedigree Limousins. In recent years the Smith Family have been prolific purchasers of quality Limousin pedigree animals from a wide range of Society sales including the Red Ladies Female Derby, Carlisle Bull Sales, and the Bailea and Sarkley breeders’ sales respectively to name but a few. This considerable investment is building a herd for the long-term but they are already starting to reap a return with the herd now having sold home-bred bulls to 11,000gns at sales in Carlisle.

Newlands Farm is jointly owned by brothers, Peter and Tommy Smith, and their sister Pauline. The family also run a successful scrap metal business, buying in product from smaller dealers, processing it and selling it on to fulfil contracts in the surrounding counties.

The farm covers around 500 acres of grassland, which is divided into two parcels situated a couple of miles apart. The main steading incorporates several very useful straw-bedded buildings which have central feed passages, for ease of management.

Of the three siblings, Peter has the most involvement with the farming element of the business. He shares his passion for breeding Limousins with Herd Manager, John Wilson, who worked for over two decades with George Westgarth’s pedigree Newsham Limousin herd in North Yorkshire.

The 170-strong Ironstone herd was formed in 1977, mainly by grading up foundation cows bought from John Heyworth’s Bradwell Grove herd, also based near Oxford. A small number of cross-bred females are used as embryo transfer recipients. Peter and John have very similar ideas when it comes to the type of cattle they are looking for.

“We appreciate the breed’s excellent muscling, and we are mostly looking for reasonable height, without compromising quality at the back end,” says John. “Our ideal cattle can be described as having a true Limmy type. That means muscling, shape, easy care, easy calving and good locomotion. “It is very important to us that dams have milked well. We do look at EBVs and take them into consideration, but the visual appeal of the animal and seeing it in the flesh is the biggest judgement factor. Temperament is also very important – we can walk up to any of our stocks bulls in the field and put a halter on them.”

Pedigree calves are weaned at 8-10 months, going directly on to grass over the summer. The bulls are left entire and finished at 15-18 months weighing 700kg. They consistently achieve good grades, as well as attracting prices averaging 180ppkg at Newark Market. Surplus females are sold as maiden or in-calf heifers at Carlisle.

The farm also buys in 80-100 store cattle from December until April. The majority are purchased privately from a local producer, who uses Ironstone-bred bulls almost exclusively across her herd. If they are not finished by the autumn, they go as heavy stores, because of the limited number of cattle places in the buildings.

The show circuit for the Smiths’ usual team of eight includes the Royal (Smiths of Bloxham sponsor the Limousin classes), East of England, Newark, Royal Welsh, Royal Norfolk and the Great Yorkshire Shows. Peter and John also attend sales in Ireland and have a buyer who acts on their behalf at the Premier sales in France.

Livestock from Newlands are frequently in the ribbons at local, county and national, with one of the most memorable moments being when Wilodge Vantastic won the Royal Welsh Supreme Breed Championship in 2007. Also in 2007, the young bull Ironstone Bomber won the Limousin Junior Championship at the Royal Show, Stoneleigh. At the same show the Ironstone herd enjoyed Interbreed success when Ardlea Tammy, a bought in cow from Southern Ireland, stood in the winning Limousin team in the prestigious Interbreed Team of Five. At fatstock shows, the 14 month old heifer, Ironstone Sensational, took the Supreme Championship at the Welsh Winter Fair in 2002.

Wilodge Vantastic was purchased from Christine Williams of Shifnal, Shropshire for 42,000gns at the May 2006 Carlisle sale, where he was awarded the Overall Championship. The 2004- born bull, which also took Reserve position in the Limousin Championship at the Great Yorkshire in 2007, is by the 30,000gns Wilodge Tonka and out of the French dam, Ravenelle. A much admired bull, Wilodge Vantastic semen has been eagerly sought by fellow breeders both in the UK and Ireland. In February 2009, the top priced animal at the record breaking Carlisle Sale was a Wilodge Vantastic AI son in the shape of Goldies Comet who made 23,000gns for breeder BT Goldie, Dumfries. In fact, the first six Vantastic sons sold at auction have averaged over 10,000gns with four of these being sold from the Ironstone herd. A further team of Wilodge Vantastic bulls from the Ironstone are due to be heading to the 2009 May Society Sale at Carlisle.

Another stock bull, Nebo Viking, by Nenuphar, is also leaving his stamp on the herd. Born in November 2004, he came from noted breeder, ML Thomas of Conway in Wales. Nebo Viking was purchased at Carlisle in February 2006 for 6,200gns. From further afield is the eight-year old French bull, Seigneur, by Nelson and out of Doudoune. Although he was purchased in Ireland, his breeder was Pierre Gardette of Lubersac.

Cattle from the noted Bailea herd, belonging to Brian Jones of Sennybridge, Powys, are held in particularly high regard. In 2004, the Smiths were responsible for setting an all breed world recordbreaking price of 50,000gns for a maiden heifer, the May 2003 born Bailea Umandy. Umandy is by the French sire Requin, a son of Jacot, and is out of Bailea Maud, a daughter of the prolific Greensons Gigolo. Peter came away from that sale having spent a total of almost £70,000 on five Bailea females. John admits that he broke out in a sweat as the bidding climbed higher, although Peter remained calm throughout, he adds.

The following year saw a virtual repeat of 2004, with the Smiths once again leading the bidding at the Bailea Sale and making a similar total investment. This time, it was the December 2003 born Bailea Umelia that caught their eye. A Requin daughter, Umelia is out of the homebred Bailea Melia. After attracting a lot of admiration in the ring, she went under the hammer for 22,000gns, having run with the French sire, Seringa. The Smiths also paid the second leading price of 20,000gns on the day, purchasing Bailea Umelia’s half sister, Bailea Velvet, also sired by Requin. “These prices sound high, but using embryo transfer helps to recoup the investment,” says John. “Both Umandy and Umelia have been flushed, resulting in three bull calves and two heifers, all sired by Vantastic. We have sold homebred progeny for as much as 11,000gns, one example being Ironstone Bomber, to Tom Clyd in Northern Ireland which went on to win the 2008 Royal Ulster Interbreed Championship.” Ironstone Brandy, Bailea Umandy’s first calf, also sold for 11,000gns at Carlisle in February 2008 having secured the pre-sale show Supreme Championship the previous day.

John strongly opposes the bulling of heifers under two years old. “I am convinced that they milk better and have a much easier calving if they are left until they reach 24 months,” says John. “This timing is crucial, because I have observed that heifers that experience difficult calvings never fully recover from their ordeal, and fail to maximise their performance potential.”

John explains that only one cut of silage is taken annually, for reasons that are not altogether connected with farming. The calving pattern has changed in recent years, with an all year round system giving way to an October to May calving period. The aim is for the cows to calve down in groups of about 25.

“In the summer time we are very busy with showing, which is one reason why we have changed our policy. But we also play host to a very popular steam rally in June. That means we have to mow just before the event takes place. The arrangement does restrict our flexibility on timing, but we usually manage to get a good crop without using additives.”

The Smith Family and their staff, which includes full-time employees Andrew Bishop and Steven Lynes, are really looking forward to hosting the Society Open Day on 4th July. “We haven’t had many visitors to the farm, so this will be something different,” says John. “We are very ambitious, as well as being very proud of our herd, so we relish the opportunity to show them to like-minded people who share our interest.”

It seems fitting to allow Peter to have the last word on cattle breeding, which has been such an abiding passion throughout his working life. “Whether it’s finished cattle, stores, bulls, or even cull cows, the Limousin is always in demand in the marketplace,” he comments. “Part of the attraction with livestock breeding is that you never get to the point where your work is done. You are always striving to achieve greater perfection. We keep saying we need to cut back on numbers, but the quality of animals in the marketplace today makes new purchases hard to resist.”

Prolific purchasers of top pedigree stock

Since 2004, Smiths of Bloxham have been prolific purchasers of top quality animals, and some of the highest priced, sold at official British Limousin Cattle Society Sales held predominantly at Carlisle.

Owner Peter Smith’s continued philosophy has been to buy selected, well bred cattle that both add to the herd’s existing bloodlines and introduce fresh breeding lines. He is a firm believer that the quality and consistency of the herd in the long term is determined by the strong foundations that he is endeavouring to put in place now. With both eyes fixed firmly on the future, he is 100% certain that he is investing in the breed of choice for the industry going forward.

“I’ve had Limousins for 25 years. They have, across the country, come into their own and are without question the most profitable and marketable breed right through from the producer to the retailer. Moving forward you have to farm at all levels with the best quality – and in my experience that means Limousins.”