ILC Visit – The ALEXANDERS of Perthshire
A team of 24 pedigree Limousin bulls, mainly red, some black and a few red with black genetics, are the service squad for a breeding herd of 800 Limousin blooded cows, thought to be the largest commercial Limousin enterprise in Britain.
The cattle are one of three main ventures on a 10,000 acre mixed farming operation, made up of several units, run by the Alexander family from their home – Mains of Mause, near Blairgowrie in scenic north Perthshire.
There is a varied range of land types, with much being hill, running up to a highest point of 3,000 feet on the slopes of the Glenshee ski fields. Not all the land is so challenging however, as it sweeps down to the meadows alongside the River Ericht.
In addition to the cattle enterprise, there is a breeding flock of 4,500 ewes of a variety of breeds. The Scottish Blackfaces claim exclusive rights to the highest ground. They form the base of a multi cross-breeding programme involving Bluefaced Leicester and North Country Cheviot. Texels and Suffolks are terminal sires. One thousand acres of spring barley are grown – half targeted at malting, the remainder for cattle feed, including whole crop silage. The straw is used for bedding.
The cattle breeding enterprise was only established eight years and most of the 40 foundation animals are still in the herd. From 40 to 800 breeding cows in eight years, is a huge leap of faith in the cattle industry. For every one of those cows to be Limousin-blooded, mainly 7/8ths, is a huge leap of faith in the Limousin breed. Add on every one of the service sires being a Limousin bull and we are talking an Olympic standard leap of faith in Limousins.
The main Alexander decision making trio are Peter, Pat and their son Murray. Murray and wife Pauline have two young children – Beth and Rob, who have plenty of opinions, but as yet (!) do not influence the cattle policy. “When we bought our first bulls we chose Limousin thanks to their comparative ease of calving. We were also confident that the resulting progeny would earn a premium from the quality end of the butcher’s market”, explained Murray. Eight years on, all 24 bulls are Limousins, justifying the Alexander’s confidence.
Up until a few years ago all progeny were finished, but over the last three years cow numbers have almost doubled, creating extra pressure on accommodation and labour. Now some of the progeny are sold as forward stores through United Auctions and Caledonian Marts. Finished cattle are sold live through the Forfar auction ring. Here local butcher Alan Kennedy, who owns one of the best eaty meaty butchers shops around – in Blairgowrie, is one of the regular customers for the Mains of Mause Limousin crosses. He selects cattle with his own customers in mind, who care deeply about the quality and eatability of the beef they buy.
The pick of the heifers, selected on growth and dam’s milking ability, are retained as replacements, calving at two years old. Like all British farmers, the Alexanders have been forward guessing the financial implications of the Mid Term Review. “One thing was always certain”, explained Peter. “We would need to reduce our costs wherever possible. We’re fortunate that we farm some easy-draining land, where for the last couple of years, we’ve outwintered the majority of the cows. Despite some pretty wet and cold weather, the Limousin cross cows have done well, retaining their condition. In fact we believe that by being outside they keep fitter and healthier”.
The cows are “colour coded” into groups of red and black, creating impressive bovine blocks of colour amongst the majestic scenery in this glorious part of Scotland. Peter is a fan of the red cows, while Livestock Manager Iain Wilkinson, who started work with the Alexanders when he left school, prefers the blacks. This is an ongoing source of (usually!) friendly banter.
The two dozen bulls are also red and black, with the majority sourced from the Adam family of Newhouse of Glamis in Angus, including seven year old Newhouse Nougat. Nougat had cost £12,000, then a commercial record for a Limousin bull. Between then and now this camera friendly bull has developed into something of a photo pin-up and regards himself as the thinking heifer’s crumpet. Many of the younger females in the Alexander’s herd are Nougat daughters.
In October 2003 a bull to go over the Nougat-sired females, to breed the next generation of replacements, was purchased – Grahams Trooper, from Robert Graham of Bridge of Allan, Stirling. Price tag – 15,000 gns. “Up until then, of all our bulls we regarded Nougat, who had cost the most, the cheapest”, explained Peter. “We’re hoping that Trooper’s calves will make us feel the same about him!” Part of Trooper’s appeal was his breeding – his dam Habitude is described by Peter as “a hell of a good milking cow”. Trooper’s sire – Grahams Poncho, is proving himself a consistent sire of quality stock in the Grahams herd. And so he should – his dam Lisette also produced the world record priced bull Grahams Samson who sold for 55,000 gns in Carlisle, February 2003.
Nougat has proved himself as a commercial and pedigree sire – he has enjoyed pedigree female romancing holidays back at the herd of his birth – Newhouse. At the February 2004 Perth Bull Sales, two Nougat sons from Newhouse each won first prize. In an unusual move for a commercial herd, the Alexanders have taken substantial amounts of semen from both Nougat and Trooper. “We think so much of these two bulls we’ve ensured that we can continue to benefit from their genetics well into the future”, explained Peter.
Of the black bulls, the oldest is Greenwood Black Poll Homerun, imported as a yearling from Canada by the Adam family of Newhouse in early 1999. After being used over pedigree red heifers and un-related, black genetics, Homerun found himself in February 2003, adapting to romancing commercial cows at Mains of Mause. A year later he was joined by one of his four black sons offered at the February 2004 Perth Bull Sales – Newhouse Black Tiptop, which had won second prize in his class and cost the Alexanders 5,200 gns.
The Mains of Mause commercial cattle enterprise, based entirely on Limousin blood, is an impressive working showcase of the many talents of Limousins. In just eight years, the Alexanders have exploited the multiflexibility of the Limousin breed, enabling them to rapidly change management policies in response to signals from the market place and/or Government. “It’s going to be tough making cattle farming pay in the future”, said Peter Alexander. “But with the Limousins we have a ready market for both store and finished cattle of either sex. We can also breed our own replacements and know that the cows survive and thrive while living cheaply outside in winter.
We have all got to find ways of producing top quality cattle while greatly reducing our costs – for us Limousin is the breed to do this!”
The Alexander farming enterprise is featured in an hour long video – “A FARM FOR ALL SEASONS”, which charts the farming and social year in this part of Highland Perthshire. Over the last two years sales of this video have raised thousands of pounds for charity.
To obtain a copy, priced £15, please contact:- Pat Alexander Mains of Mause Blairgowrie Perthshire PH10 6TE Telephone:- 01250 872326 (Office hours please).