Farm of the Week: Winning with genetics

Best of breed: Adrian and Penny Johnson with their Aberdeen Angus cattle, a passion for which they have both shared for many years.
Best of breed: Adrian and Penny Johnson with their Aberdeen Angus cattle, a passion for which they have both shared for many years.
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Gene pools are how the pedigree cattle world prospers. Although humans are not traded this way there is no denying that hereditary genes are held to account as reasons why we sometimes follow our parents’ lead.

In Adrian Johnson’s case he followed his father’s footsteps and is now amongst the most respected Aberdeen Angus breeders and showmen in the UK. He and his wife Penny farm at Yearsley and Hovingham and took reserve male champion at the Great Yorkshire Show two weeks ago; and last week saw them sweep up at Driffield Show with champion and reserve.

Back in 1998 they had both female champion and reserve female at the Great Yorkshire and won the Warren Trophy for best cow in England and Wales with their home bred Yearsley Prunella. She was also female champion at Perth.

“My father, Bill was obsessed with black and white cows as much as I am now with Aberdeen Angus. My grandfather had Pear Tree Farm in Hessay and moved to Long Marston in 1934 to set up a British Friesian herd. My father took it on from there and was showing dairy cows at the Great Yorkshire Show as far back as 1956 before we moved to Easingwold in the 60s where we farmed on the Alne Road.

“We had one of the biggest dairy herds with 40 milkers and we also had a pig herd of 40 sows. I’d liked the cows but never enjoyed milking. I’d won the student of the year award in dairy husbandry that pleased my father no end, but at the time I was mad keen on pigs and had come back from studying at Bishop Burton College full of knowledge.

“I ended up working for our next-door neighbour Geoff Ellis who had a herd of 200 sows. My father sold up in 1977 because he had four sons and said he wasn’t going to favour one over another. I took on a smallholding in Rillington where I ran a 60-sow pig unit. Prices dropped through the floor and I lost a lot of money. I gave it four years but it was no good.”

Adrian’s fortunes changed for the better when he and Penny got together. Penny had been born in London and had come to Yorkshire as a young girl when her father set up an electrical company. Her interest in farming and the countryside stemmed from spending summers in her teens at Fourth Milestone Ayrshires with her friend Mary Waterhouse. She also spent a number of years as a riding instructor and rearing calves.

The couple bought a property together and moved in to Ampleforth in 1985. Little did they know that a chance conversation with another farmer would lead to a passion amongst them both for the Angus breed that seems stronger than ever thirty years on.

“Local farmer Godfrey Thomas had bought some really classy looking Aberdeen Angus cows. He wanted someone to show them and our first run out was the Royal Highland Show! I’d never shown Angus cattle. I’d trained up on dairy cattle but the ring craft is totally different. You go backwards and very slowly with dairy cows and everything happens in slow motion. Pedigree beef cattle are pampered with lotions and potions for their coats; they are clipped and blow-dried. It was a real learning curve. The Staveley family of Saltergate then asked if I would help them show their bull Netherton Lord James.”

It was this contact that brought about the start of Adrian and Penny’s herd.

“When the Staveleys decided to sell up they told us we could have the pick of their dozen yearling heifers as they knew we were looking for one. It was in return for us showing their stock that season. Our intention was to run half a dozen as a hobby alongside our other work that for me included relief milking and selling dairy chemicals and for Penny had included rearing calves.

“The heifer was Saltergate Pride M9 and she provided us with four heifers and one bull using semen from the American bull 4S Ponderosa, so within a period of four years we had five females. Our second calf Yearsley Precious cleaned up at Wetherby Show. We’d never had a red ticket up until then.”

Adrian’s next career move was to become an artificial inseminator. Initially he worked with Genus, then with former dairy farmer Andrew Heaton who set up Taurus, before setting up his own business North Yorkshire AI Services that he still runs today.

The couple continued to run a small herd of eight cows until four years ago when an opportunity came up to take on 100 acres of grass and buildings on a former dairy farm at Ampleforth.

“It’s only two miles from here and in addition to the other acreages we rent around Yearsley and the buildings we have at Clarence House Farm it has given us the chance to increase the herd. We now have 45 cows and 77 animals altogether. We rent 130 acres in total. None of the grass is highly productive but the Angus cattle perform well on it.”

Adrian and Penny have also invested in five pure native cows that are Angus with purely Scottish pedigrees. There are only 60 registered pure natives left in the country. “People want to know why I’ve bothered as they are smaller than the regular Angus and I have to scrap around for pure native semen to avoid in-breeding but I can put a modern bull on to them and breed a bull that the dairy farmer wants. Everyone knows that the modern Angus is easy to look after but the pure natives are altogether better. You show them a straw of semen and they are in calf, and their calving is so easy that we’ve never seen one calve yet.”

Adrian and Penny have three shows left on their list for this summer – Huby & Sutton tomorrow, Ryedale on Tuesday and Nidderdale in September. Last year’s Ryedale Show was their most successful ever. They cleaned up on the day and came back home at Blacksmith’s Cottage with seven trophies including the Interbreed title. Whether it will be a similar story this year remains to be seen.