Farm Of The Week: A tough job keeping the bulls happy

BULLS deserve their reputation. And dairy bulls deserve it most.

Beef cattle are bred for good build and temperament. Dairy bulls are bred to father strong mothers with a high milk yield.

“You can’t guarantee more than two out of three,” sums up Andy Chapman. “And temperament comes third with these boys.”

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He is talking about the dairy bulls he looks after at Whenby Lodge Farm, between Sheriff Hutton and Easingwold – around 300 examples of the kind of animal you will rarely see at a show, because they are just too cussed to be trusted.

The farm has been in its unusual speciality since about 1960, when the Milk Marketing Board started catering for the new science of artificial insemination – now the almost universal western way of propagating dairy cattle. For cows, the rules on placidity work the other way round. Dairy females are used to standing still for milking; beef mothers are trickier, because they are handled less, and are more often left to a live bull.

The break-up of the MMB created Genus Breeding – initially owned by the farmers whose contributions had paid for its foundation, now part of a broad-based plc with a wider share-base, operating in 35 countries.

Its megastar, Picston Shottle, has fathered more value in Holstein cattle than any bull ever. His daughters break records for milk production. Shottle and his sons break records for stud value. He was born near Stafford in 1999 and graduated to the Genus stud register in 2004. In between, while his value was being proved, he was at Whenby Lodge.

The farm takes in bulls of best parentage from all over Europe to rear to maturity. Most were created by AI – and some by embryo transplantation too. Dam genes are just as important as the sire’s – just less easy to spread around.

Calves are reared at Reeseheath College, in Cheshire, to six to eight months, then tested for diseases at the main Genus facility in North Wales before going to Whenby Lodge, at 10-12 months.

Andy Chapman, farm manager, is 43 and has been there since he was a 20-year-old stockman. He has a deputy and the two head stockmen each have a team of three – including two female hands. Numbers are sometimes needed, to persuade a bull to come quietly. But individually, the hands are chosen for their calm. Bulls have antennae for agitation.

The team also has half a dozen Border Collies to help with herding, “or else we would need two or three more staff”.

Between them, they look after about 300 bulls on 340 acres, with 10 housing sheds. Some of the space is used to grow fodder and straw but a lot is given over to allowing the bulls to graze out in summer. Initially, they are okay in groups of 10 to 15. As they learn to bully, they are broken up into smaller and more carefully selected groups. By the time they are four, they are big and grumpy enough to be best kept alone.

The range of buildings means there is room for these complicated housing needs. It also makes it easy to quarantine groups as necessary. Biosecurity is an overwhelming concern and unnecessary visitors are rare. But the Yorkshire Post got an invitation on the back of the recent opening of a new ‘collecting ring’, where the bulls get their first taste of the career they have been selected for.

Most of them are Holsteins. The biggest minority are Friesians, the stockier original of the Holstein. The rest are a handful each of Swedish Reds and Jerseys. The Jerseys, famous for their big brown eyes, are absolutely the worst for nastiness.

Soon after arrival at Whenby Lodge, the bulls will be led one by one into the collecting ring, where a ‘teaser’ is waiting – a bullock, because it will be mounted by one bull after another and a cow would buckle. A bull, the staff will tell you cheerfully, will go for anything it can get.

The teaser is tethered. The bull is controlled with harness, rope and pulley. A farmhand has the delicate job of intervening, at the right moment, so the bull is diverted into a kind of giant condom, designed for the purpose. The harvest is checked for quality, under a microscope, then mixed with antibiotic and egg yolk to protect it in travel, and sent off to Genus HQ, for storage in deep-frozen straws. Each straw is enough to impregnate a cow. Each collection from a young bull will be enough for between 50 and 500 straws. About 1600 straws are required from each bull, for trial purposes.

A straw from a bull at this stage of its career, promising but untried, will cost £5-£10. The offspring will be measured and monitored. Meanwhile, the bull goes into ‘lay-off’ – meaning it is expected to do nothing but fool around, grow and stay fit.

He will be at least three and a half years old, and possibly five, before Genus has enough offspring data to decide his fate. Despite all the excitement about genetic science, there is still no quick way past this proving process. Even the best theoretical crosses of sire and dam fail to live up to their promise. And nine out of 10 of the Whenby Lodge graduates will leave in a lorry for the abattoir. One in 10 goes on to the main Genus stud farm at Ruthin and becomes a catalogue model, to be pored over by farmers looking to arrange the right marriages.

A mature bull will produce enough semen for maybe 1,000-2,000 straws a month, each worth £25 or more – and even more for a shot of Shottle. It might easily have a 10-year career at the top. Some of the beasts at Whenby will be insured for £1m every time they travel.

“But luckily for us, they are only worth anything as part of the legitimate system,” says Andy Chapman. “Take the bull away from Genus and you are looking at the going rate for tough beef.”