British producer draws from Canadian well

Western Producer reporter Barb Duckworth traveled to Europe recently to examine food safety issues and the impact of mad cow disease on the European beef industry.

ALTON, HAMPSHIRE, U.K. – In a region of England steeped in tradition and history, Hereford breeder Graham Stratford represents the nontraditional.

He is importing Canadian Herefords to upgrade his pedigreed cattle at Aultoun Herefords, near Alton in southern England.

Stratford is dedicated to breed improvement. For him, the source of better Herefords is Canada, where cattle carry a clean bill of health and a broad selection of genetic types.

By British standards, Stratford’s 140-cow herd is large. The average purebred herd in the United Kingdom is16 cows. Many producers rely on semen from popular Canadian bulls.

“I try to go to Canada and buy something that is completely different,” Stratford said.

After the Second World War, a large number of British bulls were exported to South American breeders who wanted smaller cattle.

“We bred the cattle down to shorter legged cattle to satisfy their market,” he said.

Stratford did not like that style and went to Canada looking for bulls that could throw bigger calves.

He visits Alberta and Saskatchewan breeders every two years looking for his next herd sire. He has purchased from Quantock Herefords at Lloydminster, Doenz Ranches at Warner, Alta., and Johnomn Herefords at Clyde, Alta.

A successful agriculture auctioneer, Stratford became a farmer by chance. In 1979 someone left four unclaimed Hereford heifers at his auction. He took them home to his acreage and eventually went farming fulltime in 1987. He has expanded to about 300 acres. He built up his cow numbers by buying dispersing herds.

Despite many obstacles in the British cattle industry, Stratford said it is a good time to be in the Hereford business.

Cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, have been reduced substantially in the last four years. Consumers have responded with a renewed taste for British beef.

This interest prompted the Hereford Cattle Society to launch a new marketing scheme to provide certified beef to the Waitrose supermarket chain.

Many British supermarkets have formed alliances with abattoirs and producer groups to supply them with meat that carries a guarantee of quality and safety.

As chair of the Hereford council for six years, Stratford was involved in the beef scheme from its inception.

It is a partnership designed to benefit the consumer and producer. It increases the demands for the traditional Hereford, and it gives Waitrose a safe supply of beef that can be traced back to the farm.

Waitrose has a dedicated abattoir in Yorkshire to process the cattle.

The Hereford society guarantees that a pedigreed Hereford bull sired each calf entering the program.

It also guarantees that the animals come from farms involved in the British farm assurance program. These are registered farms that are inspected annually for compliance in animal health and welfare, as well as sustainable agricultural practices.

The cattle are guaranteed to be disease free, to have received no growth promoting hormones or fish meal protein, and to have a carcass weight between 550 and 800 pounds.

Since most British beef is finished on grass with some grain supplements, steers are slaughtered between 18 and 29 months of age.

Quantity is the biggest challenge, Stratford said.

The program started by sending 20 Herefords a week and is now up to about 200 a week.

Stratford sells 14-month-old virgin bulls into this system. His business has changed substantially over time.

Rather than selling his bulls to beef breeders, his main customers are dairy farmers who breed their milk cows to beef bulls so they can earn extra money from their calves.

There is no market for his cull cows and old bulls. British law says no animal over the age of 30 months is allowed in the human food chain because of the belief that BSE does not appear in young animals. His culls are sent to a dedicated abattoir, where they are slaughtered and incinerated to destroy any chance of BSE infecting people.

He receives $1.10 per kg from the government for the culls.

When the new cattle passport and national identification program was instituted two years, the Hereford society adopted the British Cattle Movement Service farm number and animal number rather than keep its own registration numbers.

Each animal carries two yellow Allflex tags in one ear and a metal tag in the other.

Farmers must replace lost tags immediately. Cattle cannot be sold or received at an abattoir without a tag.

Replacement tags cost farmers $9 each. Stratford buys 200 tags at a time.

The British Cattle Movement Service also issues passports for every bovine born in the country. Owners apply for a passport within 30 days of the animal’s birth. Deaths within that 30-day period are also reported.

The passport resembles a large chequebook of about 30 tear-out pages. It includes registration numbers for the farm, the animal and the animal’s dam. Adhesive labels with the numbers and a bar code are attached to a page every time the animal moves. These pages are mailed to the cattle movement service with pertinent details and signatures.

Every appearance by an animal at a livestock show or sale is documented in its passport. When it returns home, another page is sent to report the movement.

This mandatory system was a major adjustment for farmers. Subsidies are forfeited if they do not comply and no one may legally buy cattle without the paperwork and tags.

“It was a pain in the backside to start with,” Stratford said.

“But we all realize we’ve got to do it if we want to get ahead.”

Stratford gets an annual $252 government subsidy per cow and an additional $67.50 payment based on the number of cows per hectare. The second payment kicks in if the farmer keeps fewer than two units per hectare. A unit is one cow. Animals between six and 24 months of age are .6 of a unit.

Stratford recently enrolled his animals in the Australian breed plan registration program.

He is the first British breeder to sign on to this breed plan, which calculates records of performance for heritable growth traits.

All bull tests are done on the farm. He weighs his bulls every 100 days and has them measured by ultrasound at 400 days of age.

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