“Choosing the best cattle to suit the environment and to produce quality beef – hill-farming on Dartmoor at up to 1550 ft above sea level”
Breeding cattle on Dartmoor is no easy feat, with fearsome weather and sparse grazing demanding particularly hardy stock. But Mat Cole and his brother Neil have got the system down to a fine art, choosing their cattle to suit the environment, and building an excellent market for both stores and finished beef in the area.
The home farm – Greenwell Farm, Yelverton, boasts the best land, while Princetown Farm – the former prison farm, runs up to 1550ft above sea level and comprises predominantly improved moorland over peat, with up to 4m of rain a year and temperatures falling as low as minus 20ºC.
The brothers run 40 purebred South Devon, 100 pure Galloway, and 130 South Devon x Galloway suckler cows across the two farms, with the Galloways on the highest ground, crossbreds on lower in-bye land, and South Devons on the best land.
“It’s horses for courses – that’s what the breeds were designed to do,” says Mat. The family also runs 32 Dartmoor mares and 2000 ewes – a mix of Scottish Blackface, Swaledale, Dartmoor Whiteface, and Bluefaced Leicesters for Mule production. “Having ponies, sheep and cattle is essential for diverse grazing on the moor. The hill farm is not suitable for finishing stock – but it is ideal for producing breeding females to sell lower down the hill.”
Mat’s father Arnold, who sadly passed away recently, was the third generation to keep South Devon cows, and was partly responsible for establishing the family’s excellent reputation for producing hardy breeding stock. “He always loved South Devons and always bought good bulls,” says Mat. “A bull is half your herd, so it’s money well spent.”
Neil tends to study the pedigrees and buy young bulls at sales or privately, to grow on for six months before use, so they can acclimatise to the conditions. “We don’t want particularly big cows – our South Devons are 600-650kg liveweight; we want good, honest, hard-working animals,” he says. “We also like polled genetics in both the Galloways and South Devons as it’s a lot less work.”
Neil has two homebred South Devon bulls which he puts onto half the Galloway cows at the Prison farm, the offspring of which he either keeps as replacement suckler cows, fattens, or sells as breeding heifers to lowland farmers. “We have a lot of regular buyers, who like the fact they come from hill stock.” He also has pedigree Galloway and South Devon bulls to produce purebred replacements.
Crossbred cows go to a polled Simmental terminal sire, with the South Devon and crossbred females calving outdoors from mid-April, and pure Galloways in the autumn. “We calve the pure South Devons at two years old, the crossbreds at two and a half, and the Galloways at three – it just goes on size,” says Mat. “We use a Shorthorn or Galloway bull on the South Devon heifers and aim for good early growth rates so they’re a good size before bulling.”
Any pure South Devon or Simmental-sired bull calves are kept entire and fattened indoors at 14-15 months old on a hay, straw and bull beef ration. “We don’t creep feed the calves at grass – instead, when the calves are weaned in December we give them 3kg a day of a cereal nut until the end of April, when they go onto the bull beef ration, fed ad-lib,” he adds. “We struggle to fatten pure South Devons off grass here, as they just keep growing, which is why we use them for bull beef.”
The Simmental crosses average 330kg deadweight, with two-thirds at U grades and the rest at R grades. “The purebred South Devon bulls are heavier, at 340kg, but don’t grade quite so well – they are mostly Rs.”
Pure Galloway and Galloway x South Devon bull calves are castrated and fattened at two to two-and-a-half years old on grass and concentrates, averaging 300kg deadweight. Any crossbred heifers that don’t go for breeding are either sold as stores or finished at two years old at 290kg deadweight, off a cereal-based ration after a summer at grass. Both are then sold through the Dartmoor Farmers co-operative, supplying local butchers, restaurants and pubs.
“We’re trying to make the link between native beef and sheep delivering the landscape, environmental benefits, and sustainable farming businesses,” says Mat. “The co-op is in its fifth trading year now, and is averaging five or six head of beef cattle a week.”
Having only registered the herd as pedigree eight years ago, Mat and Neil have been grading up their cows, and are now getting several full pedigree heifers coming through. “We haven’t yet got into selling pedigree breeding stock, but it is another option for the future.”
And finding the right system to suit the conditions is certainly paying dividends. “Our South Devon x Galloways are like the Mule sheep of the beef world – you’ve got the large-framed South Devon with lots of milk, and the hardiness and mothering ability of the Galloway,” says Neil. “Being a first cross, you get lots of hybrid vigour, giving ease of management and longevity. The Simmental-sired calves have the benefits of fast growth and good conformation, but still retain the hardiness and ease of finishing on any type of system. It’s really working well.”