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The Colson family

a low input low cost solution to island farming  - The Colson family, Fred, nephew Colin and his son Dan are farming 240 commercial Beef Shorthorn suckler cows on the Isle of Wight. We paid them a visit..

The Colson family

Colin, Fred and Dan Colson

“We’re mad about Beef Shorthorn,” says Fred Colson. “They’re so straightforward to manage solely off a forage diet, they calve easily, make great mothers and they’re quiet. What’s more, our Beef Shorthorn herd is enabling us to minimise both variable and fixed costs which is vital to island farming - the majority of purchases have a premium attached to move on, likewise all sales have an added cost to move off to mainland.”

Colin continues: “Take spring 2013, the worst calving season for seven years. It certainly put the cows through their paces and in turn, they really did demonstrate true hardiness. They were calving on to snow, however the calves seemed oblivious to the conditions. They shivered a bit at first but were soon up and away sucking and ably looking after themselves, whilst their dams had plenty of milk. We finished the year with 95% calves reared from cows put to the bull without feeding any supplements, apart from minerals.

“Steers have gone on to average 300kg at weaning in early November, and heifers 265kg, performance which we think is good going from just milk and grass. What’s more, the cows out winter on forage alone – initially they graze on Shanklin Downs, a windswept area overlooking the Channel at up to 750 feet, before we strip graze them on 90 acres of stubble turnips supplemented with homegrown forage – in 2013 we made 2,500, four feet diameter big hay bales ourselves. 

“Furthermore, the herd incurs few health issues. The vet bill has never exceeded £1,500 a year, even in 2013. The herd has tested negative for Johne’s, it’s clear of IBR and Lepto, and we are extremely fortunate to have no reported TB incidents on the island.”

Operating a closed herd policy is vital to the Colsons in helping to maintain its high health status. Up to 40 heifers are retained annually for replacements purposes – their own and occasional trade on the island. “We select on growth and those bred from the most prolific dams. They’re sufficiently well grown to serve from 13 months and the vast majority do calve bang on two years and go on to mature at 600kgs.” That’s a medium sized cow which Colin says, ‘suits the system and requires less to eat than a bigger animal’. 

The Colson family

The Colsons run a gang of 10 bulls. Previously they’ve introduced one or two homebred bulls, however nowadays they’re all registered and sourced from pedigree herds off the island. “We’re looking for bulls with frame and growth, as well as colour, and in future we’ll be paying more attention to Breedplan data in particular, growth rate and ease of calving.”

Three generations
The family has farmed on the island for more than 130 years. Fred Colson started his career milking dairy cows before securing a County Council small holding and introducing Dairy Shorthorn cows. A strong entrepreneurial spirit emerged as he began investing in his own land and subsequently increasing herd size, before quitting milk production 20 years ago and replacing with a beef enterprise. To him, introducing Beef Shorthorn was an obvious and natural progression and the rest is history. Today the closed herd is managed in five separate groups around the home steading at Chale Green, Ventnor.

Colin had managed his own Continental cross suckler herd before having the opportunity to join Fred in a partnership arrangement seven years ago. “I would never have considered farming Beef Shorthorn before, however there’s no going back simply because this low cost native breed in more profitable.”

Meanwhile, 24 year old Dan has recently returned to work on the family after studying an ND Agriculture at Sparsholt College followed by 12 months on a mixed unit. “As far as I’m concerned, Beef Shorthorn is here for the future. I worked with a 250 Continental cross suckler cow herd  which was great experience, and it was only afterwards that I realised the real benefits of our Beef Shorthorn’s low input requirement and accompanying ease of management,” says Dan. “For example, they don’t have foot issues and last year we had to touch less than one in 100 hundred cows at calving which can be a stressful time of year. However we find we only have to check the cows twice a day whilst calving outdoors.”

He adds: “Interestingly the breed has gone full circle – it has been modernised over recent years to have growth and scale to match the Continentals without diluting its strong native maternal characteristics. However achieving support from a major supermarket has to be the icing on the cake. That 30p/kg deadweight premium has levelled Beef Shorthorn crosses with their Continental counterparts and makes them just as attractive.”

The Colson family

The finisher
The Colsons sell their entire crop of weaned calves, apart from those retained for replacement purposes, to Leicestershire based specialist finisher, Giles Marriott who is taking steers to 350kg and heifers to 310kg target finishing weight for Morrisons traditional breeds scheme. “I’ve been trading with the family for more than 15 years, there’s a bit of trust either side and we don’t always agree a price in advance,” he says.

Giles who runs 350 Beef Shorthorns along with 850 other crossbreds cattle at any one time at Beeches Farm, Market Harborough says: “We buy all our cattle privately and sourcing scores of calves direct from one unit has real advantages in terms of health status; we also find that the Colson’s cattle perform well on a forage based system and are easy to finish.

“We’ve noticed a vast improvement in these cattle over the years simply because the Colsons have had access to higher quality bulls resulting in better conformation and more easily fleshed animals. Furthermore, Morrison’s premium on all registered Beef Shorthorn sired cattle is providing us with a worthwhile bonus.”

The Colson fact file:
•  700 acre grassland unit, majority in HLS
•  100 acres spring cereals – grain and straw cash crop   
•  240 Beef Shorthorn cows
•  No wintering accommodation
•  Grass silage / hay and stubble turnips
•  No purchased concentrates or straw

Herd performance
•  10 crops of calves
•  Two year age at first calving
•  Outdoor calving commences mid-February
•  80% calved within first six weeks
•  95% calves reared
•  DLG birth to 240 day weaning: steers1.08kg, heifers 0.94kg
•  Calves reared on milk and grass
•  No creep