Chapleton of the Beef Shorthorn Society’s most renowned herds during the last century has restocked, rebuilt and reinstated its position within the space of a decade. We meet Donald Biggar who shares the journey.
Beef Shorthorn is a good place to be, says Donald Biggar. Why? “If we want a more economic, easily managed suckler cow with better temperament and enough milk, then one carrying Beef Shorthorn blood will keep you. You won’t have to keep her,” he says. “She will in fact help to mitigate the issues that can be found in suckler herds which are costing too much to maintain and are ultimately contributing to the continual shrinkage of the GB herd. And in future, post CAP Reform it will be those herds who can contain their maintenance costs who are most likely to survive.”
Beef Shorthorn now comes with an additional bonus, he adds. “Not only does the breed offer a best combination of maternal traits, along comes a premium for the steers for eating quality which indicates this breed has a great deal to offer to the beef industry.” The breed has been proven functional for more than 70 years on the family’s low maintenance Kirkcudbrightshire unit where 90% of the spring calving herd comprising both pedigree and commercial cattle calve within nine weeks, all heifers calve at two years, and the average life span is eight calf crops.
“Developing a suckler herd is a long term project, however introducing Beef Shorthorn is in investment offering the advantage of being able to retain the heifers which provide much sought after maternal characteristics, while the steers are now achieving a bonus.”
Donald Biggar had the privilege of following two stalwart generations of cattle breeders, however it was Prof Jan Bonsma, the world renowned South African animal scientist, who confirmed to him ‘what good stockmen already know’.
“I was very influenced by his work while in my twenties. Bonsma claimed it was the smart cattle breeder who could look at an animal, determine its reproductive history and its actual breeding value. Furthermore, in order to produce end-products with value, then he believed beef producers must breed environment adapted, fertile, functional and efficient feed conversion animals. His dictum was ‘man must measure’.
“Consequently, selection at Chapelton is based on three basic criteria: soundness of structure, functional efficiency and performance recording data. We don’t necessarily buy the smartest bull but the one that will do the job for us and breed good daughters. We always sift his through dam and females siblings to determine their consistency of quality.”
While eye remains uppermost, it is supplemented with knowledge of the animal’s background - a personal version of a performance data sheet, along with the data itself - Breedplan performance recording. “We’ve been recording since the 1980s, it’s another tool in the box. Something that introduces knowledge has to be useful and recorded data improves with accuracy over the years, however there are so many other traits to consider which remain unrecorded such as soundness of structure, temperament, fertility and feet. Consequently, I would never make a decision on performance recording alone.
Chapelton is undoubtedly achieving success, which to Donald means trading breeding animals on farm and at Stirling, if it is to repeat buyers, then that’s a bonus. First and foremost it’s selling the cream of the crop to fellow breeders, followed by bulls to commercial producers, and surplus females. The herd has also achieved the health status required for export and is currently finding markets for females in Austria and Germany.
Chapelton comprised 70 breeding cows in 2001 and it was within the breed’s top 10% of performance recorded herds. FMD was found on the edge of the farm and the entire herd had to be subsequently culled. “A very strange silence followed us around the farm,” says Donald.
There was never any hesitation about restocking. “We were determined to get up and running as soon as possible. We had the strongest emotional attachment to the breed which was already in resurrengence, and we also recognised here was a one off opportunity to introduce some genetic diversity.”
Donald Biggar invested a six figure sum in the restocking venture resulting in the establishment of six strong female lines which ‘set the show on the road’. He sifted out females which already featured Chapelton genetics including from Croxton Park, Dunsyre, Glenisla, Tofts and Uppermill. The tank also contained some semen from Tofts Romany, the most influential bull he had used in the 1990s producing highly functional daughters and stock bulls. However, the majority of new seed stock was purchased from Canadian herds.
“I was fully aware that the country’s herds offered the characteristics we were looking for having visited Canada on my own to buy and import the bull which we lost at FMD. It was not possible to return to Canada during the epidemic so with the help of good friend Rolly Bateman in Alberta, I put together a project from here. We identified animals in six Alberta based herds featuring 20 females for flushing, we introduced to them both US and Canadian sires and imported over 200 embryos resulting in over 50 females and 50 very expensive steers, plus a range of bulls to continue the bloodlines.”
One of those bulls was Chapelton Typhoon whom Donald commends for bringing ‘enormous success’ to the herd. “He has introduced a new degree of muscling that is going to be important to commercial producers, particularly those who are exploiting Morrisons native breeds’ scheme with its accompanying premiums. Typhoon is within the breed’s top 1% for eye muscle area, retail meat yield and calving ease EBVs, but above all he is very structurally sound.”
Typhoon’s success is reflected in his progeny. His daughters feature largely within the Chapelton herd and he has sired five homebred Perth/Stirling February champions in the last six years as well as Chapelton Dauphin, the new 15,000gns breed record holder all brought out by stockman Robert Grierson.Typhoon genetics are in fact becoming the fastest most widely used within the herdbook, he says.
Whilst Typhoon has stood out from the crowd, there are other up and coming sires at Chapelton all of which have the one common selection factor – they’re structurally sound. They include Glenisla Banquo, Stonehills X Factor and Cavans Yankee.
“We are attempting to crystallise and consolidate the good work we established within the first decade, we have no interest in changing direction. In fact we’re always looking for the next stock bull from within what is a very small gene pool. That means we’ll scan the globe if we cannot find what we’re searching for in the UK, however we won’t be buying semen out of a glossy magazine.
We have to first see the bull and his siblings in the flesh.”
The Biggar family:
Walter Biggar, a livestock breeder and agent purchasing on behalf of US clients and an international cattle judge. He established the Chapelton pedigree Beef Shorthorn herd in 1942, its first success was Perth in 1947 when Chapelton Brigadier headed his class and sold for 3,000gns. He developed an export trade for bulls to Argentina, Australia, South Africa and the US.
James Biggar continued the Beef Shorthorn breeding programme which changed in the late 1960s with the demand for larger, leaner cattle. The first bull to mark the new direction was the 1967 Royal Highland champion, Denend Glendrossan who left cattle competing with the Continental invasion. Further major changes occurred following his decision to introduce poll Australian and Maine Anjou genetics to help increase scale, growth rates and muscularity.
Donald Biggar graduated from SAC, Edinburgh in 1972 and spent the next 10 years travelling the major beef producing continents before returning to manage Chapelton. His interests extend beyond the farmgate. He is a former chairman of Royal Smithfield Club, Royal Smithfield Show and Quality Meat Scotland, and newly appointed chairman of West Cumberland Farmers.
The future Donald and his wife, Emma have three children. “They’re each currently exploring new boundaries. We are optimistic they will return and continue the business,” says Donald.
Jamie works on a London trading floor for a major energy supplier.
Duncan is studying English Literature at the University of Glasgow.
Rachel is a ski and sail instructor.
Chapelton fact file:
- 1,500 acres SDA, inc 120 acres cereals
- 70 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows
- 70 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cows
- 240 commercial suckler cows, all progeny finished
- Head stockman, Robert Grierson with 38 years of service
- Four staff