By Debbie James

There is a common theme running through the enterprises under the commercial umbrella of the Hean Castle Estate near Saundersfoot, Pembrokeshire.

High standards are applied to its holiday parks, property portfolio, beach centre, holiday cottages and forestry and firewood business – and to its farm.

The Home Farm had for decades produced milk, originally from a dairy shorthorn herd and latterly from Holstein Friesians, but in 2014 the economics of running a 120-cow herd forced a choice.

“As was the case with many smaller herds, we either had to invest in new facilities and increase cow numbers or exit milk production,’’ recalls estate trustee David Lewis, whose family have been custodians of the estate for five generations.

Six years on and high demand for breeding stock and an expanding beef finishing enterprise validate the decision to switch to suckler beef production.

Mr Lewis credits the Hereford breed as a reason for this success.

“When we were researching cattle breeds, one of the factors we needed to consider was a desire to protect our estate brand,’’ he says.

“We wanted a native breed and one that was low input, so the Hereford was the perfect choice. We initially bought from local breeders, including the Laxfield and Studdolph herds, and have grown from there.’’

The herd is run with two staff, David Burnhill and an assistant.

Mr Burnhill’s focus is on breeding good breed types.

“I want good looks and high health status, as well as the most appropriate EBVs. The Hereford has a lovely temperament and has that milkiness that make the cows exceptional mothers.

“I like animals with thicker tops – pointy shoulders belong in the dairy herd.”

For that reason, some genetics have been sourced from the Australian Wirruna herd. The result is cattle with great width, thickness and style, but most importantly of similar ‘type’, says Mr Burnhill.

Sires are initially selected by eye or bloodline, which is followed by scrutiny of their EBVs. The aim is easy calving and low birth weight, alongside good growth figures.

The extensive use of EBVs has meant that cattle are fit for slaughter off grass as early as 18 months, with steers averaging 320kg deadweight.

Cattle are sold to Dunbia on the Hereford scheme and through direct sales too, to the newly established Copper Hog butcher’s shop in Tenby.

The sale of breeding bulls was initially seen as a bonus with the central focus on producing finished cattle. However pedigree sales and showing help to spread the Hean name and ‘adds a bit of fun to the job’, says Mr Lewis.

Due to demand and some good genetic choices, bull sales are increasing. Notable among these sales is the purchase by Genus ABS of Hean 1 Roscoe in 2019, together with sales to other pedigree herds.

Stock bulls include Roscoe’s sire, Romany 1 Nailer. His females are now coming through and already making their mark with a daughter winning the breed championship at St Clears Show in 2019.

Another stock bull is Panmure 1 Pedro, who sired Hean 1 Sedgely which was placed second at AgriExpo 2019, and Northern Irish-bred Solpoll 1 Superduty, was purchased in the spring of 2020.

All bulls are purchased privately to protect the high health status of the Hean herd, which is accredited free of BVD and IBR and is at the lowest level of risk for Johne’s.

Bulls runs with the cows for 12 weeks but the ambition is to tighten the calving period. In 2020, calving got underway on March 14 and finished in mid-June but the hope is to reduce this by two weeks in 2021.

The cattle are at grass from April to October and set-stocked. The farm hasn’t gone down the route of rotational grazing because a balance needs to be struck with other considerations.

“A lot of the grazing is on historic parkland, it has to look good aesthetically as well as be efficient,’’ Mr Lewis explains.

The ambition is to grow numbers in the 80-cow herd to 150 by retaining home-bred heifers, to improve output and to continue the mission of minimising costs within the business.

“We have got 400 acres in-hand, and when we get to the point of being fully stocked and producing all our own feed and bedding, we will be happy,’’ says Mr Lewis.