Winners follow-up: James Duerden, 2018 Beef Innovator of the Year
The introduction of a new breed to the family farm and a vision to future-proof the viability of their enterprise has seen significant change at Killerwick Grange.
For Cumbrian beef farmer James Duerden, the Parthenaise breed offers a winning combination of heavy, lean-fleshing cattle, coupled with easy-calving traits.
James and his family – parents Mark and Carolyn and sister Emily – manage 30 pedigree Parthenaise cattle, which they run alongside a 100-head commercial suckler herd on 90 hectares (222 acres) at Killerwick Grange, Dalton-in-Furness.
Prior to their French acquisition, the Duerdens’ suckler herd consisted of Longhorn cows crossed with Limousin-bred bulls.
Their shared aim is to gradually phase out the commercial suckler breeds in pursuit of a pure-bred suckler herd, with the aims of having a 60-head herd of pedigree Parthenaise.
With a clear vision for the farm’s future, he has spread the risk across the business which encompasses pedigree livestock, genetics and direct beef sales.
James says: “By focusing on all three aspects of the business, we look at different elements of the supply chain from conception to consumption, and that works well for us.”
The catalyst for the venture came when James’ uncle, Simon, loaned Mark a Parthenaise cross bull.
James says: “We were so impressed with the growth rates and temperament of the youngstock, we decided to look into buying some females from France.
“After extensive research, it became apparent Parthenaise beef was a highly sought-after market leader in France. “French breeders have been successful in safeguarding the breed from outside influences; they knew they were onto a good thing.”
James has spent considerable time researching the breed and building relationships with leading breeders in France and, in 2013, imported five pedigree heifers which were sold in-calf for the following season and with heifer calves at foot.
“I have gained their confidence and, in doing so, we have formed a great relationship with the French society and many of the breeders and they have then offered to me the best of their animals to choose from to strengthen my bloodlines with the highest quality cattle.
“We have since built a strong relationship with the Irish Parthenaise Cattle Breed Society and work with its members to raise the profile of the breed and secure trade links to source the highest quality genetics for both countries.”
Quality genetics have been at the heart of the Killerwick breeding programme from the start and James ensures only the best step onto the farm.
He says: “We have imported females from several different lines, many which have been successful in the showring. The demand in the UK is certainly growing, so we also brought stock over for other breeders.
“We imported the four-year-old Parthenaise bull Fatal as the keystone to start the Killerwick Parthenaise breeding programme. Estimated breeding values in the progeny have constantly exceeded our expectations.
“This has meant at present all the pedigree progeny are kept for breeding purposes. Heifers are kept as replacements and bulls are sold on.
“We also sell semen from our Killerwick bulls, which is also available for UK and international markets.
“There has been an overwhelming uptake on the sales of semen from our bulls with people looking for quality stock which are easy-calving and double-muscling with rapid growth rates and a placid temperament.
“We have recently been receiving numerous enquiries from Australia, Puerto Rico, South America and Belgium, and are now selling semen off our bulls through five major AI companies.”
Parthenaise bulls are also used across the family’s commercial suckler herd, and with a background in wholesale butchery, James is impressed with how Partenaise-sired prime cattle can kill out.
He credits the breed for the immense fleshing rates, saying prime Parthenaise are killing out at about 400kg deadweight.
The mature bull can weigh about 1,300kg, while the average liveweight of a cow can range from 750-1,000kg.
James says: “The make-up of the carcase means killing out percentage is higher, meaning more meat can be used at a higher value.
“On average, about 55 per cent of the beef can be sold as choice cuts, opposed to the usually 50:50 split found in other continental breeds.
“The meat is also tender and low in cholesterol, which appeals to the increasingly health-conscious consumer. A growing notoriety with French-trained chefs in the UK for premium beef has seen an increase in supply enquiries.”
Parthenaise bulls are also used across the family’s commercial suckler herd and, with a background in wholesale butchery, James is impressed with how parthenaise-sired prime cattle can kill out.
The farm follows a spring-calving pattern and all heifers are bulled by a Parthenaise-bred sire at about 24 months. Despite being a heavier muscled breed, the increased calving ease is due to the light bone structure, which offers welcome peace of mind.
Gestation is on average 280-283 days. While birth weights of calves range from 35-40kg, James is adamant the growth rates are more than adequate. Liveweight gains can be as high as 1.75kg/day and heifers are quick to reach maturity.
Cattle are sold through the market as stores or put through the family’s wholesale business, Duerden Wholesale Meats. Carcases are usually grading about the U+ to E mark.
He says: “Due to their size, we have been able to sell stores through the market at 12 months old and we are receiving an average premium of about £200/head.
“The Parthenaise temperament is also something which makes management incredibly simple. Unlike some of the other continental breeds, it is relatively placid, meaning handling bulls and youngstock is easy.”
The farm aims to be self-sufficient for most of the year, growing silage, grass and barley wholecrop.
Wary of the wet Cumbrian weather, they place a great emphasis on pasture management and have invested in draining systems which ensure fields can cope with excessive rainfall.
While James believes the Parthenaise may be something of a commercial producer’s dream, he admits the breed still has a long way to go before it becomes common in the UK.
He says: “We have done a handful of shows over the past couple of seasons, including winning three championships in the 2018 season with Killerwick Medusa and receiving supreme overall champion on the showfield.
“The general consensus with judges has been positive and showing is a great way to engage with breeders and the public.
“There can be scepticism towards foreign breeds, mainly because they represent the unknown. “It is up to a select few UK breeders to be pioneering and promote the breed’s commercial attributes.
“We have hosted a quite a few farm visits and farming group tours, whether it be the interest in the pedigree herd and our commercial heard or for our grassland management system. We are still looking to have more open days in the future.
“We are delighted with the commercial and pedigree attributes of the cattle. As a family, we are passionate about working with the society and pushing the breed forward in the UK market.”
Working with a niche but progressive breed, coupled with his research and delivery into the retail market, saw James win the Beef Innovator of the Year Award at last year’s British Farming Awards.
He says: “Innovation is so important for the future of beef, especially going forwards. It has massive potential for growth both in the UK and overseas. We are proud to be producing healthy, nutritional beef and will carry on taking our business forward.”