Breeding for the pedigree bull market at Auchincrieve

11/02/2019
By Katrina Macarthur 

This is the first in a series of features written by Aberdeen and Northern Marts, featuring the McCombie family from Auchincrieve, as they get ready for the RNAS Spring Show, being held at the Thainstone Agricultural Centre on Wednesday February 27. 

The McCombie family’s Auchincrieve Aberdeen-Angus and Charolais herds from Rothiemay, near Huntly, have become well-known in the North-east for producing quality pedigree bulls which are sold privately or at auction, including Aberdeen and Northern Marts’ Thainstone Centre.
Charlie and Gillian McCombie, together with sons, Chaz and Ben, farm 560 acres at Auchincrieve – a unit which has been in the McCombie family since 1936. The Auchincrieve Aberdeen-Angus herd dates to 1920 making it one of the oldest herds in continual existence and numbers 120 pedigree cows, while the 25-cow Charolais herd was established 20 years ago with the purchase of Oldfield Twiggy.
In recent years, most Angus stock bulls used on the herd have come from Blelack, including the 10,000gns Blelack Widgeon which was bought at Perth in 2007. At one time, he was the sire of 50 females in the Auchincrieve herd, all of which were good breeding females, while his sons sold to 4000gns privately.
Another stock bull to make its stamp on the herd was the home-bred bull, Auchincrieve Lord Insidious, by Blelack Master Bugle. His dam, Auchincrieve Lady Inferno, sold to the Massie family, Blelack.
Despite Angus bulls having sold to 7000gns for Auchincrieve Red Elation in 2008 and Charolais to 8800gns for Auchincrieve Detroit in 2009 at Perth Bull Sales, it’s the sale of multi-breed bulls at the Royal Northern Spring Show at Thainstone, where Charlie believes they get on best.
He said: “We’ve had good days selling at Perth and Stirling, but when figures in the Aberdeen-Angus breed became compulsory at Stirling, we decided to focus more on selling at Thainstone. A lot of the breeders in Aberdeenshire aren’t so picky on figures, they just want Charolais bulls with good back-ends to produce progeny with shape through the store ring.
“We get on well selling our bulls at the Spring Show and a one-day event certainly suits us better. Farmers are too busy nowadays to be away from home for days and it means our costs are kept to a minimum. Repeat customers come to Thainstone and you get good commercial buyers forward including some from Orkney,” added Charlie.
At the Spring Show, last year, the McCombies enjoyed one of their best sales to date when three Charolais peaked at 8200gns, 6200gns and 5800gns. They are all sons of the 5000gns Olrig Highwayman – a bull Charlie had spotted at the Highland Show, before buying him at Stirling.
When buying stock bulls for the two herds its power, length and width that the family select on.
“Figures isn’t something we focus on when buying bulls,” said Charlie. “Breeders do look for easy calving figures in a bull, but I don’t think they follow. For instance, we bought an Aberdeen-Angus bull and his calving ease figure changed from sale day to just before his first calves were on the ground so what use is the figure on sale day? We only pulled one calf off him, too.”
Both herds are run commercially and the bottom half of heifers in the Aberdeen-Angus herd are crossed with the Charolais. The progeny is finished just over the 400kg mark at 22 to 24 months of age and are sold direct to Woodhead Bros at Turriff. They regularly average £1500 per head with 30% of those producing U grades. Pure Aberdeen-Angus stock which isn’t suitable for breeding goes to Highland Meats or ABP.
Eldest son Chaz, who works at home full-time said: “Now that we have the herd up to a reasonable size, we are able to cull strictly on cows with bad feet. We have very few problems with cows lacking milk but anything that doesn’t get in-calf will go and we are very strict on temperament.”
Cattle are housed inside for six months of the year but depending on the weather, they can be outside on stubble over the Christmas period. They thrive on either first or second cut silage, with 1kg per head of pot ale given on the run up to calving. If silage quantity is low after calving, the McCombies supplement the cows with 2.5 to 3kg per head of bruised barley.
“We’re firm believers of feeding high vitamin E in the minerals before calving as we’ve found it really gives calves an extra boost to get up and sook,” said Charlie. 
The entire herd calves throughout March and April, and all cows are brought inside to give the McCombies control. They also use Breedplan and are in the Beef Efficiency Scheme, so all animals are weighed after weaning which quickly identifies high weights.
Charlie explained why: “In the past, we have tried putting the cows out to grass for calving, but we found the calves just bloomed inside them. It’s also for ease of management too and we’re lucky we have the space for them inside.”
Aberdeen-Angus heifers at Auchincrieve calve down at two-years-old whereas Charolais heifers are kept on an extra year to calve at three-years-old.
“Calving at the age of two certainly speeds the process up and has allowed us to increase the herd quickly,” explained Chaz. “The vet can also check heifers for health problems when they’re younger and that way they can be slaughtered earlier, rather than keeping on another passenger an extra year.”
Out with the beef enterprise, the McCombies run a flock of 400 Suffolk cross breeding ewes which are tupped to the Texel and they grow 400 acres of malting barley for the Glenlivet, Banff and Moray Grain Group.
For now, the family is busy preparing this year’s entries for the Spring Show which includes three Charolais and one Aberdeen-Angus. Two of the Charolais are sons of Olrig Highman, while the other is by Blelack Jeffrey, which was bought as a young calf at Carlisle.
The Aberdeen-Angus bull is an AI son of a Warrenho bull, and its dam has bred 14 calves in her lifetime. Some of her previous sons have been retained in the herd including one which produced the highest weight gain as a calf at Auchincrieve.
“All our bulls are May-born and are semen tested before sale,” said Charlie, who pointed out that the entire herd is BVD accredited, tested for IBR and Lepto, and maintains a Johnes Risk Level 2, with the hope of being Level 1 soon.
“Our bulls are naturally reared and receive a home-grown mix of cereal, silage, protein and pot ale. Bulls need to be in good condition otherwise people won’t buy them – presentation is key on the day,” he concluded.