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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Cattle at Cefn Garthenor?

Updated: Sep 28, 2021


The idea is simple. Large herbivores shaped the environment here in Wales long before humans became a major factor. Aurochs, the extinct ancestor of today’s cattle, were roaming around in low densities since the end of the last ice age, and likely died out in Britain in the bronze age. Bigger than today’s cattle, they helped maintain a diverse landscape and essentially prevented it becoming over forested. Their heft and grazing helped create open and semi-open habitats for all sorts of flora and fauna. Woodland is great, but not for everything, and we need a healthy balance. And in my case, Cefn Garthenor would be better without a soft rush monoculture.


Sadly, there are no aurochs around today, but some cattle can do much of the same work. After a lot of consideration, and some great input from Derek Gow, Rob Parry and Mike Jenkins, I decided that an old breed was required. Most modern cattle breeds are simply not able to deal with harsh weather conditions all year round. A lot of beef cattle are indoors for up to 6 months a year, and some dairy cattle can be indoors pretty much all year around. Producing beef and milk has become industrialised, and that means keeping them in one place to grow or produce huge amounts of milk without them wasting energy walking around grazing. We literally cut the grass and bring it to them, and then supplement that with other feedstuff to increase their protein intake and productive capacity.


Fortunately, there are still old cattle breeds which are farmed and well suited to outdoor living in places like west Wales. I visited Mike and his wife Kate at his farm near Llandeilo. He has a variety of older breeds including Welsh Blacks, which had initially seemed to me like a good and hardy local option. But Mike, doubtless sensing my total lack of experience, suggested an alternative. The Galloway is an old breed, heralding from Scotland. For a novice like me, they also have a couple of advantages. They are (relatively) small and have no horns. All in all, easier to handle. In the UK cattle cannot just roam around. TB and foot & mouth outbreaks have led to a highly regulated industry. Each cow has an ear tag, a passport, every herd has a number and every location a holding reference. Births, deaths and movements are all tracked. And every year, every member of each herd must be TB tested. So, handy if my cattle are more like 400 to 600kg rather than heading towards 800kg and armed with horns. For now, I only want my beasts to be so wild!


So having decided on Galloways, there were questions around how many, what gender and age balance and where from. With input from Derek and Mike I decided on ten. That is a low density over 210 acres in general farming terms, but the main idea of course is to have them happy and helping to manage the land. I can grow the herd if I need to.


Next, gender. On the whole farming gives the male cattle a much shorter life, on average, than the females. Galloways are bred for beef. The best male prospects may be kept on, becoming adult bulls and spreading their seed, but otherwise they are likely to be slaughtered at less than 2 years old (by 16 months a good weight for the cuts a supermarket wants will have been reached). Female cattle are likely kept for breeding. Obviously within a herd you need to be careful about interbreeding. All this pointed to an all-female starting point.


Finally, age. Younger, smaller female cattle are cheaper. These are heifers, meaning they have yet to produce calves, and are likely to be under 2 years old. So, it made sense to grow the cattle on the land here. However, young cattle need a leader, so adding an older, more experienced cow (who has already calved a few times) makes sense. So, I decided on getting 9 heifers and one older cow.


To have something like a natural life, I want my cattle to reproduce. So, to start things off it made sense for a few to be “in calf”, i.e. pregnant. Spring births may be easier (calves born after the winter tend to be smaller, as food is not as easy outdoors), so this was the aim.


David showing me his young heifers ...

With this in mind I set about finding the perfect Galloways. A combination of the Galloway Cattle Society and my neighbour Robert put me onto local farmers David and Alex Weeks, a husband and wife team. What David does not know about the breed is probably not worth knowing. He and Alex clearly love their animals and were great in terms of selecting ten cattle that met my brief. Over a couple of weekends I saw all the cows and heifers they had available, and Alex pulled together all their history and details. A deal was agreed.


So, all I have to do is get ready for the new arrivals and (importantly) convince Robert that he really wants to help me look after them.

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