Will and Sophie Chrystal, of Wingate Grange Farm, are concentrating on breeding quality pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle. Jennifer MacKenzie reports.

WILL and Sophie Chrystal continue to move towards their goal of concentrating on breeding quality, high health and low-input pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle.

They are fine-tuning the specialist beef enterprise at Wingate Grange Farm, Wingate, where the family has farmed for almost 50 years.

Will, after working for six years in Australia, and his dad, Bill, were tempted to sell up in County Durham and buy a larger arable farm there but the uncertainties with the weather and crop production put them off.

As Will and his wife, Sophie, have become increasingly involved with the running of the farm over the last decade, the focus is now on specialising in beef breeding with their Wingate Grange Angus herd, which is more suited to the farm’s land.

In just over six years, the Chrystals have established the herd, starting with five cows in calf and with calves at foot purchased from David and Penny Evans’ Tree Bridge herd at Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough.

Numbers are now running at 130 pedigree breeding females and the Chrystals were The Northern Farmer Beef Farmer of the Year in 2018, as well as being runner up twice previously.

Advances are being made in the herd’s breeding through genomic testing and the use of genomic sires and now with the purchase of a new herd sire from the renowned Rawburn herd, Rawburn Big Impact, whose sire sold for 25,000gns at Stirling.

“Sophie and I were at the Great Yorkshire Show in 2014 looking around the beef cattle lines and we were discussing which pedigree breed we would choose to set up a herd,” said Will.

Part of the Crystals Aberdeen Angus herd

Part of the Crystals' Aberdeen Angus herd

“We wanted a native breed which would do well on a low-input grass-based system. I liked Herefords but looking around the show ground the Aberdeen Angus stood out as a very visible brand, particularly among the food stands.

“Apart from the branding, we chose the breed for its ease of management – it’s just me and Sophie doing the day to day running of the cattle. This is contributed to by ease of calving, the docility of the cattle, mothering ability and milkiness.

“Also, the system has to be low input. Feeding cattle concentrates doesn’t pay – they need to be grass-fed. It all makes for ease of management as we don’t employ anyone to help us.

“At the time the farm’s 400 acres were mainly arable but we were just treading water with all the inputs required and the farm was ideal for cattle.”

From the five foundation females, the Chrystals have bought in females mainly from Kevin Moore’s the Moss herd near Liverpool, the Bruce family’s Logie herd in Aberdeenshire and the Mogeely herd run by the DeCogans in Co Cork.

Herd numbers have further been built up mainly using AI sires and now the family is concentrating on further improvements to the herd’s genetics by genomic testing of their cattle and selection of genomic AI herd sires.

Existing buildings on the farm were unsuitable for cattle housing, so in 2016 investment was made in a new shed built by S&A, Barnard Castle, with Will having a big input in its design.

The roofed part of the building, which can house up to 300 head of cattle, is 275ft by 60ft with two unroofed 15ft wide feed passages on either side. Inside, the layout enables seven pens to be configured using gates in various ways and comprises a full cattle handling unit and four large bull pens.

The Crystals three sons, from left, Arthur, four; Teddy, seven months; and George, six

The Crystals' three sons, from left, Arthur, four; Teddy, seven months; and George, six

The cattle are fed a mix of haylage, silage and straw outside where most of the dung accumulates and this has considerably reduced the amount of straw used inside the covered area.

The cattle are housed from October through to the beginning of May. On the advice of the farm vets Cleveland Vets, Middlesbrough, the cows receive a bolus once a year to boost iodine levels, which tests have shown up to be low on the farm and this has ensured new born calves suckle well and are thrifty.

The herd currently is 40 per cent spring calving from March to May with the remainder calving in September and October. Calves are creep-fed from five months old until after weaning at seven months old as it gives the calf a boost over the weaning period.

To build up numbers, to date most females selected for breeding have been kept as herd replacements. However, this year, 25 bulling heifers will be sold off the farm at 15 months old – heifers calve at 24 months old. A further 15 to 20 older cows are also being sold which Will says will make ideal suckler cows.

Part of the plan to consolidate the business and its finances and concentrate on the beef herd is the sale of 240 acres of arable land currently on the market.

AI has been used widely on the herd, initially using the Genus RMS service. More recently former Genus technician Lucy Corner, who also runs a herd of Blondes at Sedgefield, has been employed to do the AI work, ensuring the cows are inseminated when they are showing a strong heat.

The sires are selected by Sophie on their figures to best complement the individual cows. Genomic sires are now being used and the best 25 females in the herd have been genetically tested, a route the Chrystals intend to follow.

Two home-bred bulls out of one of the herd’s most prolific female, Logie Lady, are currently being used in the herd.

Wingate Grange Leonidas, a three year old by Tree Bridge Exeter, has been used on 40 per cent of the herd. Lady’s two-year-old son, Logo, has been used on the maiden heifers.

Lady, now 12 years old, has since produced another bull calf. She is now retired from natural breeding and the plan is to flush her.

“Our bread and butter is the local dairy and suckler herds who buy bulls from us off the farm with many being repeat customers which is good,” says Will. Each year between ten and 15 bulls are sold, mainly off the farm but some through society sales, to average about £5,000 to herds in the North and further afield to breeders.

While breeding plays a key role in developing the herd, health is also a priority. The herd is in the SAC health scheme and is Johnes level 1 and accredited for IBR, BVD and Leptospirosis.

Will says: “Health is so important. All farmers need to be using the technology available and looking at the data. If there is a health problem such as Johne's or BVD, you are losing out on daily live weight gain. We work very closely with our vets who have a dedicated farm animal team.”

Will and Sophie, with their own young family of prospective Angus enthusiasts, sons, George, six, Arthur, four, and Teddy, seven months old, are keen to promote the breed to the next generation.

Will is a council member of the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society and he chairs the society’s Youth Development Programme. Among the programme’s activities to promote the breed and stockmanship to society members and non-members are a series of annual workshops across the UK and Ireland. Depending on Covid restrictions, a workshop has been planned to be staged at Wingate Grange in May.

Will remembers the advice given to him some time ago by long-established Angus breeder William McLaren, of the Netherton herd at Aucterarder, Perthshire, who said ‘if you are going to do something, do it well’. “We want to concentrate 100 per cent on the Angus cattle,” said Will.