landlines

I don’t recall seeing a quote from Mahatma Gandi in the Scottish Farmer before, but after waiting all these years two came along last week. In fact it was the same quote twice, provided by different writers, but none the worse for that.

The quote was: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Gandi was talking about the pacifist struggle to lead India to independence out of the clutches of the British Empire in the first half of last century.

One of those quoting him in the SF was the writer of a letter to the editor about farm tenancies. The other was the erudite SF columnist John Elliot of Roxburgh Mains, noted Aberdeen Angus breeder, writing about 40 years of effort by forward-thinking cattlemen to get performance recording of animals accepted by the majority.

In the great scheme of things, tenancies and bull breeding aren’t quite in the same category as independence for a billion people. But the quote does encapsulate the uphill struggle faced by anyone advocating, or adopting, what is initially an unpopular policy.

In pointing out the shortcomings of pedigree breeders paying ridiculous prices for bulls or rams based only on what they look like, not how they perform, I have always been at the disadvantage of not having tried to breed pedigree stock myself.

Like the increasingly-unpleasant Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish telling reporters “You never played the game” when they ask him a question or, perish the thought, criticise, pedigree breeders have been known to get quite snappy when I have questioned some of their “beauty parade” deals. What does a layman know about the skill, craft and arcane lore of breeding the perfect tup?

Not a lot, is the answer, but I do know the many examples of bullshit baffles brains that I’ve seen when pedigree breeders form a defensive circle. There have also always been just enough realists involved in performance recording and using objective criteria for stock breeding rather than the mumbo-jumbo of “a grand head and bone” to encourage me that my criticism was on the right lines.

That’s why it has been such pleasure over the years to report the efforts, and successes, of livestock breeders such as John Elliot, and son, who have based their work on science and recording and in recent years have gained rewards for that.

Progress has been slow with cattle and in the sheep world I doubt if we’ll see the triumph of performance recording over fancy breed points in my lifetime. But, as John Elliot pointed out in his SF article, at next week’s annual Perth bull sales – now held, confusingly for the uninitiated, at Stirling – almost every entry will have its estimated breeding value (EBV) tabulated alongside its pedigree.

Well done every single breeder who has contributed over the years to that. Now progressive sheep breeders have to work towards the happy day when the same can be said of every ram entered for Kelso ram sale.

Looking at the bull sale entries for Stirling, I recalled that on my first visit to Perth bull sale in the late 1960s, only two breeds were sold – diminutive Aberdeen Angus and not much bigger beef shorthorns. Herefords were sold at Gorgie, Edinburgh, Galloways at Castle Douglas, Highland cattle at Oban. And that was more or less that for Scottish beef sires.

Next week Aberdeen Angus and – a few – beef shorthorns will be sold. As will a few dozen salers, British blue, blondes and Herefords. But the main breed sold will be Limousin. In the sale of February 20 and 21, the main breeds will be Charolais and Simmental, almost all, as John Elliot noted, with performance records and breeding values. And definitely all much bigger than the bulls I saw in the 1960s.

I wonder how the assorted captains, majors, colonels and buyers from the US and South America who predominated at my first Perth sale would react to what is on offer at Stirling? Apoplexy? But for most of us, it has been more than 40 years of progress and in the competitive world of cattle genetics, embryo transfers and other developments, there is much more to come.

As we brace ourselves for a February blast, it’s worth noting yet again that a hard winter is not necessarily a bad thing. At the end of 2010 and early 2011, we had one of the hardest winters most of us can remember and it made life difficult for everyone, particularly on farms and in rural areas.

But general livestock, and human, health was good. This winter has been much milder and one result has been a big increase in the number of human and livestock respiratory infections and general poor health. Visits to doctors’ surgeries – save yourself the trouble, take two paracetemol and drink tea as hot as you can bear it – and calls to vets have, anecdotally, more than trebled. Let’s see what a late blast of winter can do.