National award for Kelso AA breeder

John Elliot at home on his farm Roxburgh Mains, near Kelso with an Aberdeen Angus.
John Elliot at home on his farm Roxburgh Mains, near Kelso with an Aberdeen Angus.

Kelso farmer John Elliot has received a national award for his contribution to livestock breeding. The Aberdeen Angus breeder of Roxburgh Mains is this year’s winner of the prestigious Sir William Young Award from the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (RHASS).

Fellow Kelso farmer, RHASS chairman Allan Murray of Redden presented Mr Elliot with the award last month.

Mr Elliot, who also writes a column for The Scottish Farmer, said: “My reaction was extreme surprise,” but he added: “It’s pleasing.”

The former commercial cattle and sheep producer of Rawburn near Duns decided about 50 years ago to concentrate more on breeding pure-bred Aberdeen Angus (AA). And he started his herd with stock from the Cape Wrath herd founded by his grandfather in 1913, which he boosted with quality females from other herds.

Mr Elliot started performance recording – regular weighing and ultrasonic scanning – more than 30 years ago and sourced top genetics worldwide to work with the highest performing cattle within the breed. He did a Nuffield Scholarship in 1982 when performance recording was in its infancy.

“We have used a lot of embryo transfers and modern techniques where we could,” he said.

His work paid off when in 1997 he bred Rawburn Transformer, a bull that broke every record as a yearling and recorded a Signet Beef Value of £55, unheard of at the time. Over the next decade, Transformer outperformed all other contemporary sires with a third of the top 100 Angus bulls in the UK, including the top 10, sired by him.

Concerning performance figures, 18 months ago, 12 out of the top 15 AA males were Rawburn-bred cattle, as were 14 out of the top 15 females.

Mr Elliot explained how he came to champion the breed: “The Aberdeen Angus was at a very low ebb, the breed had got far too small and people were leaving it in droves. But however poor they were – and they were – they had bits other breeds couldn’t reproduce.”

And, of course, Aberdeen Angus had a worldwide reputation for quality beef, and they were instantly recognisable.

Mr Elliot added: “So there were possibilities, because it was such a big breed worldwide, that we would find animals that would get us out of the hole we were in.

“My ambition then was just to try and get something that would suit me commercially and it’s developed from there. I have been involved with a lot of breeds and I don’t think there are any that pull so many things together as the Angus.

“I just really worked on them. We’ve doubled the individual sizes of them and the performance figures are unbelievable; I never envisaged where we could get with them, but we are not there yet, we’ve a lot to do.”

The citation for his Sir William Young Award states: “Top drawer Rawburn cattle continue to command the premium that they have built up over many years through the strict criteria that has been the backbone of John Elliot’s breeding policy. His success with his beloved Aberdeen Angus cattle is legendary.”

Son John said: “It’s really the highest award a livestock breeder in this country can achieve and it’s voted for by other farmers. The family is very proud and I think he himself (when presented with the award) was very quick to say we have great staff who really help us achieve what we are trying to do here ... and he thanked my mother.”