Breed Focus: Shetland Cattle
Are Shetland cattle one of the best kept secrets in farming? We think they could be. Small, docile, fast growing, easy calving and hardy are just a few of the breed’s characteristics which, for smallholders in particular, will tick boxes when considering cattle. This is not just coincidence of course, the breed was developed by crofters in the hash environment of the Shetland Islands producing an animal that was able to thrive on poor quality grazing and still produce milk and top quality beef.
Unfortunately, numbers of pure bred examples dwindled on the Islands as commercial pressures forced cross breeding with larger beef cattle. Following World War II, this was compounded by loss of vital Government subsides if they were not cross bred. By 1950 there were just 40 pure bred animals left. Shetlands are still classified as ‘at risk’; however, with help from enthusiasts and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, numbers have been steadily increasing since then.
This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that, as well as all the desirable traits we have already mentioned, these cows are extremely economical to raise reaching slaughter weight in as little as 20 months on grass alone. There is no need to feed expensive concentrates for Shetlands and a good 30 month example can yield up to 200kg of exceptional, finely marbled, meat. If you are breeding you will also find that cows will produce calves until their late teens and beyond and due to their wide pelvis and relatively small offspring, calf very easily indeed.
Originally classified as a dairy breed, Shetlands produce comparatively small amounts of milk over the lactation period – around 12 litres per day – but it is high in butter fat and they seem quite capable of being in perpetual lactation with some keepers choosing not to ween calves, instead keeping them suckling until the next calf is born.
Today, as with many rare breeds, they are used extensively in conservation grazing where organisations such as The Wildlife Trust and The National Trust use them to maintain all types of conservation areas from lowland bogs in Scotland, where they will eat regenerating birch, to woodlands and coastal . This in turn helps to support the the breed itself creating a wonderful self-perpetuating conservation cycle.
Let’s face it they are pretty little things too with their size, attractive features and small turned in ‘viking helmet’ horns all adding to their appeal.
We spoke to Barry Allen, Secretary of The Shetland Cattle Breeders Association and an experienced smallholder and took the opportunity to pose some of the frequently asked questions that smallholders or prospective keepers of cattle may have.
As a smallholder what made you choose Shetland Cattle? Have you found that they live up to their reputation as a hardy, easy to keep, multi-purpose animal?
The Shetland was critically endangered back in 2000 (RBST category 1) and this was the basis of my initial interest. I then saw them at the last RBST National Show and Sale at Stoneleigh, along with all the other endangered breeds, and was smitten. As I knew very little about cattle in general, the Shetland’s temperament and size were important considerations. They have been easy to keep, easy to breed and hardy, and we have enjoyed their company and the best beef we have ever tasted.
The Shetland has been described as the original ‘house cow’ a term which, to some, may suggests that you could keep a solitary animals. Is this correct?
The term ‘house cow’ can describe the Shetland but is, at the same time, slightly misleading. Cattle are herd animals and we always recommend that they are kept in groups of at least 2. They need company. Some people interpret this as a cow and her calf but I think 2 adults should be the minimum.
For many smallholders a cow’s size, as well as the additional paperwork, can be a stumbling block to ownership what would you say to this?
Starting with cattle can be daunting but if you have kept sheep you will be aware of most of the regulations. Our cows are all smaller than our Fell ponies so the size hasn’t bothered us at all and they are easier to keep than the sheep due to less ongoing maintenance. You form a bond with a cow which is seldom the case with sheep.
By definition a smallholding is considered to be less than 50 acres but it is fair to assume that many of our readers will have considerably less area than this, say between 3-20 acres. This leads to the other main concern for smallholders – land use and management. How much land will you need and how would you suggest you plan the rotation of your land when keeping cows?
We have 22 acres and keep 3 cows and their followers, plus a couple of bullocks (for meat), Fell ponies and sheep (too many). The land requirement is more to do with how you wish to manage your land. A Shetland cow will need around an acre for summer grazing and if you want to make your own hay, haylage or sileage for winter, you will need to “save” around the same amount. If your cattle live out, and the weather is exceptionally wet, even Shetlands will cause damage around the feed areas, which may need repair work before the next summer. More land obviously enables you to rotate stock, and we have found cattle and sheep to be a good mix – cows eating the longer grass, followed by sheep. Rotation also helps the land over winter. Many people keep their cattle inside, or bring them into a yard, during the winter months. It can be easier for you in bad weather and the land is rested. Shetland cows will happily live outside so if you keep them in, it will be only for the benefit of the land.
Fencing needs to be in good order at all times. Always have a few spare fence posts in stock! We have standard stock fencing with barbed wire on top. Cattle are no different from other animals and if there is more grass over the fence than there is in the field, they will try to reach it. You can provide extra security with an electric tape. In our case, the ponies need the electric tape to keep them off the barbed wire.
If Shetlands live out in winter they will need some protection from driving wind and rain. We are on the slopes of the Pennines in Cumbria and have stone walls and some hedges. A shelter of some form would be necessary otherwise. A building would help (with a lot of “mucking out”) but a temporary structure which could be from stacks of old tyres in the form of a cross with poles driven through to keep them upright, would provide shelter from every wind direction.
For those that have limited land and will need to supplement feed with bought in supplies what would you suggest as the best feeding routine?
Many Shetland keepers produce their own large bales of winter feed and keep them in a corner of a field, and you can buy these too. A Shetland will eat 5 or 6 of these during the winter months. You should try to keep birds and rodents out of the bales as a punctured bale can go mouldy. Painting a cross on the top of a bale seems to deter birds and a car tyre can prevent damage from their feet. Keep the cows away too! These bales can be unwrapped and dropped whole into ring feeders or you can open them and feed limited amounts into standard feeders. If you have a building you can keep hay, and have the choice of small (easy to handle) or large bales. Handling facilities are the obvious consideration. The Shetland needs only grass in the summer and its equivalent in the winter. No concentrates are necessary unless, for some reason, the cattle are in poor condition. A high magnesium content mineral lick should be available to cattle throughout the year.
What would be your seasonal health routine for Shetlands?
The Shetland has no specific health issues associated with it. This does not mean that it will never be ill but it is a hardy animal less likely to require visits from your vet.
Some breeders have a health routine arranged with their vet, involving regular vaccinations against the more serious cattle diseases. We have not done this but would not wish to deter anyone considering this route. Best advice would be to talk to your vet, ensuring that he/she is a good agricultural vet. We regularly apply a pour-on fly control – every month or so – during the appropriate months, and udder cream more regularly to the cows’ teats. They quite like this and it gets them used to being handled in this area, which is handy if you wish to turn your hand to milking.
We worm youngsters – another pour-on solution along the back – but cattle tend to build up a resistance to worms so we don’t continue this with the adults unless we have reason to believe it is necessary. Other than this, adults may need their feet trimming if they live continually on grass and don’t wear their feet down naturally, and there will be the routine TB testing carried out by the vet. A new herd will have to do this annually for the first 3 years, then it will be dependent on where you live.
The Shetland Cattle Breeders Association was formed with the aim of re-establishing and raising the profile and this versatile breed. They have an informative website and a network of regional representatives who are happy to help with advice and information. Members will also benefit from regular newsletters, a breeders directory and access to genetic records. New owners can take advantage of the year’s free membership offer.
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