Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

Why one man went against the grain by in sticking with Herefords

Val Ledwith with 'Rathregan Boyo' born July 2015 and weighed 625kg at 12 months.
Val Ledwith with 'Rathregan Boyo' born July 2015 and weighed 625kg at 12 months.

Martin Ryan

One man who has never regretted ignoring the advice of his fellow pedigree livestock breeders is Val Ledwith who can look back on a remarkably successful lifetime breeding award-winning pedigree Herefords in Co Meath.

"You're yesterday's man," he recalls being told by those concentrating their efforts on producing beef from alternative breeds who advised him: "You are going nowhere with the Herefords."

"I am around a long time and should be fully retired by now," says Val, but there was nothing ever strong enough to persuade him to move from Hereford since he first came into contact with the breed as a young teenager all of six decades ago.

"My first involment with the Herefords was in 1956. I was born on a farm near Athboy which you'd describe as a mixed farm and the store cattle that we kept were always Herefords." he recalls.

"A neighbour started telling me about the merits of the Hereford when I was 14 or 15 years of age and then my father bought a Hereford bull from him and I suppose that was my first involvement. Around our way at that time it was all Hereford or Angus and the Friesians had not arrived in our area," he added.

The interest in farming and the love for the Hereford never left him, throughout a successful lifetime, both on and off the farm, which ranged from showing champions at the leading agricultural shows in the country, to restoring Trim Castle, building a distillery for the Teeling Family in the Liberties or a shopping centre at Celbridge through the construction company which he set up nearly half a century ago.

He was also an accomplished athlete with the unique record of having retained a national title for an unbroken period of 13 years.

He wasn't adverse to a bit of traditional 'wheeling and dealing' in land or livestock and enjoys nothing better than recalling some of the deals with other breeders over the decades.

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"I put together a bit of money from a land swop and a house sale and bought the farm where I am now living in 1984," he says of the 140-acre farm at Rathregan, Batterstown to which he adds a further 60 acres of rented land for the 170 head of pedigree Herefords, including 70 breeding females which are cared for with the assistance of "a truly great stock woman" in neighbour, Ann Murphy who has been doing the job for the past 16 years.

It wasn't unusual for him to trade a bull for a few heifers and when he set sight on an animal that he really wanted, he wasn't for giving up too easily.

The Rathregan Herd Hereford Stock Bull since 2010 - 'Corliesmore Lad' judged Supreme Hereford All-Ireland Champion Tullamore 2012 and Supreme Male Hereford Champion Tullamore 2013.
The Rathregan Herd Hereford Stock Bull since 2010 - 'Corliesmore Lad' judged Supreme Hereford All-Ireland Champion Tullamore 2012 and Supreme Male Hereford Champion Tullamore 2013.

Nothing he enjoys more nowadays than relating the unusual story of how one of the prized champion horned bull of all England, a Hereford, ended up on his farm in Co Meath.

While attending the Royal Show at Stoneleigh in the Summer of 2005, a young bull called Sarabande Zippy, competing in the Junior Bull Class caught his eye as he went on to win his class and finished up Reserve Junior Male Champion of the Show.

"If I could have picked any bull as a present that day it would have been Zippy. I followed his show career with interest after that, and later in the year at Tenbury in the National Hereford Show, Zippy was judged Intermediate Male Champion and Best Bull Less Than Two Years. He then went on to become Senior Male and Supreme Champion at the National Hereford Show in Tenbury the following year," he recalls.

"I was very interested in that bull. I telephoned his owners, Mrs Pam Noel and Robert Snelling to congratulate them and during our chat enquired if they had any intention of selling their champion bull.

"The answer I got was a very definite 'no', not at this time, but they agreed if they changed their mind, I would be the first to know," he said.

He was pleasantly surprised a few months later when they called him to say that they would consider selling Zippy. The following week he visited the farm to view the bull, his mother and grandmother on their farm and he liked everything he saw.

"There was only one problem. They were looking for a lot of money for the bull. I was wondering what to do, but did not want to let the opportunity to own Zippy pass," he says.

"I put a proposition to them for an exchange for a young bull, Rathregan Mark Robin. The nine-months-old, was Reserve Male Champion at Tullamore and won his class at Nenagh. When they heard that the judge in Tullamore was Clive Davies of Westwood Herefords, they were interested," he explains.

A few days later Pam and Robert visited Rathregan and a deal was closed for Zippy in exchange for Robin "plus a payment", which Val was very happy with, and a round-the-clock journey with the Land Rover and trailer delivered Robin to his new home and brought Zippy to Westmeath.

"He did very well for me. I have some great cows in the herd after him. I have great daughters of his in the herd, including a grandson of Zippy but I am sorry that I did not get more progeny out of him," he says.

He bought a bull called Ballinalick Robin in the nineties, winner of the Supreme Championship in Tullamore in 1999 and the RDS Championship in 2001 and he left him great cattle too and won seven interbreed championships.

Some great bulls have been bred in the herd. Not least the young bull champion at Tullamore Show, Rathregan Storm which was purchased by the breeder in Northern Ireland from whom he bought his first three Hereford cows.

It is all a long way from the days "when I used to go to places with the Hereford and breeders were telling me that I was yesterday's man and that they could not believe why I was sticking with the Hereford because they had no future.

"I often told them that if they really did their sums and calculated the meal going into the continentals and the extra length of time it would take to get them finished they might finish up with a larger cheque but it would have cost them a lot more. I am not knocking any of the continentals but that was the way that I made up the sums," says Val.

"It is the margin left after the costs are accounted for that matters in farming today," he insists, putting up a convincing argument in favour of the Hereford.

"They did research in Montana (Western USA) - it is still going on - and it is very interesting because they found that the Hereford eats 35pc less food than the Continentals," he said.

"The Herefords are out on big ranges with Charolais and Limousin. The Herefords produced 97 live calves of which 93 matured to beef. The Charolais produced 86 live calves of which 80 made it to maturity as beef animals. The Hereford was bred for the conditions on these islands," he adds.

"It is impossible to keep the weight off the cows and they make great returns when they are culled. I have got €1,800-€2,000 for cull cows," says Val.

He is also influenced by the premium on Herefords. "It is up to 40c/kg with the right planning and that is a tremendous help to get a good return because Hereford beef is now in big demand worldwide.

"I have a lot of customers now looking for heifers. I can't believe that the demand is so strong. In Donegal there is a big swing towards the Hereford. I have sold four bulls to one breeder in Donegal this year and that is a county that was very strong in Continental for years," he insists.

So what for the future plans in his own herd?

"I am going to try and maintain the herd at around 60 cows and cull any bull that I don't think will breed well and with heifers will put them on to beef as well," he explains.

With a lot of experience of life he quoted from Mahatma Gandhi saying: "The world has enough for everyone's need, but will never have enough for everyone's greed," as he summed up his observations accumulated over a long, very varied, and most interesting life.

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