Spotlight on rare cattle breed
DEBBIE Holmes was first introduced to British White cattle through her parents.
Moving to a riverside property out of Swanpool almost 20 years ago, Mrs Holmes’ parents were initially attracted to British Whites because of their small population.
Long interested in rare breeds, they invested in a BW bull, and began their breeding program by putting it over a herd of Herefords.
Ten years later, Mrs Holmes and her husband Ian took over the running of Ravenswood British White stud.
Now, the couple have almost a decade of experience themselves with the breed – and are used to dealing with both the good, and bad, of the genetically limited pool.
Importing semen, travelling interstate for breeding stock and trying different outcrop combinations are just some of the challenges presented to BW breeders.
“They are a lovely cow,” Mrs Holmes said.
“But they have always been classed as a rare breed in Australia because of the population numbers.
“Even at market, they can be the same size as an Angus but, because they aren’t black or as popular, they don’t fetch that same premium.”
British White cattle are one of the oldest breeds in Britain, dating back to the late 1600s, though they did not land in Australia until the 1950s.
Originally a working man’s animal, BWs are traditionally a meat breed but are also known for their generous milk quantities and docile attitude – more like a dairy breed in nature than that of a beef animal.
Similar in size to an Angus, British White cattle have black skin, white fur and are black pointed – nose, tongues, eyes, hooves and other body points all a lustrous dark sheen against their milky coats.
Although she admits to being biased, Mrs Holmes is nonetheless surprised that the breed does not enjoy a more wide spread following given their ideal Australian attributes.
“They are ideal for Australian conditions – the black points mean they don’t tend to get as sunburnt as other breeds do,” she said.
“They have a fantastic nature, are good mothers and are not fussy grazers – they will eat anything.
“There are a lot of hobby farmers who want them because they look good as you drive down a driveway,” she said. “They are very pretty.” The Ravenswood British White herd is run seamlessly, with grazing based on a loose rotational system.
Cows are bred to be medium in size, with a long back – flat across the shoulders – no white eye sclera and black points.
They are calved down at around two years - always in the autumn - and then turned off at around 12 months.
Typically slightly slower to mature, Mrs Holmes has had success outcropping her first time calvers with a Wagyu bull – the hybrid vigour resulting in calves that are slightly quicker to finish.
Mrs Holmes has worked tirelessly for the breed’s continued improvement, is a vibrant member of the British White Cattle Society and has been on international trips to look at breed examples from the United Kingdom.
One of the traits she has spent countless hours – and dollars - on is improving an issue that occasionally crops up in BW herds.
“The British Whites have an unusual trait where some animals don’t have a full set of chromosomes,” Mrs Holmes said.
“This can cause a calf to be born with symptoms similar to Down syndrome.
“It can happen in any breed, but was occurring at a higher incidence rate in British Whites.”
Both Mrs Holmes and Ian are vets – and with her scientific background, she set about doing her part to help eradicate the chromosomal problem.
“We managed to find an enthusiastic geneticist, who tested all our cows,” she said.
“He tested the bloods, grew the relevant cells and would come back to us with a report.
“He must have tested around 1500 British White cows.”
Through her work, and with the support of the Australian British White Society, Mrs Holmes has helped to all but breed out the problem in Australia.
In the future, Mrs Holmes wants to see the breed continue to grow and to gain the same respect as that enjoyed by other cleverly marketed breeds.
“We want to be taken seriously as meat cattle,” she said.
“British Whites do the job as well as any other breed; they just do it with colour.”
ADORABLE AND PRACTICAL: British White’s are classified in Australia as a rare breed of cattle, but former vet Debbie Holmes is doing her best to increase their popularity.