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Fifty years of NI Simmental Club

By Julie Hazelton

THIS year marks a significant milestone in the history of the Simmental breed, with the Northern Ireland Club celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The club was founded on March 8, 1971, at a meeting held at the Livestock Marketing Commission’s office in Belfast. It was attended by a number of forward-thinking pioneers who were involved in the Simmental breed’s importation into GB and Northern Ireland.

Robert Mulligan, from Banbridge, was elected chairman, while David Perry from Ahoghill became the club’s first-ever vice-chairman. LMC field officer Robert McBride was elected as club secretary and treasurer.

Messrs Mulligan and McBride were appointed to represent the club on the British Simmental Cattle Society’s Council of Management. The society was founded a year earlier (1970) when 68 herds registered. Eight of these were based in Northern Ireland: New Buildings (E Eastwood); Averndale (WM Short); Mullaghmore (P Cassidy); Drumkeen (WHF Howe); Dunamore (JC Quinn); Marlmont (Mrs AM McMillen); Barbican (JD Heenan); and Brookfield (AG McCullough). The Brookfield herd is still in existence today.

Among the members attending the NI Simmental Club’s first meeting was Billy Robson, from Doagh, who established the noted Kilbride Farm herd which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Originating from the Simm Valley in Switzerland, the dual-purpose breed attracted interest from a group of forward-thinking individuals who recognised that the Simmental had traits that would be beneficial to the local beef industry.

Adverts in the local Press in August and September 1970 stated the Ministry of Agriculture was prepared to consider applications for the import of pedigree Simmental cattle from West Germany. Applications were invited from farmers who were prepared to import a minimum of four animals, and willing to observe the necessary importation and quarantine regulations. At that time the estimated cost per heifer was £600 to £800.

A small group of farmers travelled to Switzerland and West Germany on a fact-finding mission, and in October 1970 the Department of Agriculture granted permission for the importation.

Shortly afterwards a number of prospective importees attended a meeting and three farmers, Robbie Mulligan, Bertie Hamilton and David Perry, were nominated to accompany the Province’s Chief Livestock Officer Billy Spiers and the Veterinary Officer Jim Gordon on a buying mission. Their task was to select 115 young stock that would form a strong foundation for the Simmental breed in Northern Ireland.

The first importation arrived at Tolan’s Point and were quarantined for two months. The five males were sent to the AI centre at Ballycraigy, while the females were allocated to the 12 importees using a draw.

A second importation was set up in 1971, and a further 160 females and seven bulls arrived in the Province. The heifers were divided between 32 farms, and five of the bulls went to Ballycraigy.

Simmentals made their debut at Balmoral Show in 1972, when the imported bull Doktor was put on display in the Alexander Hall. After a favourable response from the farming community another demonstration took place the following year.

In 1974 Simmental classes were introduced at Balmoral, with Robert McBride’s bull Irish Commander winning the male championship. The top female was Ann from the Perry family’s Killane herd.

Following the success of Simmentals on the local show circuit, the NI Club introduced the Male and Female of the Year competition in 1977. It was originally sponsored by TSB, and in later years Danske Bank (formerly Northern Bank).

Robert McBride (Irish) was the first local breeder to be elected president of the British Simmental Cattle Society in 1979/80. He was succeeded in 1985/86 by Billy Robson (Kilbride Farm), who was re-elected in 1999/2000 and is the only member in the society’s history to have held the presidency twice. John Gabbie (Ballymaglave) was president in 1993/94; Michael Robson (Kilbride Farm) in 2011/12; and Robin Boyd (Slievenagh) in 2017/18.

The club’s first-ever sale was held at the Balmoral Showgrounds in Belfast in 1980, and shortly afterwards annual sales moved to Automart in Portadown. Spring and autumn sales have been held at Moira, and more recently Dungannon and Ballymena.

In 1982 Mrs Thelma Gorman, Woodford herd, Armagh, was the first lady to be elected to the club’s committee, and became the first lady chairman in April 1997.

The UK hosted the 4th World Congress in 1992, with Northern Ireland welcoming pre-Congress dele-

gates on June 26-27. The visitors viewed cattle from the Oakland (SH Watterson), Kilbride Farm and Irish herds. The event culminated with a gala dinner at the Dunadry Hotel.

In 1985 the Simmentals won the interbreed group championship at

Balmoral. The winning trio included the Robson family’s young bull Kilbride Farm Perry, and two females from the Killane herd’s well-known Fauna family. In 1998 the first Simmental interbreed champion at Balmoral was the Robson family’s stock bull Moncur Sensation.

The 25th anniversary of the breed’s importation into the UK was celebrated at an NI Simmental Club dinner in the Glenavon Hotel, Cookstown, on February 17, 1995.

That September the club also marked the 25th anniversary with a Calf Show held at Automart, Portadown. More than 100 entries were judged by Scotsman John Young (Skerrington) and young handler judge Mrs Alice Perry (Killane). Champion on the day was the seven-month-old bull Derrycallaghan Fred exhibited by Harold Stubbs.

Northern Ireland played host to

delegates from the 17th World Simmental Congress in June 2008. The two-day visit featured an action-packed itinerary, including a tour around the north Antrim coast, stopping off at attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway. Herd visits included Kilbride Farm and the Wilson family’s Ballinalare Farm herd at Rathfriland. The trip concluded with a show held at Omagh Showgrounds, followed by a barbecue at the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh.

The pre-Congress show attracted 80 entries across 12 classes and was judged by David Lowry (Keeldrum).

The 40th anniversary celebrations in August 2010 included an Elite Female Show and Sale, held at Omagh. The event attracted breeders from throughout the UK and Ireland. Scottish judge Hector Macaskill (Woodhall) awarded the supreme championship to Cleenagh Avon, sold for a 12,000gns record price by Adrian Richardson, Maguiresbridge. The reserve champion was Kilbride Farm Dora 34a, sold for 6000gns by the Robson family. Twenty heifers averaged £3,827.

In 2015 the NI Simmental Club hosted a 45th Anniversary Show and Sale of Elite Females at Moira. Prices peaked at 6600gns paid to Leslie and Christopher Weatherup for the supreme champion Lisglass Emerald. Claiming the reserve championship was the Robson family’s Kilbride Farm Eunice 169E sold for 5600gns. fourteen heifers averaged £3,282.

The club has raised in excess of £100,000 at its annual charity barbecue over the years. In August 2018 a staggering £34,000 was raised for Air Ambulance NI in memory of club stalwart Thelma Gorman. The money was the proceeds of a charity raffle, auction and barbecue. Top prize in the raffle was the maiden heifer Drumbulcan Honeybee, generously donated by Kenneth and Avril Stubbs and family from Irvinestown.

Northern Ireland Club members have regularly won championship awards and attracted leading prices at national sales in Perth and Stirling. In February 2007, at Perth, Harry and John Moore, Beragh, sold the supreme champion Omorga Samson for a then breed record of 22,000gns. Omorga Samson shares the 22,000gns record for an NI-bred bull sold at auction with Kilbride Farm Foreman, reserve Stirling champion February 2016.

The highest price for a Simmental bull sold at auction in Northern Ireland was 6600gns, realised by Omorga Baldwin at Dungannon in May 2011.

The record for an NI-bred female sold at auction is held by David Hazelton’s Ranfurly Beauty 5th, sold in September 2012 for 16,500gns at the herd’s inaugural production sale.

In April this year Leslie and Christopher Weatherup set a new 25,000gns record for an NI-bred bull with the private sale of Lisglass Kirk.

There is a growing demand for Simmental cattle world-wide, and in 2020 the Omorga herd and Richard Rodgers (Hiltonstown) exported bulls

and heifers to Germany and Switzerland. The Kilbride Farm herd was involved in another export first, with the sale of embryos to Australia. Kilbride Farm’s recent anniversary sale saw heifers sell for export to Australia, Germany, Scotland and Ireland.

The Boyd family’s Slievenagh prefix currently has a German and Swiss export deal pending.

Young Breeders’ Club members have also flown the flag for NI, winning numerous stockjudging prizes at national competitions.

The appearance and performance of Simmental cattle has changed over the past 50 years. The breed is widely recognised for its superior terminal traits, and is a popular choice with commercial suckler and dairy herds. A versatile and efficient breed, the Simmental is highly regarded for its longevity, ease of calving, milkiness and mothering ability, as well as good growth rates, weight for age, and the ability to produce beef economically. In 50 years the Simmental has sustained a position as a leading beef breed, and its performance and popularity will continue to influence its success in the future.

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