(Photo : Annet Becker)
“Cattle as a natural antidote for worms in our horse population”
Summerhill Stud CEOI was brought up with cattle. That’s some kind of a confession for a racehorse breeder, but while my grandfather Pat, was a horseman first and cattleman second, cattle were definitely my father’s first love. Though there was never any doubt in the minds of those around me where I was going to end up, the fact is, my Dad’s preferences meant I was going to attend every cattle auction in creation, wherever it took place, and those who know will tell you that if you’re born with the “gift”, your eye for horses is generally replicated in most forms of stock. At places like Xura, Ntafufu, Nkuzimbini (“two bulls”), Bell Store and Gun Drift, I honed my skills as early as the age of four, and I prided myself in being within a couple of quid of the value of any animal in the ring.
We were scarcely 10 and 12 years old respectively, when brother Pat and I applied the proceeds of Christmas and birthdays to investments in cattle, and our first buy was a scrawny old tailless Nnguni cow with an energetic calf at foot, the pair costing a princely £1 10s (or R3 in today’s terms). In those days, the cattle were driven from the sales yards in the Lusiksiki, Flagstaff and Bizana districts all the way along the main road to Kokstad, and then on to the nether regions of East Griqualand to the family farm, The Springs, not far from modern-day Cedarville.
The journey was a 150 miles or more, and you had to be fit on your feet to last. The elements could be unkind too, so most journeys were preceded by a lot of prayer. Overnight stations were far spread, and the accommodation was rough, where it existed at all, at best a barren hut and no more. You needed to know the locals to avoid starvation. The cattle were a hardy bunch of Ngunis, and they probably took the journey better than the humans. The £1 10s cow and her calf led the herd from start to finish, the lesson was “never underestimate an old cow”.
Later in life, my observations at the game reserve that wildebeest and zebra are inseparable, opened an enquiry in my mind. What symbiosis brought equids and bovines into this unlikely union? Was it a protective measure, or was it prompted by something deeper. It’s probable that they are a mutual protection society, but there is another truth resting in their capacity for controlling one another’s parasites. The rumen of a beast is hostile to that of a horses’ parasites and vice versa, and so in the context that each species disperses parasites in a grazing environment, the presence of the other picks them up, ingests and destroys them.
The early discovery of this compatibility led Summerhill to invest in cattle as a natural antidote for worms in our horse population, and when the decision was made, we elected to do it as best we could.
As we’ve done with our horses, there was little point in going half-cock with the quality of our cattle. The best herd of Black Anguses in our region had been developed by the late Humphrey James, an avid racing man whose Good Health just about put paid to the aspirations of a second consecutive “July” for Milesia Pride in 1950. If you were going to run an Angus herd, you’d want to be doing it the way Humphrey did it. By the time we came to invest in his cattle, the herd had passed into the hands of Mervyn Thompson at the site of Adam Kethro’s modern-day Greenfields Farm, home at the time of the diminutive racing grand dame, Grand National.
But Mervyn was a hard bargainer, and he wouldn’t part with a single heifer for less than double the going rate. Our determination to do the “cattle” thing at the highest level meant that at any price, we were going to pay, and so we did. At the prompting of John Slade (latterly the legend of Maine Chance Farm) a foundation stock of 60 of the best of Humphrey James’ herd found their way to Summerhill, and since then they’ve won almost as many prizes as our horses have. Certainly, when silverware was in lean supply among the horses, the cattle brought some support. The Robert Armstrong Trophy for the best grassfed animal on show, was awarded to Summerhill so many times, it’s now a permanent feature in our trophy cabinet.
Last week, we were host to one of Argentina’s finest cattlemen, Sarafin Silero, adviser to South Africa’s newest Champion Angus breeders, Colin and Judy Emanuel, our neighbours down the valley. The youthful Sarafin hails from a deep association with the finest Angus cattle in South America. To put this into perspective, Argentina is home to some 50 million cattle, 35 million of which are Angus. It’s not only “Woollies”, it seems, that knows Angus beats all beef. To enjoy his status at the top of the Argentinean pile, you must know he brings his “A” game to the table, day in and day out. And a bit more. A day in his company, talking Angus, is a bit like a day with Sir Patrick Hogan and horses.
That he liked what he saw in our herd, was enormously reassuring. And if old Humphrey was still around, I’m sure he’d have been tickled.