Salers (pronounced Sa’lairs) originate in the Southern half of the Massif Central in the Auvergne region of South Central France. It has a rough and variable climate, and though higher, 2000-6000 ft, is very similar to our Lake District and the Highlands of Scotland and Wales. As topography allowed for little grain production the selection of Salers cattle was forced to focus on those that thrive on forage.
Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux suggest that a similar type of animal has been bred in the area for 17,000 years. They appear to be closely related to the old Celtic and African breeds, and were probably located in the Massif Central when red cattle migrated from Africa through the Iberian Peninsular and on into northern Europe and the British Isles. With such a unique background, the breed is considered to be one of the oldest and most genetically pure of all European breeds.
Until modern times Salers cattle were respected not only as beef animals, but as milk producers for cheese products and also draught animals. In France today, only 9% of the Salers herds are still milked, the remainder being used for beef production. The breed is numerically France’s largest “hardy breed” with 210,000 cows of which 25,800 are registered and performance recorded.
Until the 1960’s the region and its cattle remained very isolated, this perpetuated the historic cheese and weanling system. Since the area was too remote to supply a liquid market the Salers milk was converted to high quality/ high value cheese (St. Nectaire and Cantal for example) particularly when the cattle and the stockmen moved to summer grazing in the mountains. Selection was for cheese quality milk and conformation. In upland conditions where meal feeding is minimal cows average 3,000-4,000 litres at 3.58% butterfat and 3.3% protein while simultaneously weaning a 300 kg suckler calf. Heifer calves are generally kept on, some for replacements but mostly for sale in-calf to lowland farmers at 2½ to 3 years old. While lucrative this historic system is labour intensive, not least since milk let down is poor without a few preliminary sucks and the presence of the calf (attached to the left front leg) during milking. Nevertheless most French breeders consider the preservation of the nucleus important to retain the breed’s milk capacity.
Devons, Durhams (Shorthorns) and West Highland cattle were imported into the Salers area in the mid 19th Century with the intention of improving the breed. At the same time a M. Tyssandier D’Escous challenged the introduction of outside blood and set about improving the Salers by selecting from within the breed. His method was considered most successful, and he became known as the Father of the Breed. A statue honouring his work stands in the middle of the small medieval town of Salers from which the breed takes its name.
From that time until well into the 20th century the breed was improved and developed as a triple purpose animal, Milk-Meat-Draught. In 1925 milk recording became compulsory and weight recording started in 1962. Resulting from all this improvement and recording has emerged the ideal suckler cow with bred-in foraging ability, able to utilise and thrive on native grasses and forage both summer and winter.
Modern genetic analysis shows that the effect of this importation, if any, was very small. Indeed one study shows that there is 400 times more Shorthorn blood in Charolais than Salers.
BREED CHARACTERISTICS AND QUALITIES
The difficult environmental conditions where the Salers breed developed makes it ideal for the poorer areas of the British Isles and today’s beef industry. Salers are generally horned and dark mahogany red, though there are a small number of black animals. Polled animals in the full blood herd were very rare, however, a growing number of full blood polled and/or black Salers are becoming available through the efforts of a number of British breeders.
The skin and pigmented membranes are brown and consequently few eye or udder problems occur. A good hair coat which becomes thick and curly in winter gives hardiness and adaptability to cold and heat. Having roamed the mountains for centuries, and been draught animals they have developed strong legs and good feet with black hooves. Consequently the cattle can travel long distances over rough ground without developing foot problems. They are equally able to tolerate long periods inside on slats etc.
A particular traits that marks the Salers out from other breeds is its large pelvic area. Comprehensive studies by several universities in the USA have shown that the Salers has the largest pelvic area of any of the major beef breeds.
Being one of the oldest and most genetically pure of the European breeds, the Salers produces a positive effect on the predictability in crossbreeding programmes giving a consistent increase in hybrid vigour. When crossed with most breeds Salers characteristics are rather dominant e.g. low calf birth weight.
Salers cows and heifers are able to draw on their body reserves when food is scarce without reducing milk production thus maintaining calf growth rate, building them up again quickly when grazing is plentiful. The same trials show that Salers are only fully mature at 5 to 6 years of age.
Measured on farm
Average weight of mature cows 650-850kg
Average weight of mature bulls 1000-1200kg
Average height of withers of cows 144cm
Average height of wither of bulls 154cm
The Salers female displays exceptional maternal qualities of fertility, milking ability and calving ease as well as hardiness and longevity. High percentage calf crops resulting from the inherent fertility of Salers are realised through early puberty, quick rebreeding and high conception rates coupled with the breeds predictable calving ease and large pelvic structure.
Vigorous calves born with moderate birth weights and slender long foetal conformation have gained Salers a proven reputation for easy calving. Salers calves are relatively light at birth, about 36 kg for heifers and 38 kg for bulls, they are also long and rather flat in shape, it is this feature which makes the Salers bull very popular for crossing with suckler and dairy heifers. Salers sired calves offer the suckler farmer the unique combination of increased weaning weights with less management at calving.
Further maternal advantage is realised through the Salers ability to wean a heavy calf and take care of herself. More kilograms at weaning result from the combination of good lactation and lean growth factors. Suckler cow herd costs are minimised though the breed’s foraging ability, winter hardiness and minimal feet, eye and udder problems as well as longevity. In a survey carried out in France, of over 100,000 Salers cows, 25.1% were 10 years old or over and the calving interval was 374 days.
Salers bulls are known for their ability to cover large numbers of females and in the ranching countries bull numbers have been halved and calving percentages have risen, another valuable saving on herd costs. More live calves per cow put to the bull means more £££’s and it all begins with a trouble free birth.
The Salers influence contributes a large pelvic area to cross bred replacement females and will allow commercial suckler farmers to utilise heavily muscled terminal sires in a cross breeding programme with less concern about calving difficulties.
FEEDING AND CARCASS
The final measurement of a breeds capabilities is the economic production of a lean, nutritious and palatable protein product. That is what beef production is all about, Salers consistently produce the product that the industry and consumer demand. Competitive live weight gains and efficient feed conversion have been documented, whilst the butcher appreciates carcasses that are of industry acceptable weight from approximately 12-16 months and producing top grades. Salers cattle are extremely flexible in the finishing unit enabling feeders to make the best of the markets highs and lows. The Salers is a carcass breed that calves easily and consistently produces carcasses that are high in quality and lean in composition. Salers are producing an industry preferred product that is making the breeder, the feeder, the butcher, and the retailer take notice.
THE BEGINNINGS OF SALERS IN THE U.K.
In the spring of 1984, a herd of Salers was founded in Cumbria – 60 females and 4 bulls with as wide a genetic base as possible. Consequently, heifers by 45 different sires and 4 bulls completely unrelated to each other were imported into the U.K. from France.
All the cattle were first choices. Growth rate, docility, femininity, straight top lines and correct legs were the main criteria for selection. All dams, and grand-dams where possible, were inspected and had to come up to the same standard. In that importation were two females carrying the poll factor. All lived up to expectations, bred and gave no calving problems whatsoever.
From the original importation Salers cattle quickly spread all over the British Isles from the Shetlands to Cornwall and Ireland. The Salers Cattle Society of the U.K. was formed by Bryan Walling, Robert Hudson, Fiona Walling, Thomas Dobson and Bruce Worsley of Crosthwaite, Kendal.
The first AGM was held in November 1986, at that point there were a mere 10 members. Bryan Walling was elected as first Chairman. Since then the breed has continued to expand with approximately 1000 pedigree Salers being registered annually by 175 members.
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