Investors bet on breeding success
What do you do if you want to try your luck on a more unusual investment? Fine wine, fine art - or how about fine breeds?
Lying on a bed of freshly plumped golden hay, with a trough containing the best animal feed money can buy, Vexour Garth must be thinking he's hit the big time.
At just two years old Garth perhaps has good reason to feel rather pleased with himself.
He holds the title of the most expensive Charolais bull on the planet.
A private American firm paid £105,000 for the 1,000-kilo bull at auction last autumn.
"Economics is at the back of it, there's no denying it," enthuses Ray Firminger, the farmer who reared Garth at a farm in Kent, in south-east England.
"They haven't bought him just for his looks. They bought him for his resale price, if you like to think of him as a commodity. His resale value is very high."
At auction houses around the globe investors are showing an increased appetite for buying pedigree cattle and sheep at premium prices - and world records have been tumbling.
Last year, a Texel ram went for £231,000, while at the Blackface Ram sale at Dalmally Auction Mart a lamb sold for £9,000, equalling the breed record.
Million pound earner
So why all the fuss? Investors are pinning their hopes on the animals being top sires, producing large cows and sheep with high quality lean meat, or able to produce large yields of milk.
At an auction house in Lancaster, trade is brisk. A herd of Belgium Blues is being showcased in the ring under the watchful eye of Philip Halhead, chairman of the British Cattle Breeders Club.
"I imagine the American investors who bought Vexour Garth are looking to sell his straws of semen for between £50 and £100 per straw," says Mr Halhead, reflecting on Garth's record-breaking sale.
"To put that in context, every 10 days to a fortnight in the bull-stud Garth should produce 500-1000 straws of saleable product. So do the maths.
"It's not always that every bull produces high quality semen. That's still the gamble they've got to play with. But if it pays off, they will see a massive return on their investment."
Garth's previous owners, Sarah and Jan Boomaars, followed in the Boomaars' family farming tradition when they decided to buy, rear and sell the record-breaking bull with the help of farmer Ray Firminger.
"The Charolais breed was our first choice when we bought our farm in 2003 because there was good demand for Charolais bulls and we could see a long-term future in the stock," says Sarah Boomaars.
With a career in finance, Jan could see the potential for rearing pedigree cattle for sale in the UK, or exporting bull semen all over the world.
"We got lucky with Garth, but you never know how the demand for a certain breed will go down with buyers. It can depend on all sorts of things, particularly how flush people in the industry are feeling at the time," says Mrs Boomaars.
"While there are many rewarding high points, there are certainly times when it feels more stressful than working in the City," she says.
Rising demand for red meat from emerging economies such as Brazil and China is one of the factors driving the prices for pedigree cattle, not just in the UK but also in the United States.
"The economy has driven the price of commodities up in the last five years, including the price of elite cattle," says Joe Epperly from the North American Limousin Foundation, which monitors sales of the highly-muscled Limousin breed.
"Along with that, the US has seen a resurgence in beef exports. This has yielded some of the highest prices for cattle in history, especially cattle with the top genetic potential."
With rising global wheat and feed prices, farmers are also increasingly faced with the dilemma of how to produce more food from fewer resources. For many, looking at their breeding stock could provide the answer.
"Using the highest performance rams and bulls is a sure-fire way to speed up on-farm improvement," says Philip Halhead.
It costs as much to feed a lower quality animal as a higher quality one, and Mr Halhead says farmers are trying to get value for money: "Using less wheat to produce a kilo of meat is something the pig and poultry industry fine-tuned years ago. Now it's the turn of the livestock industry,"
No dead certs
So how can people who do not have a farm or live anywhere near the countryside beef up their own investment portfolio?
Doug Parke of DP Sales Management in Kentucky has been brokering deals for the past 30 years with people who want to invest or buy a stake in the pedigree Simmental breed of cattle.
"The outside investors have often been from the construction industry or from banking. They've invested money because I think they've been intrigued about the cattle business and the opportunity to get involved in genetics," recalls Mr Parke.
Of course, investing in pedigree cattle does not come without its risks. There is always a chance that your investment could be stolen or even die unexpectedly. Farming is notorious for its unpleasant surprises.
It is also important to make sure that you do not hand over your hard-earned cash without doing some thorough research.
"Reputation is the number one thing. Research the pedigree livestock you want to get involved in. Talk to some of the main successful breeders within that breed and get as much advice from cattle associations as possible," cautions Mr Parke.
Even with those precautions, as with any alternative investment, you can lose all your money with no chance of compensation.
At his home in the south of England, Vexour Garth is taking it easy. "He's waited on hand and foot now," says farmer Ray Firminger.
"His bedding is kept clean, he's on the best food and monitored all the time. If he coughs or sneezes the vet comes in and checks him out to make sure he's ok.
"If you're a top-end bull like that you're treated like a king."