Renowned Northumberland farmers Willie Woodman and the Hunter family will be hosting this year’s farm tours, which form a key part of NBA Beef Expo returning on May 21, and 22 for the first time since 2010.
The tours take place on the first day of the Expo and the second day of the event, which returns to the North East for the first time in four years, will showcase the best of the British beef industry and its new developments at Hexham Mart.
The first farm farmed by Mr Woodman, who farms as JE Woodman & Son with his wife Christine, mother Kathleen and son Martin, will provide a glimpse into a traditional Northumberland beef enterprise. He farms 1,650 acres at two bases, which are 30 miles apart – 1,200 acres at Great Chesters in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, and 575 acres at Bradford House near Belsay.
The Woodmans have 270 cattle, mainly Limousin crosses with a few Belgian crosses, with 50 to 60 bulling heifers, plus 1,100 sheep made up of 700 Blackfaces and 400 Mule and Texel crosses. The family has run Great Chesters as a livestock farm since Willie’s father Ted took the tenancy in 1969. They bought Great Chesters in 1993 and purchased Bradford Farm in 2002 as base to grow wheat, barley, oilseed rape and beans.
Mr Woodman, who is a director of Hexham and Northern Marts, said: “We are traditional Northumberland farmers. We sell our cattle when they are older and have more growth and flesh on them. We keep them on grass and then finish them.”
The majority are sold at Hexham Mart at 18-22 months and Mr Woodman use Charolais and Limousin bulls bought at the Stirling Sales. Replacement cattle are bought in.
“As a traditionalist, I purchase animals on sight and it’s a bonus if they come with good breeding figures,” said Mr Woodman.
“We keep the adult cattle at Great Chesters and move them to Bradford initially into the sheds for finishing. The cattle we sell are strong stores as opposed to fat cattle.”
The Woodmans calve in the autumn and spring and sell their stores in the spring. The farm’s store bullocks are sold to a top price of £1,800.
Mr Woodman said: “We focus on commercial animals, we don’t have any show cattle. I enjoy the pressure of producing and selling good store cattle.
“Based where we are in Northumberland, the main challenge we face is the weather, as well as red tape and regulations that seem to be increasing all the time.
“Plus, because our two farms are 30 miles apart, we have machinery costs to deal with at both farms, which is more expensive than one independent unit.”
In addition to the cattle enterprise, visitors will also be able to view the Woodmans’ sheep and arable businesses. The wheat and oilseed rape grown at Bradford are sold and the barley and beans are retained for cattle feed. In addition to the family, the two farms provide employment for a shepherd, a stockman plus general farm workers.
Mr Woodman, an NBA member of many years’ standing, said: “Organisations like the NBA are important to give grassroots farmers like myself a voice.
“I hope when visitors come to view my farms at next year’s Beef Expo, they will get a good insight into the costs and margins, how we have tried to improve efficiency and that the visit will stimulate debate about the future of beef farming.
“Beef Expo being held here in Northumberland gives the NBA an opportunity to showcase some of the finest store cattle in the country.”
The second farm, farmed by Andrew Hunter and wife Caroline, is The Steel near Hexham and Carrick, just outside Elsdon, with their families. Andrew is the third generation of his family to hold The Steel tenancy from BAE Systems, and works the farm with help from his parents John and Doreen. Caroline is the third generation at Carrick where her mother Margaret is involved.
The Steel, an 800-acre farm with an additional 55 acres at West Woodburn, has 110 Limousin cross suckler cows and 720 Hexham black face ewes. The family run the enterprise with part time help from Kevin Ridley.
Carrick is a 1,200-acre traditional Northumberland hill farm which is mainly tenanted from the Ministry of Defence with 200 acres owned by the family. Shepherd George Birnie lives on site to tend to the 720 Blackface ewes and 30 spring calving cows.
Andrew said: “Beef Expo gives people a chance to come and see some quality suckler cattle. It gives them an opportunity to look at the upland farms that really are trying to breed good commercial store cattle.
“The stock that those visiting The Steel are going see are some 12 to 14 month-old cattle ready to sell through Hexham Marts, and autumn and spring calving cows running with calves at foot.”
The two farm businesses work together, with the own-breeding policy introduced at Carrick over the last five to six years providing replacement animals for The Steel. The Hunters use Limousin bulls, from John Logan, at Hume Byers near Kelso and Paul Carins at Plumtree, near Nottingham.
The family uses a combination of sight and EBVS when purchasing stock. In the past people have purchased on prices, however increasingly we need to look at the EBVS.
In the past people have purchased on prices, however increasingly we need to look at the EBVs,” he said.
“As we are keeping the replacements heifer calves, we need to look at the feet and maternal values. They have to be able to grow because kilos count, and they need to have some personality and quality. It’s important to look at the bigger picture.”
Upland farms face numerous challenges their lowland counterparts do not. The Steel land rises to 1,000ft above sea level on the traditional high ground and is fairly exposed.
“The weather is a challenge - some years cows can be in from the end of October to May and most years, they are inside longer than they are out,” said Andrew.
Providing sufficient fodder for the long housing period is also a challenge. There is no arable at The Steel and the farm is only able to grow one crop of grass silage on 115 acres. Straw and compound feed is bought locally, but this all adds to the cost of the enterprise.
Like lowland farms, The Steel and Carrick and The Steel are in competition with other farms for quality labour.
“We are very fortunate with the staff we have here, they are both very competent,” said Andrew.
“We are a hands on team, and Caroline and I were brought up with forward thinking parents who have given us a chance at a young age.”
Cattle and breeding sheep are sold through Hexham Mart and fat lambs are sold on a deadweight basis. The 64 cattle he has sold at the mart between October and December this year averaged £1,165 at 11 - 13 months. In addition, the quality is apparent by their record in the Suckler Championship for a pen of four Limousin Cattle at Hexham, which the Hunters have won for the last two years.
The second day of Beef Expo, Thursday May 22, will shift the focus to Hexham Mart, where the National Spring Spectacular Show of cattle will be held alongside a substantial trade stand area where farmers can find out about the latest production developments.
Improved efficiency to achieve greater profits will be the key theme of the 2014 event, which is expected to attract more than 6,000 beef farmers to Northumberland.
Robert Addison, Chair of NBA Beef Expo 2014, said: “We’re aiming to provide a forum so farmers can access the latest information and advice on production techniques to help achieve better profitability.
“The farm visits, which are always very popular, will provide a great insight for farmers from all over the UK to see how successful Northumbrian beef farmers like Willie Woodman run their enterprises. Hopefully, visitors will see some ideas they can take home and put into operation on their own farms.”