5 December 1997

BIENNIAL SHOW JUSTIFIED

Current Royal Smithfield

Club chairman Donald

Biggar explained to

Allan Wright why the move

to an alternate-year show

was the right move

EXPERIENCE will show that the move to a biennial Royal Smithfield Show has been no bad thing, according to Donald Biggar, the current chairman of the Royal Smithfield Club.

"It will become even more of an event and I have no worries about a drop in livestock entries. In fact, the change could well encourage new exhibitors because there will be those who were reluctant to get caught up in an annual cycle but who will be prepared to show every second year," he says.

"Of course the decision was taken reluctantly. It was forced on us by the machinery exhibitors and we then looked long and hard at various other ways of continuing an annual show of prime stock.

"But there is something very special about Earls Court. It would be very difficult to capture the atmosphere of its main ring anywhere else in the country. It is the only venue with an agricultural track record which provides the controlled environment and lighting which is so necessary for both men and beasts involved in a whole week of showing.

"At any of the other farming venues, one or two days would have been the maximum. We were determined that standards should not drop and that was why we decided to make the switch to a show every two years. It would not do our image any good if we failed to match the standards of the past," says Mr Biggar.

"Showing is expensive and probably only those winning the supreme championships ever made any money directly out of a week at Smithfield. I think time will show that the move has been a good thing and that the event has lost none of its appeal.

Capital attraction

"It will remain very much a trade show. That is what the machinery exhibitors want. Even if we could attract a big attendance of London people, it would lessen the appeal for machinery dealers and potential customers. Nevertheless, most of London knows about Smithfield and I dont think it does our industry any harm if the capital knows that farming has come to town for the week," he said.

Livestock classes will remain an essential element of the show. "There is no doubt that we provide much of the Smithfield atmosphere. The years when livestock classes were cancelled illustrated that point."

Mr Biggar insists that the prime cattle, sheep and pigs at Smithfield are not as far removed from the commercial side of farming as some critics would suggest.

"I would not claim that we lead the way but changes in commercial practice do not take long to show themselves at Earls Court. We may follow the trends but we follow pretty quickly; the dominance of Limousin crosses in the cattle prize list of recent years being a good example."

With the decision taken to go for a biennial show, the Royal Smithfield Club was determined not to disappear from the farming scene for a year. "We decided to provide extra prize money for six regional shows to support our members in those areas. There will also be free Smithfield Club membership or a free entry for next years show for section champions and reserves.

"We also decided to have our own carcass competition in the midlands on Sun, Nov 30. It has been sponsored by Marks & Spencer and is being held at the premises of Dawkins International in Leicestershire. We have entries of 75 cattle, 60 lambs, and 60 pigs and prize money going up to £1000 for the supreme cattle carcass and £300 each for the best lamb and pig. There are six cash prizes in each class and there will be an invited audience of 300 at the awards lunch," says Mr Biggar.

"There will be no auction, prices will be set in advance at a premium over current market rates. A lot of effort has gone into this event and it is something we would hope to repeat in the future."

Donald Biggar has been involved in Smithfield affairs for more than 20 years, following his father and a whole line of prominent Scots. "Smithfield has always been seen as the grand prix of the prime stock show circuit and there is nothing the Scots like more than going to London and winning. That is why there has always been a strong Scottish presence on the council of the Royal Smithfield Club."

That council is to be slimmed from 44 to 28 as part of a cost-saving exercise to fit the club for a biennial show. Mr Biggar began his two-year term as chairman of council after last years event and will be in charge for the clubs bi-centenary next year.

Back at home near Castle Douglas in south-west Scotland, Donald Biggar is coming to the end of a two-year stint as local area president of the Scottish NFU. "Whether we like it or not, our industry is controlled by government and it is essential that we communicate with government. The union is the recognised vehicle for that communication.

"We now have an administration which has less knowledge of agriculture than the previous government and also less sympathy for the industry. The loss of dialogue over the hill farming review was an indication of government thinking and perhaps we should have been more robust in our reaction to that decision.

"The union also needs to be better at communication with its membership. A lot of work is being done but too many people at grass roots are unaware of what is being done on their behalf," says Mr Biggar who recently instigated an open meeting in his home town where the rank and file had the opportunity to quiz union president Sandy Mole and most of the commodity directors.

The Biggar family farms 400ha (1000 acres) of upland in a ring fence which takes in Grange, Chapelton, and Corbieston farms with a further 180ha (450 acres) of hill further up the Urr Valley.

"Commercial beef and sheep production are the cornerstones of our farming and the pedigree herds of Beef Shorthorn, Galloway, and Herefords are used to produce our beef breeding stock as well as pedigree animals," says Mr Biggar.

A current aim is to get the whole commercial beef herd home-bred. "We are nearly there. It will give us complete traceability which is going to be more and more important in the future."

Selection qualities

The suckler cows are the Biggar version of blue-grey with Beef Shorthorn rather than Cumberland Whitebred sires used on Galloway cows. "We have selected for milk and calving ease in our Beef Shorthorns and have achieved those without losing the beefing qualities."

Hereford bulls are used on first calving heifers but Charolais is the main sire in the commercial herd of 360 cows which has two tight calving periods in spring and autumn. All the calves are finished, the heifers at 18 months and steers at 20 or 21 months. The business is SQBLA farm assured and the Biggars are also members of the Select Farms partnership run by Scotbeef with Marks & Spencer as the main customer.

The sheep enterprise comprises a hill flock of 400 Blackface ewes plus 100 hoggs mated to Blueface Leicester tups to provide Mule ewe lambs from the other flock of 480 where Rouge tups are used on ewe lambs and Suffolks on the rest.

Again, Scotbeef is the main outlet for finished lambs with some going to Castle Douglas which is also the sales centre for Mule ewe lambs and the buying place for Blackface ewe lamb replacements for the hill flock.

"We have come through this past financial year with income levels fairly similar to the previous 12 months. But now, like all hill and upland farmers, we are staring into the abyss. There is no sign of a sustained upturn in our prices, some costs are down but we grow our own silage and cereals, and our support for the coming year has been cut by about £73 for each suckler cow," says Mr Biggar.n

Beef Shorthorn, Galloway and Herefords produce the beef breeding stock on Donald Biggars 1400-acre farm near Castle Douglas, Dumfriesshire.

"There is something very special about Earls Court," – Donald Biggar, current chairman of the Royal Smithfield Club.