26 November 1999

BULLINVESTMENTREWARDSSUCKLEDCALFPRODUCERS

Jeremy Hunt talks to the

judges of the best of

British beef and lamb at

next weeks Winter Fair at

Lichfield Auction Centre

JOHN Giffin expects to have a hard task when he judges the suckled calf classes at this years Winter Fair. "The quality of todays top-end suckled calves is very high. Ive no doubt I could be running my hands over a future Smithfield champion," he says.

Mr Giffin, managing director of the 1214ha (3000 acre) Leconfield Farms, Petworth, West Sussex has plenty of experience to draw on. He joined Leconfield Farms, which finishes around 500 suckled calves a year, in 1965 and has held his current post since 1973.

"Bull breeders across all the main bull breeds have made shape and fleshing a priority in their breeding programmes, not least to cope with the shortcomings of the Holstein influence in dairy-bred suckler cows.

"Suckled calf producers are now investing more in their bulls. And its paying off," says Mr Giffin.

Leconfield Farms is run as five units covering a diverse mix of livestock and arable production. There are 647ha (1600 acres) of combinable crops, 60ha (150 acres) of potatoes, 40ha (100 acres) of maize and 40ha (98 acres) of land let for salad cropping. There is also a one-man unit of 145 dairy cows, 800 Mule and Scotch Half-bred ewes and a herd of 25 pedigree Sussex cattle. The business employs six men.

Cattle for finishing are bought in during spring and autumn from local private sources and from northern markets, including Carlisle and Hexham. "We are not buying to price or breed. We are predominantly looking for good quality continental cross cattle, although we do buy some Aberdeen Angus that will give us a margin on our system."

Suckled calves and stores come into the system weighing around 450kg and are taken to 550kg-plus. River meadow grazings carry cattle during the summer after which they are yarded from September to May and fed an ad-lib diet based of maize, molasses and a protein supplement. All are sold deadweight.

Leconfield Farms was one of the early investors in pedigree Belgian Blues and still holds what is believed to be a world record price for a cow sold in a private deal for £27,500. Although no longer involved in the Belgian Blue, Leconfield Farms continues its long standing support of Sussex cattle.

"There have been Sussex cattle on the farm for over 200 years and in the 1980s we achieved a UK record when we sold a bull to South Africa for 15,000gns. The Sussex is a very underrated breed."

Mr Giffin believes the red-coated Sussex deserves more attention for its hardiness and durability and needs wider recognition as a valuable component of commercial cross-bred suckler cows. "A Limousin x Sussex cow is a hardy suckler that will thrive outside on very little and produce an excellent three quarter-bred calf when put back to the Limousin."

Zambian surprise

And it was several years ago during a trip to judge Sussex cattle in Zambia – where they cope well with heat and humidity – that Mr Giffin reckons he saw some of the best commercial primestock he can recall in his long career.

"I saw 6000 head of Sussex x Afrikander on one unit. They were tremendous cattle." Leconfield Farms finishes a few pure-bred Sussex steers each year which achieve around 580kg by 20-months-old.

When faced with his suckled calf entries at this years Smithfield event, Mr Giffin will be looking for cattle that combine a high standard of conformation, have a good depth of fleshing and future potential.

"They will probably be spring-born calves so theyve still a lot of growing to do. They need to be good on the day and yet full of promise."

He feels sure hell not be disappointed. "The beef industry has come through a deep crisis, but a determination to survive by producing high quality finished cattle has seen suckler herd owners pay more for superior crossing bulls. Now we are seeing this improvement coming through with a higher percentage of suckled calves falling into the top-end quality bracket.

"And as finishers we are benefiting by improved growth rate, better shape and thicker fleshing."

Mr Giffin is optimistic about the future for British beef. "Theres still a lot of hurdles to overcome but British beef is getting back on track. Confidence has been restored among UK consumers; now we have to deal with the much bigger challenge of re-establishing our export trade. But I am convinced we will win it back, based on the quality of British beef and our high standards of production and traceability."