EXPERIENCED WINNER HOPES FOR BIG ONE
Winning the supreme
championship at Smithfield
is any cattle breeders
dream. Yorks producer Diane
Whiteley certainly has it in
her sights, as she explained
to Jeremy Hunt
THE walls of the kitchen at Pond Farm are bedecked with rosettes and winners sashes. Diane Whiteley is justly proud of her successes but like any dedicated exhibitor of commercial primestock she admits that no win could ever compare with "the big one".
She refers, of course, to the supreme championship at Smithfield Show. "Its the ultimate. Every championship is a great win but I cant imagine how Id feel if I won Smithfield. Well I can – ecstatic," says Diane who farms at Scawton, near Thirsk.
And looking over her line-up of Earls Court entries brought out for inspection its clear that this astute Yorks cattle breeder will be heading for London with an impressive string.
As well as some top quality young cattle taking a tilt at the suckled calf classes – which have proved popular with exhibitors after being introduced at the last Smithfield Show – theres a bevy of beefy sorts spread across other sections of the show headed not least by Butty – the star of the team. But more of her later.
Pond Farms 155 acres carries 350 pure Texel ewes put to the Charollais but its the herd of around 40 suckler cows that is Dianes real passion. As heifers most were shown as commercial cattle which has enabled her to establish a herd of high calibre beef-bred females.
"Its my dream not just to win Smithfield but to do it with something bred on the farm," says Diane. And looking over the home-bred entries for this years show shes certainly on track.
The herds cows are predominantly Limousin and Belgian Blue crosses with the farms mainstream income coming from the sale of suckled calves. A son of the Limousin bull Shatton Pedro – a renowned producer of primestock winners – is currently proving a great stock-getter.
"Hes not the most beautiful bull in the world but hes producing some tremendous calves. And at the end of the day its how they breed and not how they look."
Breeding primestock cattle for the showring is not a hit and miss affair for this Yorks team which includes Dianes partner Jim Courts assisted by Craig Bentley.
"We put a lot of thought into selecting the bulls to use and AI several of the cows," says Diane. Although two of this years entries are home-bred, the rest are the result of the regular year-round search for potential primestock show cattle.
The Pond Farm team undertakes a hectic showing season running from May to September. And they describe this summers tally of wins as "the best ever" – largely due to the successes of the cross-bred Belgian Blue heifer Butty.
Bred by GW Lee and Son, Frosterley, Co Durham and by Ridge Dean Neapolitan, this threequarter-bred heifer was spotted at Tow Law market as a six-month-old heifer last October. Shes the best yet for this enthusiastic exhibitor who has since been back to Messrs Lee and bought a full brother who is also bound for Earls Court.
So how difficult is it to keep a beast on form all summer and then move back into gear for the winter show season?
Diane describes it as "a challenge", particularly with a heifer: "Butty was ticked-over for a while following her final summer show outing in September where she stood reserve champion.
"Belgian Blue cattle will stand more feeding than other breeds but in the run-up to the winter shows its a case of maintaining a careful eye on the rationing, regular washing and keeping the coat clean. She should weigh towards the top end of 600kg by Smithfield time."
Diane isnt giving any secrets away about what she feeds her show cattle but its "a joint effort" with local compounders Jamesons of Masham, North Yorks.
"Its important to get the protein level just right and not too high. Its a palatable mix and thats very important," says Diane who says she never weighs out the feed.
"Its all done by eye. When you work so closely with these cattle you adjust the feed according to how they look. Its a very inexact system but I suppose youd say its about knowing your own cattle."
The "search for a star" sees Diane scouring the pens at top suckled calf sales at venues such as Hexham and Stirling. And it was at Stirling that she found one of her Smithfield entries – a big-ended Charolais-cross heifer heading for the lightweight class at Earls Court.
But like many others on the look out for potential show cattle, Diane says they are getting harder to find: "The impact of the Holstein on the suckler cow has never been more apparent than it is now. But suckled calf producers say they need some dairy influence to maintain milk yield."
The predominance of beef-crosses in the commercial cows at Pond Farm is not having an adverse effect on milk yield but to ensure theres plenty on offer for the calves Diane has devised a simple solution.
"We turn a few black and white cows out with the herd. They would otherwise be dairy culls but they do a great job for us. They have plenty of milk on them and if a beef-bred calf does feel its going a bit short it doesnt take it long to find a full udder on one of the black and whites. They are worth their weight in gold."
But it takes more than a good start in life to produce a show winner. Diane says the best shaped beast wont necessarily win unless it has presence and style.
"They either have it or they dont. The best cattle to show are those where you can actually feel it down the lead rope as they step into the ring. They are lifted by the crowd as they move into what I call show mode. It certainly makes it easier for the handler."
Seasoned show cattle cope with the bright lights and commotion of Earls Court relatively well, says Diane, but she says nothing can prepare them for the sand.
"Its the sand in the ring more than anything else that can unnerve a beast at Smithfield. Grass is one thing, sawdust is another but theres something about the soft sand at Smithfield that can make them go a bit silly."
She has no doubt that the glitz and glamour of Smithfield Show sets it apart from all other primestock fixtures but like any premier event it can be full of surprises.
"Anything can happen. Form horses can falter and a complete outsider can take everyone by surprise – thats what makes the atmosphere electric around the big ring."
Diane started showing primestock in 1992 after learning the ropes at local shows with a bucket-reared Belgian Blue heifer given to her by a friend.
"Shes still here and rather ancient but shes just had a set of twins. I dont think they are potential Smithfield winners but Id like to think that one day well be standing in that glass box at Earls Court with a home-bred champion. Now that would be a dream come true." *
From left: Diane Whiteley (with Frankie), Butty, Craig Bentley and Jim Courts. "Its my dream to win Smithfield with something bred on the farm," she says.
Diane Whiteleys Smithfield team.
Jim Court holds Belgian Blue-cross heifer Butty.