AS a buyer of nearly 300 head of prime cattle every week, Mike Atkinson will be using the same selection criteria when he judges the beef entries at the Lichfield Winter Fair.
"Ill be looking beyond the show preparation. Ill want good butchers cattle of the type Id be buying every week although I certainly wont be looking for cattle that are too lean.
"But just because a large percentage of beef is eaten in a processed form these days doesnt mean that conformation and overall fleshing of prime cattle should be less of a priority among finishers.
"Prime cuts remain the flagship of British beef and thats why quality must never be compromised."
Mr Atkinson spends four days a week buying primestock for a meat wholesale company based on Teesside. The majority of the beef cattle are bought live through several northern auction marts. Hes a staunch supporter of liveweight selling.
"As a farmer as well as a cattle buyer, I know that livestock markets are an essential element of the way primestock is traded in the UK. They deserve continued support. If their position is weakened it will be to the long term detriment of all livestock producers, to the meat trade and ultimately the consumer.
"If the meat sector ends up in the hands of just a few major players – as we have seen elsewhere – the entire livestock industry will be crucified."
At his North Yorks home at Parkfield, Kirkby Malzeard, near Ripon, he runs the Mowbraypark herd of pedigree Charolais cattle with his wife Margaret and their family. Its a hobby that was started just 13 years ago when Mrs Atkinson decided to keep a few pedigree cattle.
The couple opted for the Charolais and with some carefully selected foundation females from leading breeder Billy Turners Brampton herd a few miles away, they embarked upon what has turned out to be a highly successful venture. There are now 45 pedigree cows at Parkfield.
Within a few years the couple had sold a bull at Perth for 4600gns. Show wins followed, including several notable victories in top company by the stylish heifer Mowbraypark Gigi.
She was breed champion at the Great Yorkshire Show and soon after the Atkinsons received an offer of £10,000 for the heifer. They refused it, but decided to offer her at the breed societys Christmas Cracker sale at Carlisle in 1993 where she made 16,000gns to Ken Piper of Mortimers Farms. Gigi went on to become one of the breeds stars which included being one of the winning Burke Trophy pair at the Royal Show in 1998.
Undaunted by the fall in commercial prime cattle values, the Atkinsons were convinced there would be a sustained market for quality Charolais bulls both as stock sires and for crossing. They continued to flush the herds best cows and maintained their breeding programme.
In February they won the reserve junior title at Perth with a bull that later sold for 12,000gns but only a matter of weeks ago they savoured their sweetest success to date.
Their young bull Mowbraypark Orlando, widely admired by breeders on his few outings on the summer show circuit, took the supreme breed championship at Perths October sale. And intense interest in the bull was converted into hard cash when he was knocked down for the top price of 25,000gns.
But even away from the big-spenders of the pedigree world, Mr Atkinson feels the first hint of confidence is returning to commercial beef producers.
"Beef still has a long way to go in terms of leaving the same profit it was achieving before the crisis. We arent going to see prices at 120p/kg in the foreseeable future but theres an underlying feeling that yarded cattle this winter could leave a margin if the beef market continues to stabilise.
"Theres no doubt that consumers are backing British beef. The retail butchers I deal with say beef sales are well up as housewives express their growing confidence in British beef and now seem prepared to pay for quality and not buy simply on price. Thats got to be an encouraging sign."
But he says its time for a vigorous campaign to educate young people about British meat. "We have a generation growing up which has surprisingly little knowledge of meat, how to buy it and how to cook it.
"Theres an urgent need for an organisation like the NFU or MLC, to tackle this problem. Its essential that young people feel confident about buying and eating meat. Far too many feel embarrassed about going into a butchers shop because they simply dont know what to ask for let alone how to cook it. *