15 June 2001

Still lots to do, post-MLC

Don Curry may have retired as chairman of the Meat and

Livestock Commission (MLC) in March, but his connections

with agriculture have by no means been severed. In fact,

theres a busy farm in Northumberland to look after, as he

explained to FWs north-east correspondent Wendy Owen

DON Curry and the MLC go back a long way. He has been involved with the organisation since 1986 and was chairman from 1993 to March 2001. His place was taken by Peter Barr, former chairman of Derbyshire-based Hazlewood Foods.

He views his retirement with mixed feelings. "Im concerned to be leaving the industry when it is going through yet another crisis," he says. "But red meat consumption per capita before foot-and-mouth hit was as high as it was at the beginning of the last decade, despite all the problems we have had. People were actually eating more beef just prior to F&M than they were before the BSE scare and that is a creditable record as far as the MLC is concerned.

Mr Curry has been a tenant on the 178ha (440 acre) Middle Farm near Hexham, Northumberland, for 20 years. Until last autumn he also rented a hill farm nearby but gave it up when the farm manager retired.

The mixed holding grows 90ha (220 acres) of wheat, barley and oilseed rape and supports 500 North of England Mules and Texel cross ewes, as well as 100 Simmental cross suckler cows.

Texel rams are used on the North of England Mules and the best ewe lambs kept for breeding. Finished lambs from this flock are generally 18-19kgs deadweight and grade mainly Rs, with some reaching U classification.

The home-bred Texel cross North of England ewes go to a Suffolk sire, producing 20kgs deadweight lambs which mainly reach U and E grades, achieving a price premium of around £2 a lamb.

"Using the Suffolk on the Texel cross produces a lamb with a very good quality carcass," said Mr Curry. "The North of England Mule is a very good and prolific mother but it lacks conformation. There is a marginal reduction in lambing percentage but it is not significant and it is outweighed by the price advantage.

&#42 Lots of planning

"But I can understand why this type of cross is not more widely used. It takes a lot of planning to organise a closed breeding replacement programme and it is much simpler to use a straight cross to produce lambs."

Lambing takes place at the end of March, after the ewes have been in-wintered on silage and home-mixed sugarbeet pulp, maize gluten and fishmeal. The lambs are not creep fed and are weaned in August and September. Some 50%-70% are sold off grass and the remainder leave the farm in early winter. Depending on the weather, some store lambs may be bought in to use the buildings. These receive ad-lib grain-beet and are finished quickly at a cost of £3-£4 a lamb.

Replacements are also home-bred for the suckler herd. Hereford and Aberdeen Angus cross cows are put to a Simmental bull to produce breeding heifers. These then go to a Limousin sire and their calves are taken through to finishing. The herd is split into an autumn calving and a spring calving section, with autumn calvers wintered inside on silage and creep fed on home-mixed sugar beet pulp, maize gluten and minerals. Most autumn-born bull calves are castrated for easy management after turnout. They are either finished the following winter or sold as forward stores in the autumn before weaning, depending on market conditions.

The spring calvers are wintered on silage and straw with some supplementary feeding before calving. A small batch calve in March, with the remainder in May after lambing. The bulls are weaned in the autumn for finishing in April-July, generally grading U- and U+. Heifers are weaned in January, grazed in summer and sold from December to February at grades O+ and R.

Home-produced grain is not fed to the livestock as there are no grain drying or storage facilities on farm and cereals are moved after harvest to Tyne Grain Co-operative.

Mr Curry is a founder and current chairman of the beef and sheep producer co-operative, North Country Primestock. Formed in 1991, the organisation set out to strengthen the supply chain relationship and has established links with a number of retailers, particularly Tesco. It now handles about 20,000 cattle and 150,000 sheep each year.

&#42 Also a commissioner

He is also a commissioner of the Crown Estate, one of the countrys largest institutional landowners, with a total of more than 100,000ha (250,000 acres), including common land. As if that were not enough, Mr Curry is also vice-chairman of the NFU Mutual insurance company.

A farm manager and a farm secretary are employed and contractors are used during busy periods. To make better use of the arable machinery, the farm manager also carries out some contracting work on neighbouring farms.

Mr Currys wife, Rhoda, is a partner in the farm business and has overseen its management during the many occasions when Mr Curry was working away at the MLC headquarters in Milton Keynes. The couple have three children, and one son, Craig, has followed his father into agriculture. He works on a large arable unit in Northumberland.

Right: After 15 years with the Meat and Livestock Commission, Don Curry finds much to do at home on his Hexham arable, sheep and beef farm