Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Competition wins for farming twins

October 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth visits a prize-winning herd of Devon cattle far from their native home.

Cambridgeshire farming twins Gavin and James Hunter had tried for years to win the prestigious Devon Cattle Breeders’ Society Herd Competition.

It’s very unusual for the award to go outside West Country, they say: a Cornwall or Dorset farmer succeeds from time to time, but you have to go back to the 1980s to find a winner from further afield. But 2016 was the twins’ turn, and, a year on, they are still celebrating.

The judges look for herd uniformity which comes, says Gavin, from years of consistent breeding. Since 1960, when 18 Devon cows arrived at Tilbrook Grange, travelling by train to the long since redundant Kimbolton station just next to the farm, only two more cows have been bought in. The challenge is not to buy in, and to breed from the best, he says.

Winning the herd competition brought with it a requirement to organise a visit to the farm last autumn, the second open day there that year: in June breeders from Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, the US and the UK arrived at Tilbrook Grange as part of the Devon World Congress 2016.

“I’ve never seen so many people look for so long at animals,” says James.

“They spend a fortnight in the host country visiting around 20 herds. It’s a bit of a jolly, but, at the end of the day, it’s trade orientated and breeders do buy and sell semen. Since the open day we’ve seen tremendous sales: our prize bull, Tilbrook Prince, now has calves in Australia, semen in New Zealand and we have orders from America.”

“A good bull isn’t good enough,” adds Gavin, “you need an excellent bull. And it’s a six-month job to organise semen for worldwide export, with quarantine and isolation periods, and then further time isolating, storing and freezing the semen. Tilbrook Prince was at the collection centre in South Devon from December to May. But it’s worthwhile: we sell more semen abroad than any other Devon breeder.”

While those running herds outside the breed’s native home might sometimes struggle for recognition, they benefit from less onerous TB restrictions. The herd at Tilbrook Grange is tested every four years, while many in Devon are tested every year. An outbreak of TB on a farm means waiting four years to apply for an export licence.


“Being disease-free is one of the main advantages of our herd,” says Gavin. “Alongside that we select for the traditional Devon breed characteristics: our animals are docile and thrive on a low quality forage diet; the cows have good mothering ability, and confirmation and meat quality are excellent. And the herd is naturally polled, which makes calving, management, and handling on the farm and at the abattoir, much easier.”

Gavin and James run 80 cows, and a total of 240 cattle with calves and youngstock on 80ha of permanent pasture, some of it ancient ridge and furrow. The cows calve outdoors between August and October, and are separated into those with bull calves and those with heifers. They come into strawed yards for the winter to feed on hay and barley straw, still in their groups with their mothers. They are weaned the following July.

All the bull calves are kept entire so that there is always the option to sell them as breeding stock. The best are selected at about a year old: Gavin has picked out 12 this year and will probably need the same again to meet demand. Most of the trade in bulls is towards the southwest, with semen sales going further afield. Surplus heifers are also sold for breeding at about 18 months to herds starting up or expanding.

Biggest joy

“It is my biggest joy setting people up with foundation stock,” says Gavin. “After a period of decline, first with the increase in popularity of continental breeds, and then BSE in 1996, which got rid of a lot of suckler herds, the national herd base pretty well tripled from 2000 to 2010. Now it’s settled down, but native breeds generally are having a good run.”

Bulls and heifers not sold for breeding are slaughtered between 18 and 24 months at a traditional Fenland abattoir, Gagens of Gorefield, hung for three weeks and sold privately or through the farm’s shop.

“Shins and short ribs, brisket and skirt of beef … we sell traditional cuts of meat,” says James. “We also sell a lot of burgers. It’s the marbling that gives the beef its flavour, and the Devon breed is renowned for it. It comes from allowing the animals to grow naturally without feeding them too many concentrates. We sell about 20 animals a year through the farm shop, and also supply GM Gilbert, a local family butcher at Great Staughton, and another shop in London whose owner has never seen the farm but loves the standard of beef, and takes a whole animal every three weeks.

Word of mouth

“We don’t do any advertising: all our sales come from word of mouth.”

The farm also has 400ha arable land, growing wheat, barley and oilseed rape on a plough-based system. The past three years have seen a change from winter to spring barley for blackgrass control and a reduction in the autumn workload. Margins for barley are good, and the overall chemical bill has fallen. Farmyard manure from the cattle helps to fertilise the land, and straw is used for bedding and feed.

There are two full-time staff: stockman Martyn Allen, on the farm 21 years, and tractor driver James Young, with 27 years’ service. Martyn has been invited to judge cattle at next year’s Dorset County Show, while Gavin will judge at the Devon County Show, the first of the season, in mid-May.

Sales of beef through the farm shop, and semen for export, have proved successful diversifications to the beef enterprise. The two wind turbines on the farm, and the solar panels on two farm buildings have also brought in valuable additional income. One source of payment, though, has been sacrificed: after being in the HLS for 10 years, the farm is not in the new countryside stewardship.

“It’s not as beneficial or attractive for us,” says James. “Little things have been changed, like being able to put up to 50kg nitrogen on grassland before, but none at all now … and the cumulative effect is that it doesn’t work for us. We still run a low-input system, and that hasn’t changed.”

This year, the Tilbrook herd was beaten into second place for the Devon Cattle Breeders’ Society herd competition. But it still won best herd in other counties, and there’s no doubt Gavin and James will be trying again for the top prize.