“The one native breed that can do everything the continentals can without getting over-fat”
A keen interest in converting good quality beef cattle into top notch carcasses triggered John East’s interest in the South Devon breed in the late 1970s. “My father was interested in fatstock showing at the Christmas shows, and we kept a few continentals to sell each year,” he says. “At the time, the native classes were dwindling, so we started buying in a South Devon animal to exhibit and sell each year, to support the local markets.”
John and his father opted for South Devons because they had the shape to compete against continental cattle, and sold well to local butchers. “They killed out well, and we would go along to the butchers to see them on the hook.”
In 2000, John was made redundant from his shepherding job, and decided to concentrate on growing the home business at Corner Farm, Kirtlington, Oxfordshire. “We now fatten 350-400 head of cattle and have 90 suckler cows, which are a mix of South Devons, continentals and crossbreds.”
John uses a South Devon bull over the continental cows, both as a terminal sire and to produce suckler replacements. He currently uses a Blonde on South Devon cows as a terminal sire. “The Blonde x South Devon is a very nice cross – the Blonde is finer boned and leaner, so you get a well-shaped animal with a good killing out percentage and better meat covering,” he says. “We’ve always aimed for the better quality end of the carcass market – it costs as much to feed poor cattle as good ones. And using the South Devons has certainly not lowered the carcass grades.”
The farm is a mix of owned and tenanted land spread across eight parishes, and with a number of footpaths crossing it.
“We therefore wanted a breed that’s a bit more people-friendly than the continentals, but would stand up to them in terms of quality. We also didn’t want to have to change the feeding regime – the South Devons can be in with the continentals and crossbreds on the same ration, and perform just as well.”
John’s first batch of home-bred heifers sired by Grove Wellington 55 are due to calve this spring. “I move all the stock single-handed so I’m hoping they will be a bit quieter than the continentals, and have a bit more milk,” he says.
Most finished animals go to ABP or Woodheads, but John also supplies his local butcher with 300kg heifers. “He always bought our stock at market, and after Foot and Mouth asked us to continue supplying him direct.”
Two-thirds of the suckler cows calve inside in the spring, with the remainder outside in the autumn. “That fits in well with our buildings and grazing blocks,” says John. Heifers calve at two-and-a-half to three years old, and John selects the best 10-12 to keep as replacements. “We like big strong cows, as they’re worth so much more at the end of their life,” he says. “Last year we got £1500 for a cow that had produced 11 calves.”
Autumn-born calves get creep feed, and most stock are housed over the winter on straw. “The autumn calvers get ad-lib baled silage, while the spring calvers are on hay at the moment. None of the cows get any concentrates – they just get some liquid molasses and minerals before calving.”
All male calves are castrated, with spring calves finished indoors after their second summer at grass, says John. “However, we might start to finish some of the strongest ones early for our butcher.” Autumn calves are finished indoors in early summer, fed on ad-lib wholecrop and grass silage with concentrates.
John buys most of his stores privately in March and April, when they are about a year old. “We get mostly continentals with some South Devons and just run them all together. South Devons are the one native breed that can do everything the continentals can without getting over-fat. It’s also good to work with such a forward-thinking breed society, in terms of muscle scoring and using the latest technology to improve the breed.”
So what about the showing? John still exhibits at local primestock shows, and tries to take at least one South Devon to Smithfield each year. “As I’m not breeding pedigree South Devons I have to buy one in each year at 12-18 months old,” he says. “But I’ve got some very nice crossbreds, that I may start to show, too. The target is to win at Smithfield – I’ve had lots of second places, and plenty of local successes, but never a Smithfield first.”
In the past, primestock showing was a paying hobby – and it still has a beneficial impact on the farm, he adds. “If you make the effort to see the carcasses with the butchers, it does feed through into better quality stock. The more you see animals alive and then dead, the more you can see what you’re doing right or wrong.”