Winning the Supreme Beef title at the Great Yorkshire Show for the fifth time was confirmation that Brampton Charolais is still at the top of its game, after more than 40 years.
It has not all been easy going meanwhile and owners Billy Turner and daughter Sarah can do with the boosts of show and sale successes.
The latest was for a cow, Brampton Daylight, and her first calf. Last year, their bull Brampton Fugitive won his class and went on to fetch 14,000 guineas at Stirling.
Brampton Farm is home to one of the country’s oldest Charolais herds and supplies breeding stock to other pedigree specialists and bulls to commercial beef producers who agree that Charolais is still the best option for siring calves which grow big and fast on grass.
That’s depending on your farm, of course, says Billy Turner.
“As with sheep, it’s a matter of horses for courses. The Charolais is a heavy animal and might not suit a wet farm in the west of the county.”
George William Turner is 77. He grew up in a farming family still based at Norton-le-Clay, on the other side of the A1, but in 1961 he struck out on his own as a tenant of the Newby Hall Estate. By the end of the 1960s, he was growing potatoes, sugar beet and a lot of barley, fattening a thousand beef cattle a year and noting the outstanding performance of the odd Charolais-Friesian cross which was coming his way, as the Continental invasion began.
“They were leaving the native breeds for dead,” he sums up.
Shorthorns, Longhorns, Herefords and Aberdeen Angus, have improved since then, but 40 years ago, the French had decades on us in terms of breeding for size. One reason, probably, was the UK’s role as beef bloodstock supplier to the world. Brazil and Argentina preferred smaller animals.
In 1971, one of Billy Turner’s neighbours, John Lister, was killed in an accident, shortly after buying in the beginnings of a pedigree Charolais herd. Mr Turner bought 11 heifers, including nine in calf, and began building around that core.
To start with, he had his wife Jane’s eye and experience in breeding. She grew up on a dairy farm, had a passion for horses and started the little racehorse business which Sarah still keeps going on Brampton Farm. One of the family treasures is a picture of Jane Turner with the winner of the Gimcrack Stakes at York in 1979, Sonnen Gold.
Soon after that she was taken out of action by a brain haemorrhage, leading to an accident, which left her dependent on her family’s nursing for more than 20 years. Billy Turner still lives in Lingams, the house he built to look after her in, at Skelton on Ure, between Ripon and Boroughbridge. Sarah lives at Brampton Hall, the original farmhouse. One of her older sisters, Janet, is an Irish farmer’s wife. The other, Maggie, is a horse physiotherapist in the Cotswolds.
The Brampton Herd did well in the 1970s and started to export bulls, semen and embryos. The fattening was run down in favour of the bloodstock business. But BSE, in the 1980s, killed international trade stone dead and the culls required by the ministry meant 10 years of rock-bottom prices for many good animals.
They built back to another peak in 1998, when they sold a bull at Perth for 28,000 guineas. But then, in 2001, the farm was hit from both sides by foot and mouth. First it was in a no-movement zone stretching east from Hawes and then in another streching west from Thirsk. Like a lot of farmers who did not actually get foot and mouth, the Turners felt they had the worst of it – no income but no compensation either.
Over the years, Mr Turner has built up his holding to 830 acres. But nearly all of that is rented. Sarah has become the tenant, although he remains an active partner. The Charolais herd amounts, currently, to 80 cows, plus followers, 25 yearling heifers and 15 in-calf heifers, a couple of young bulls awaiting auction and a stock bull. It is a largely closed herd. The odd replacement bull gets bought in but most of the spending on sires goes on AI for the 40 best cows, performed by Sarah.
She also runs half a dozen thoroughbred brood mares and sells the foals at Doncaster and Newmarket. They keep the odd one to get trained up by her Uncle Jim and cousin Oliver at Norton-le-Clay and on the day we meet, Mr Turner is off to Beverley to watch his latest, Holy Angel, score a win on his second outing. It used to pay for itself but nowadays, he says, it’s hard for anybody without big money to stay in the game.
Nowadays, Sarah looks after the cattle while her dad concentrates on 800 Suffolk-cross ewes producing fat lambs from Texel sires. A stockman, Anthony Howe, helps out with both. They sell the sheep at Thirsk and York and having spent a lifetime watching the ministry interfere with the markets, Mr Turner takes the opportunity to criticise the effect of the “six-day rule” – a movement restriction which effectively means an animal sent to market has to be sold because it would be too complicated to take it back again, so you are at the buyer’s mercy.
All this is enough for three people. They grow their own hay and silage but hire contractors, Peter and John Cowton of Pilmoor, to chop it and bale it. The arable side of the business is contracted out to the Listers. All the mix is important because they still cannot afford to commit fully in one direction or another. It was a good run with the horses which got them through foot and mouth and the lesson lingers.
Talking Charolais, Sarah is anxious not to spend all the time talking about past triumphs. Some of their biggest names are literally history, because they fetched their prices or their prizes before the new era of EBVs – the computerised “estimated breeding values” which sum up the likely productivity of a bloodline. They take all that seriously nowadays, of course. But they still believe in their own judgements first and relish the show prizes as proof of them.