Farm of the Week: Sheep to beef feeds arable dreams on Wykeham Estate

Highland cattle graze serenely in the sleepy hamlet of Ruston on the Wykeham Estate where David Shepherdson farms 700 predominantly arable acres. They provide not just a tranquil, picture postcard vista to the countryside but also the balance to David's farming operation that allows him to concentrate his efforts on cereal crops far more than when the farm was home to a flock of 350 Suffolk X ewes.
David Shepherdson has found that having Highland cattle is a perfect balance for the rest of the farming operation.  Picture: Simon HulmeDavid Shepherdson has found that having Highland cattle is a perfect balance for the rest of the farming operation.  Picture: Simon Hulme
David Shepherdson has found that having Highland cattle is a perfect balance for the rest of the farming operation. Picture: Simon Hulme

“We gradually phased out the sheep after starting to cut numbers in 2000,” says David who farms with his father, also David at the tenanted Ruston Farm.

“Having the number of sheep we had was so intensive that it was a full-time job of its own in summer when we’re always busy with harvest. I’d been looking for some other form of livestock that would be more extensive and give me the opportunity to give my full attention to the arable work.”

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It was Country Week that sparked David’s interest in Highlands.

“I’d read some of your articles and went to see well-known breeder Rob Phillip in Hellifield in 2008. I bought half a dozen heifers from him. My original plan was to have a small herd just to keep the grass tidy and sell my own heifers as pedigree stock, but we’ve built up quite steadily and regularly have about 100 head of cattle on the farm. We’re now selling bullocks to Dovecote Park on their Waitrose scheme for Christmas. We sent 28 this year.”

David puts his herd’s growth and success down to bull selection.

“I bought a high quality bull, Rob Romack of Toloisk, also from Rob, with the intention of producing the biggest calves we could. He was colossal, the biggest bull I’ve ever seen. After having him three years we bought another, Alasdair of Auchtenny, who’s five-years-old now and not quite so big but very long. He’s doing a great job and our next bull will be one we’ve bred ourselves, a white bull calf called Edward of Ruston. He’s out of a white Highland cow we bought before now making it a closed herd with just an occasional bull bought in.

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“The biggest difference between finishing Highland cattle for beef and the commercial continental cattle is the time. Commercial cattle might be finished at 15 months but with Highlands you need 30-40 months to get the weight into them. We have about 27 cows to calve this year, 17 calves born last year and 35 from the year before. We calve in spring between April to June and the only cattle that come inside are the bullocks that are going to Dovecote Park. We bring them in at the end of September to try and bring them on more with silage and some rolled barley. Other than those we are sending everything else stays outside all year round eating grass and a nice barley straw.

“They are so popular in the county now that I’m starting to think there might even be more Highland cattle in Yorkshire than in Scotland! But there are not many who are producing really big ones and that’s what we try to do. We averaged 295kg deadweight this last time, which was marginally down on the previous year, with the bullocks killing out at around 56 per cent. If we were sending cattle every month we might keep a beast back a month or two to keep up the average but since we only send stock once a year you just have to get them to grow as large as they can. If they’re over 40 months they don’t get taken at all so the calendar dictates.”

Having recently taken over the tenancy of the land at Manor Farm next door, which has doubled their farmed acreage from 350, the move to Highland cattle from sheep has made even more sense. The move fits with David’s natural tendency towards arable farming.

“I’ve always liked the tractor and farm machinery side of farming. We also undertake contract work for another 300 acres and some hedge cutting in winter. It helps spread the costs of what we use, which includes our own Deutz combine harvester from Hardwick’s just up the road and our tractors.”

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A recent major purchase was a new one-pass direct drill from British manufacturers Weaving.

“We switched over to one-pass direct drilling this last back end. It suits our land better. I tried one the year before and it yielded just as well as the plough and power harrow so we took the plunge and it’s now part of our kit. The only problem with buying farm machinery is that corn prices haven’t kept up with what you have to invest. Tractor prices have probably trebled since the time when I was at school and combine harvester prices have gone through the roof, but we’re still only selling corn at the same price.”

This year’s cropping at Ruston Farm and Manor Farm includes 196 acres of winter wheat with varieties Revelation, Leeds and Skyfall. There is 174 acres of winter malting barley variety SY Venture hopefully destined for Muntons at Flamborough, as will 40 acres of spring barley variety Propino.

David is growing spring oats for the first time this year and 77 acres of spring beans. One crop that has been axed is oilseed rape.

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“The cost of growing it was already a factor but other pressures including those associated with neonicotinoids were the final straw.”

David believes that the current market price for wheat still has plenty of room for improvement.

“We have our own grain stores and by selling the barley on contract we make way for the wheat, which means we can hold on before selling at times, but everyone needs cash flow. Prices on wheat even at £135 per tonne are still not good enough.”

David is married to Tracy and they have two children Thomas, 14, and Amy, 10. He and his father run the farm business as a joint venture and a recent succession tenancy has just been undertaken. David (senior) is married to Lesley. They have two other sons Gareth and Gavin who work on a farm at nearby Staxton; and a daughter Laura who lives in Ruston with her husband Alan. David’s grandfather Thomas made the move to Ruston Farm in the early 1970s having previously farmed at Wykeham.

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