Farm of the Week: Selecting the finest livestock

Life can take some funny twists and turns, and Andrew and Ruth Steele of Red House Farm in Weeton have lived through their share.

Ruth Steele with her flock of Oxford Downs.
Ruth Steele with her flock of Oxford Downs.

But Andrew is now in his dream job of scanning cattle and sheep for genetic evaluation and the couple have a varied livestock enterprise on a small acreage that has recently seen Ruth sell pedigree Oxford Down sheep to Germany.

Following a career that has taken him from Blakewell Farm, Easington and taking in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Lincolnshire, Staffordshire and North Yorkshire along the way, Andrew tells of how he never even knew Red House Farm existed when he was growing up.

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“It’s only four miles from where I was born but it’s just off the Easington to Patrington road and I’d never been down this lane before until we came here to take a look in 2002.”

After studying at Newcastle University he worked for a pig breeding company as an assistant production manager before moving over into sales, and subsequently to Madeley in Staffordshire and latterly Sowerby near Thirsk selling breeding stock. When the pig market crashed in the late 90s he was made redundant. For a short time he took another job selling minerals and offering feed formulation advice for a company based in Norfolk. Then he landed his dream job; the first time around.

“I started with Signet in 1999 on a two-year contract. I’d always been interested in beef genetics at university but had chosen to go into pigs rather than beef as BSE had been at its worst. But here I was doing what I’d always wanted to be involved with, working on beef and sheep breeding. My area was Scotland and I rented a little bothy cottage at Beattock near Moffat for the times when I was away from home.”

Unfortunately Andrew’s initial contract with Signet wasn’t extended mainly due to foot and mouth disease breaking in 2001.

“They couldn’t tell whether there would even be an industry left at the time. That’s when I thought I’d get out of farming. I worked for a short while on the foot and mouth disposal scheme, organising some of the logistics. I remember it being a very frustrating period and there were some horror stories. It seemed that anyone who had a rifle could become a licenced slaughterer.”

Andrew’s next move was to join the NatWest agricultural banking team. It took him out of the mainstream farming world for the first time but not for too long. His banking work was based in Haxby at first and then Driffield.

“I went back to Signet five years ago and I now travel right across from here taking in Sheffield and across to Cheshire and North Wales then right up to the Scottish border. I use an ultrasound scanner on pedigree beef and sheep scanning for muscle depth in the loin that provides the statistics on which selection of pedigree stock is based. I basically take a picture of a lamb chop in the middle of a loin, measuring the fat over it and the depth of muscle. It allows you to pick out the better ones and breeders get a better picture of genetic potential.

“You get to know particular lines and which tups are doing a good job. I get a bit excited about such things as eye muscles. I found my highest ever eye muscle on a Texel this summer. It is a quite repetitive job and it’s certainly not the highest paid either but it’s something I’m interested in.”

Andrew and Ruth had been looking for a farm of their own whilst living in Sowerby but found the Thirsk area was a but too expensive for them. The move back to their East Riding homeland, as Ruth comes from Bridlington, followed a phone call from Ralph Ward of land agents Frank Hill & Son. Ruth wasn’t fully enamoured when she first saw the farmhouse.

“When it had come up we had virtually dismissed it straight away, but we came to take a look. We decided on a compromise that if our silly bid was accepted then we’d sort the house out later.”

Twelve years on from their arrival and Red House Farm is now home to Ruth’s flock of pedigree Oxford Down sheep; Andrew’s small herd of Simmental cattle; and a regular consignment of 1,200 pigs taken through from 7kg to bacon on a Freedom Foods bed and breakfast basis for Easey Pigs. They have two wind turbines that provide all their electricity and more into the National Grid.

“The pigs business was here before we came and they provide the bread and butter income for the farm that has allowed us to move forward with our sheep and cattle.

“I started with the Oxford Downs because we like eating lamb and I don’t like paying money for it at the supermarket. I got in touch with Bob Richardson at Leven. He was one of my lecturers when I was at Bishop Burton College and told him that I wanted sheep that I liked the look of in our fields. He introduced me to the breed that look like teddy bears and that he had championed for years.

“We bought two in-lamb ewes and a tup and we’ve gone from there. We’ve just tupped 22 ewes and we’re selling our lamb at either the farmgate or to restaurants such as the Roos Arms nearby. We also sold well at the breed sale at Melton Mowbray this year.

“The sale we’ve just made to Germany was of a ram lamb and a tup we’ve used for the past two years. They’ve gone to a Schwarzkopf breeder on the North Sea coast of Germany. They’re the first Oxford Down sheep to be exported for a lot of years so we’re particularly pleased. I’ve also just been elected to the Oxford Down council.”

Andrew’s parents have had Simmental cattle since 1990. Andrew doesn’t see his herd expanding but he’s set himself a target: “I want to get to the point where I can sell a couple of bulls a year as breeding bulls.”

Andrew and Ruth have three daughters - Emma, 19, Katie, 17, and Lucy, 14.