Show day sets meat in motion for Christmas dinners

In the first of two articles, Chris Berry reports on the importance of Christmas fatstock markets to the livestock industry.

Thirsk's Christmas fatstock show and sale.

It is the day before the Christmas fatstock show and sale at Thirsk Livestock Market and the phone rings every few minutes.

It’s another call from an anxious farmer who recognises the importance of the next couple of weeks. While the general public is busy scurrying around town and city centres in search of Christmas presents, the beef, lamb and pig producers who attend the county’s livestock markets are making their final preparations for the meat that will eventually adorn dinner plates this festive season.

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It’s a massive couple of weeks for livestock markets with the opportunity for higher prices due to the increased demand for food as we all consume more than at other times of the year.

Nearly every livestock market hosts its own special Christmas show and sale day and they’re all scheduled between the final week of November and the first two weeks of December. The reason is simple. Butchers want their meat to be hung for a certain length of time and in the case of cattle that is generally two or three weeks. That’s why the cattle shows and sales generally come first.

Tony Thompson has been an auctioneer at Thirsk Farmers Auction Mart for the past 42 years. He’s a Northumbrian by birth from a farming family in Swarland. It’s he who is fielding the calls from producers who have either taken a look at their stock and decided they have one that could stand up well against the rest or they just want to get last minute news on what to expect on the day.

I thought this would be better than show day to interview Tony yet it proves anything but. He apologises, smiles and the phone rings again.

“I don’t think there was quite as much emphasis on Christmas shows and sales when I first started,” he said, after the latest call has been fielded. “But they’re definitely quite prestigious events now.

“We have producers around here who are keen on the summer agricultural shows and like to come here to win as well. It makes for great competition in the show rings that are set up just behind the sale ring. The people who show cattle here will have been building up to this for quite a while and they’ll be hoping theirs are just right.

“The type of cattle sold when I first started was totally different. Back in the early 70s there were no continental breeds. You’d find native breeds such as Herefords, Angus, Shorthorns and Friesians, but they were nothing like today’s Friesians. There has been a considerable move towards continental X cattle since then and the majority sold in the live market system are either Blues or Limousins.

“The Limousin is still the number one in the live market but the Blondes have increased markedly too. Many producers still prefer to cross their cattle with the Friesian because of its reputation on the milk side. The feeling is that most believe that a good milking cow will have a chance of producing a better calf.

“There has been a lift in the trade generally over the last month and there’s always a bit more demand through November as butchers and abattoirs look to stock up for Christmas. They also want to show heir customers that what they have bought is the best so there is always healthy competition around the sale ring.”

Last year the champion beast made nearly £5 per kg and was shown by Hannah Donaldson of Huby, near Easingwold. It was Penny’s of Rawdon who bought the champion for a butcher who then put the trophy, sash and rosettes in his shop window.

This year’s judge is James Robertshaw of Keelham Farm Shop, Bradford, one of the Thirsk market’s regular buyers of top quality cattle.

Tony said: “We’ll have somewhere near 20 buyers around the ring tomorrow.”

Fast-forward 24 hours and it’s the day of the show. A piano is played by a young lady in the mart’s reception area and ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ could be a battle cry for the live market system by the farmers who attend religiously every week.

There’s a convivial feel to the day and one farmer comes in to the mart office pleased as Punch with a price his stock has just made.

Down by the show ring James Robertshaw is faced with a very challenging decision, choosing the supreme champion beast for this year’s show. He’s judged before at other marts but this is different. “I’ve been buying stock from around the ring since I was 16 and I’ve always found it really exciting. I remember the first time I came here and the adrenaline rush I had when I bought my first one. I still enjoy it now and it still gives me that buzz but this has to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

James settles on naming his champion as an 18-month old Limousin X heifer brought by father and son Robert and Craig Marwood of Studdah Farm, Spennithorne where they have 200-head of cattle and a flock of 200 breeding ewes, as well as arable land.

“We’ve been coming here a lot of years and this is the first time we’ve won,” Robert said.

“We didn’t expect too much. You just bring your cattle every week and it’s nice to have a primestock show. I think the weight she was suited the judge on the day.”