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AgriScot Beef Farm of the Year Award

Life on the udder side: Family who left milking raises the steaks with move into beef.

Resting on their laurels is something father and daughter team Andrew and Emma Hodge could never be accused of.

For when it came to collecting the AgriScot Beef Farm of the Year accolade, sponsored by ABP and supported by Quality Meat Scotland, Emma was away in Canada looking at new genetics to improve their herd. So her parents, Andrew and Jill, were presented with the award and the very next morning Andrew was up and away to judge cattle at Agriexpo, Carlisle.

Although early mornings are no hardship to Andrew who credits his upbringing as a dairy farmer with a lot of the success at Rulesmains Farm at Duns, in the Scottish Borders.

The family’s herd of 110 pedigree Aberdeen Angus was established in 2008 following their decision to go out of milking. He “knew every cow” in their 150-strong herd, making a head over heart decision to get out of the industry rather than expand.

“It stems back to having been a dairy farmer, but right from the start with the Angus I have believed that cow families are the key to success,” explains Andrew.

“If the cows are right, with good feet, legs and genetics – we try to breed our cattle long and easy fleshed to maximise yield. It is also very important to our herd that we retain a high health status. Good cows breed good stock; a good bull can make a huge difference in the herd.”

Andrew, who took over Rulesmains from his father Tom who bought the farm in the 1960s, also credits time in the parlour with his focus on the bottom line.

“When you are dairying you know what your margins are right down to the last pence,” he says.

It’s a habit, but it’s a very useful one and makes much more sense than throwing food at cattle and not having a clue how much they are really costing you. I monitor the inputs week-in and week-out and know what each cow is costing me to keep per day; currently with minerals it’s £1 per head.”

Despite this business like attitude, Andrew is quick to credit the “gift of stockmanship” that – while it cannot be quantified in a spreadsheet – makes all the difference with the success of the herd.

“We are blessed that Emma has it,” says Andrew. “She has a natural eye for spotting good cattle and a gift for working with them that I believe can’t be taught. It’s an immense pride to me that she’s very much in demand as a judge.”

Although when he was milking Andrew knew every single cow, he does admit that sometimes he looks out at the foldyard and – because they are breeding very much to a definite type – “all these black heads that look up do look the same.” As an aside, the judges made a note of this, commending the family for breeding a “very consistent” herd.

“It’s now Emma who recognises every animal and knows all their pedigrees, going way back,” explains Andrew.

The fact that Rulesmains 300 acres of grassland sits alongside 1,100 acres of arable, yielding 3,000 tons of cereal, is another reason – along with the switch from dairying – why the beef title means such a lot.

“We never thought that we would win,” says Andrew. “It was a wonderful surprise and means a great deal to us to have been nominated alongside such well-respected farms.

“However, we are far from perfect. We still need to be better and have a long way to go in areas like new genetics, feed and fuel efficiency. We’ve had a free carbon audit as part of the beef efficiency scheme we are part of and there is more work we need to be doing. I feel very strongly that while welfare is a major selling point for meat over the last decade, there will be a new additional emphasis on carbon footprint. It’s back to data – like with the dairy cows – and those who get behind it and record the figures will reap the benefits.”

Apart from 125 tons of barley retained for stock feed, the arable side of the business provides plenty of straw. Judges of the award noted how “well kept” the farm is and Andrew takes a pride in bedding the cattle up every day.

“This then ends up on the land, reducing the need for fertiliser and improving the sustainability and quality of the soil,” says Andrew, who has reduced energy bills with a wind turbine and a biomass boiler, which have substantially reduced the grain dryer bill.

But back to beef. Andrew knew, when he came out of dairying, that he wanted to go into a native breed of cattle which are commercial formed.

New markets have had to be found, with Brexit dampening down overseas trade for breeding bulls. In addition to the pedigree cows, there are 30 commercial cows and a handful of pedigree Herefords.

“Before Brexit every year we would have sales to countries such as France, Germany, Bulgaria and Switzerland,” recalls Andrew, who going forward is experimenting with using a Hereford bull across some of the Angus cows to create Black Baldies, a type commonly reared in Australia, New Zealand and North America and increasingly popular over here.

“With less staff on farms and an ageing farming population, the docile nature the Hereford passes on is a real selling-point for ease of handling cows,” explains Andrew. “They are excellent mothers and their calves very quickly put flesh on.”

With that eye on the bottom line – as well as carbon auditing – heifers calve at two years-old and stock is finished at 13 to 14 months of age, going direct to Stoddart’s abattoir in Ayr.

Emma and Andrew work together on the farm, with one full-time member of staff on the arable side.

The Hodge name is regularly seen alongside five-figure sums for prize-winning bulls at the Angus Society bull sales.

“Over the last few years we have had great success showing our Angus at most of the Major shows such as the Highland and Great Yorkshire Show,” says Andrew. “Winning junior championships and male championships in the Angus sections, but an overall champion at any of the major shows has alluded us as yet and is something we’d love to achieve.”

Who knows, perhaps Emma’s trip to The Canadian Western Agribition Show will have provided new inspiration to take them ever-nearer that coveted trophy…

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