Cattle and cereals have played their part for generations for one farming family in the East Riding and today are mainstays at the farm headquarters at Weighton Wold Farm half way up (or half way down) Market Weighton hill.
Robert Rook and his brother John started out together in 1973 with around 700 acres following on from their father Robert and grandfather Charles, who had bought Wold House Farm on Arras Hill in 1921 and Manor House Farm, North Cliffe – a Vale of York farm – in the 1940s. Weighton Wold was added in the 1990s.
Today the farm enterprise runs to 2000 acres including Wold House Farm, Manor House Farm and Weighton Wold Farm. Robert’s sons Charles and Edward are involved too. Arable crops currently include wheat grown over 600 acres including seed wheat variety Dickens and feed varieties Revelation, Relay and Lilli. Winter barley is grown across 140 acres including seed variety Glacier. Spring barley variety Planet is grown half for seed and half for for malting and distilling. Other cropping includes 200 acres of oilseed rape, vining peas for Bird’s Eye, maize, sugar beet and potatoes for the prepack/baker market – starting with Marfona in late August and followed by the varieties Sapphire, Sagitta and Melody. The farm includes refrigerated storage of potatoes. Livestock includes their highly regarded Stabiliser beef cattle, a free range egg laying unit and duck fattening which is conducted to supply Fasenda Foods. The Rooks have received day old chicks from the company and provide them with mature ducks since 90s when they were originally Cherry Valley.
‘My grandfather bought Wold House at Market Weighton and Manor House in 40s in order to supply the family mill in York,’ says Robert. ‘My father and grandfather fattened store cattle too. John and I introduced a breeding herd.’
‘The 70s were great years from the point of view of arable productivity and we increased yields from 2 tonnes of wheat per acre to 3 tonnes due to better methods, improvements in farm machinery and implements, and great strides in plant breeding that brought about breed varieties that pushed yield. Thy were quality varieties that stood well and produced great results. Our land, that we increased during those years, is two main land types of chalky Yorkshire Wolds and Vale of York sandy loam.’
‘Cropping, beef, eggs and ducks make up the four main elements of the farming operation today. Charles is mainly responsible for the arable side of the business and he also introduced the free-range egg-laying unit. Edward looks after the beef cow herd and duck fattening. We have around 200 cows and fattening stock, plus some we contract fatten within the Stabiliser ‘family’.
‘We now have around 300 acres of grassland but in my first few years of coming back to the family farm, after studying at Bishop Burton College and working away for two years on dairy/arable farm, we had 70-100 acres of permanent pasture. Father and grandfather had originally bought cattle from the west side of the country and Ireland, as many in the east side of the country had done for many years. It was a typical commercial operation fattening store cattle.’
While the arable concern is a major part of the farm business the rise of the Stabiliser breed has taken the headlines in more recent times. Robert tells of how it came about and why the breed is so successful.
‘We’d had Aberdeen Angus X Friesians that were coming out of dairy herds. They were a good cheap source of beef calves top crossed with the Charolais, but when the Holstein began replacing the Friesian in UK dairy herds in the late 70s and through the 80s the quality of the Aberdeen Angus X dairy cow as a suckler was reduced substantially. By the 90s it wasn’t just me but many other cattle men and women who had become frustrated that the cow wasn’t doing what we wanted any longer. Fertility and cow longevity had fallen.’
Robert had been fortunate to meet Richard Fuller of Givendale in the mid-70s who had been developing a Charolais herd. He was also working in a co-operative manner with other farmers and Robert had been buying bulls from him. Getting to know Richard led to the start of the Stabiliser breed in the UK.
‘Richard had come across the Stabiliser breed while speaking at a conference. He’d met Lee Leishman from the US and got in touch telling me and others that he felt this guy had something. A group of us went over to the States on a study tour in 1995 and this provided the impetus for everything that has happened since.’
The Stabiliser breed was developed by two professors at a meat research centre in Nebraska from four breeds – Hereford, red Angus, Simmental and Gelbvieh from Bavaria. The US beef breeding programme is not reliant on dairy crossbreeds and that brings better uniformity of beef quality than in the UK with marbling, tenderness and flavour the aim.
‘The study tour was a light bulb moment for us. There were five of us initially and we imported 100 embryos that landed in 1996. They produced 57 calves in 1997 and today there are over 10,000 performance recorded Stabiliser cows in the UK. It is one of the beef breed success stories of the past 20 years and is growing at a rate of 10-12 per cent of recorded females a year.
Richard, Robert and the other cohorts initially saw the Stabiliser as something purely for the group but they soon realised the potential was far greater – particularly amongst those who had become disillusioned with beef from dairy herds.
‘Although British beef farmers are pretty conservative it soon became clear that many more farmers wanted to be a part of the breed when they saw the results, uniformity and quality produced. The breed in the UK is now run as the Stabiliser Cattle Company and we have 100 farms contracted as multipliers and the breed is kept as far and wide as the Orkneys to Cornwall.’
Robert is the chairman of the Stabiliser Cattle Company and tells of how it is run, far different to traditional cattle breed societies.
‘We run it more along the lines of a pig breeding company than a cattle society, which means we run it with greater control than if it was a free for all of lots of interested parties and it has become a family that is always growing. Givendale Prime has now been marketed at Bill Burton’s butchers shop in Pocklington for several years and we have developed a significant relationship with Morrisons.’
‘Our aim has and always will be to produce an economically efficient suckler cow that in turn produces calves used in further breeding and also produces quality beef. Work on EBVs is a constant job and in a recent project we’ve looked specifically at feed efficiency utilising a unique system of Grow Safe feed boxes from Canada. A transponder in the beast’s ear informs the computer of the animal that is feeding from the box at any time and the feed calculation is made from the amount that was in the box prior to eating and what was left at the end of the meal. Each separate meal is recorded and at the end of the day we know what each animal has eaten. That means we then know the net feed efficiency (NFE). Each beast was weighed every week. We were able to calculate how much they had eaten and how much they had grown. By recording this way you can better identify the best animals in terms of feed conversion.’
It’s all about then producing animals that are up to the specifications the supermarkets are looking for and with the current trend towards smaller cattle the work being conducted is pivotal to the breed’s continued rise in popularity.