Colchester’s traditional Christmas Prime Stock show brings cheer to some hard-pressed farmers

Auctioneer Graham Ellis and judge William Newman look at the entries at Stanfords' annual Christmas

Auctioneer Graham Ellis and judge William Newman look at the entries at Stanfords' annual Christmas Prime Stock Show on Tuesday, December 2. - Credit: Su Anderson

It’s been a difficult year for beef and lamb prices as world commodity prices hit producers here in East Anglia as well as elsewhere, but Stanfords never fails to lift the spirits with its Colchester Prime Stock Christmas Show. SARAH CHAMBERS was there as livestock farmers vied for the top prizes in the sheep and cattle contests, and butchers and meat wholesalers engaged in the traditional bidding war for the top beasts.

Auctioneer Graham Ellis and judge William Newman look at the entries at Stanfords' annual Christmas

Auctioneer Graham Ellis and judge William Newman look at the entries at Stanfords' annual Christmas Prime Stock Show on Tuesday, December 2. - Credit: Su Anderson

‘It’s been a difficult year for suppliers and producers,” admitted William Newman, who was judging in the annual beef cattle prime stock show at Stanfords this week.

His family has a long association with the weekly Colchester livestock market and his late father, Mark, and late grandfather, Robert, would travel up from the family abattoir and meat wholesale business in Farnborough in Hampshire to attend.

Over the generations, Will’s family, and many of the livestock families enjoying a mince pie and mulled wine celebrations at the show, have experienced the highs and the lows of the meat trade.

And in recent times, price volatility has been hitting producers with considerable force, he said. “They have been given very strong money for store cattle and then the price took a significant decrease and they felt the pinch. Stock is less in East Anglia than it’s ever been. Where do you see cattle grazing in fields now? The dairy herds are decimated,” he said. “But we are positive. We are still here.”

Auctioneer Graham Ellis and judge William Newman look at the entries at Stanfords' annual Christmas

Auctioneer Graham Ellis and judge William Newman look at the entries at Stanfords' annual Christmas Prime Stock Show on Tuesday, December 2. - Credit: Su Anderson


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The owners of the overall winner in the beef cattle contest, a 539kg pure Limousin heifer which fetched £2,102 when it went under the hammer, was another family with long associations with Stanfords livestock market.

The Ketley family used to farm from the council-owned land on which the livestock market now stands and have been strong supporters of the market and the annual show for many years. The coveted Olivers Perpetual Cup which is presented every year to owners of the overall show champion beast, bears testament to this, with 13 family wins recorded since 1990.

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Gerald Ketley, son, William, and brother, Andrew, of Fingringhoe are all involved in the beef farm business, but have seen their herd shrink from about 2,000 head of cattle three years ago to about 800. They also rear sheep. They lost the use of a beef unit which they rented near Ipswich, although William has built one at his farm site.

“We cut back - we had to really,” explained Gerald. “We have always had our own yards at home, but not to that extent.”

The global situation hasn’t helped in recent times, and at one stage it was becoming far less economic to raise cattle, he explained. “It wasn’t what we were losing on cattle, it was what we were not making - the fact we weren’t making £2-300 a head. We weren’t making anything, and basically there was plenty in supply so the supply and demand wasn’t working. People didn’t want them or need them,” he explained.

“Prices are picking up. It’s good to see but who knows what’s going to be after the New Year. The big problem is we get burdened with foreign meat and we have not really got any control over that. We are led to believe everyone wants British and to know where it comes from and full traceability and we are trying to do that but at the end of the day it all comes down to price.”

The horsemeat scandal had rocked the industry, he said.

“It really did jeopardise the industry at the time and it jeopardised the horse industry as well. All we want to do is to have a fair living out of cattle and sheep. It’s quite difficult on the margins.”

But W A Ketley & Sons is still a firm support of the market, and for this week’s show put out 21 cattle, 10 of which it has bred itself. It bought the winning 18 month old Limousin last March.

“I came here when I was six years old. This was our farm. This was our fields,” said Gerald, who was there with three generations of the Ketley family. “Andrew was born here.”

He said of the supreme beast win: “It’s tremendous.”

William added: “Conformation obviously is one thing, but ultimately it’s fat cover for whatever butcher’s buying it. He’s got to hang that beast for three weeks to a month. When he trims it he will be looking to cut fat rather that meat off and the fat will keep the meat while it’s hanging and for me, that was best beast for the job.”

Meanwhile, in the sheep pens, the top prize went to Nigel Barrington-Fuller of Weeley Heath, between Colchester and Clacton, for a pair of Beltex sheep.

The lawyer, who used to work in the financial sector in London, only started rearing sheep two years ago after his brother presented him with two sheep as a gift. He now has 80, mainly South Downs, on his 330 acre farm. “I’m chuffed,” he said. Sheep judge John Coleman praised a “marvellous” show of sheep, but said the Beltex pair stood out, and, later on the proceedings, he bought the winning pair for £170 each.

“They were just outstanding sheep. They were real show sheep rather than commercial butchers’ sheep, but they were the best sheep here today,” he said.

It was a “marvellous show of sheep”, he said.

“There were a lot of very good sheep there today. There was a lot of sheep that would win a prize anywhere else.”

But the winners had a high percentage of dead meat, he estimated, probably around 55-58% or possible in excess of 60%. This compared to an average of around 45 to 50%.

“They are just all meat. They look like real models,” he said.

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