After a successful show season last year, including Charolais champion at Royal Highland Show, John and Jenny Rix are returning to the ring with another three animals from their Wissington herd. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
Winning the breed championship at last year’s Royal Highland Show was a highlight of John and Jenny Rix’s showing career.
Together with herdsman Darren Knox, they made the 10-hour journey in the confidence their two-and-a-half-year-old heifer Wissington Jocasta was ‘an exceptional animal’ and she did not disappoint.
Mr Rix says: “She was a very complete animal with great style, very large and correct, with a great show temperament – the perfect Charolais.”
The Wissington herd is based in the village of the same name in Suffolk, a stone’s throw from the border with Essex.
The 160 hectares (395 acres) of grassland along the Stour Valley is part of P.G. Rix Farms, a family-owned arable business, started by Mr Rix’s late father Peter in 1952.
The Rix family now farms 2,425ha (5,992 acres), producing a range of crops including wheat, potatoes, bulb onions, sugar beet, barley, lettuce and energy maize.
Soils vary across the farm, but 80 per cent is of sandy loam type. Being light and free-draining over a sandy gravel subsoil, alongside access to a large amount of irrigation water, makes it ideal for onion production.
All of the 22,000 tonnes of onions produced on-farm are marketed by the family’s company Stourgarden, which is run by Mr Rix’s brother Bill and supplies multiple retailers, including Tesco.
Mr and Mrs Rix founded the Wissington herd in 2005 with the purchase of two in-calf Charolais females from a breeder in Suffolk.
It marked a new era for the farm, which had not seen cattle before, and it was not long before they were adding to the numbers.
Mr Rix says: “The same breeder then had a dispersal sale and we bought another 18 animals.”
Soon after that, the Rix family hired a South African livestock student, who inspired them to develop the herd further.
Mrs Rix says: “He was extremely good and keen and we felt we wanted to progress the herd for him.”
So the following year, they bought a further 20 animals from Peter and Sheila Dongar, Northamptonshire, followed by about 30 from a breeder in Inverness.
Mrs Rix says: “That was it in terms of buying-in stock.”
Charolais was an easy choice for them both. Mrs Rix had a love for the breed since her father had a herd of Charolais crosses during her formative years in Ongar, Essex.
She says: “I always loved the breed and loved seeing them at shows.”
Mr Rix also had prior experience of cattle, as the family had a dairy herd of Guernseys, although it was closed down in the late 1970s.
He says: “We decided to dip our toes in the water and we wanted to do a bit more than just commercial livestock. We wanted to breed pedigree animals, producing great terminal sires and heifers. We knew Charolais was the breed for us.”
The couple added a commercial suckler herd of South Devons to the mix a few years later.
Mr Rix says: “We needed a native breed to graze the area of grassland in a Higher Level Stewardship [HLS] agreement and the South Devon is a nice big breed.”
The South Devon herd currently stands at 87-head. All progeny are sold as spring stores and, for the last couple of years, most have been sold to the Holkham estate, North Norfolk, where they graze salt marshes before being marketed through the Holkham butchery and farm shop.
The pedigree Charolais herd currently stands at 180 animals, including 99 breeding females. Mr and Mrs Rix believe the Charolais breed suffered a slight dip in demand, but this is now recovering.
Mr Rix says: “Because of the cap on weight abattoirs will take, some people were put off Charolais, but I believe this is now changing. We have had a good demand again this spring and have sold all our bulls.”
Improvements to the breed, including easier calving, has helped, says Mrs Rix. Showing was always part of the couple’s plan for promoting their prefix.
He says: “It is enjoyable, if expensive and time consuming, particularly for the Royal Highland Show which takes us 10 hours to travel to.”
Their show season runs from about May 20 to July 10, and takes in three local shows: South Suffolk; Hadleigh; and Suffolk.
These are followed by South of England, Royal Highland, Royal Norfolk and this year, for the first time, they will be heading to Great Yorkshire.
They have not previously been because it is late in the season when the arable business is starting to get busy.
Mr Rix says: “Since the demise of the Royal Show, the Charolais Society National Show moves around to a different regional show and it is at Great Yorkshire this time.”
Two-thirds of the Charolais herd is spring-calving (January to March), while the remainder calve in autumn (September).
Mr Rix says: “The September group tends to be heifers, but not always. We turn everything out in the first or second week of April and they are back inside before the end of October or beginning of November due to HLS restrictions on grassland and generally it is getting too wet by then.
“Cows come in as groups, the autumn-calvers with calves at foot. Spring-born calves will then be weaned and dry cows housed.
“From there, winter calves are taken on for sales the following year. Off-farm sales are going on all the time too for young bulls and breeding heifers. Stock is taken to sales at Stirling, Welshpool and Carlisle.”
There are currently three stock bulls running with the Wissington females. Gretna House Juror is a three-year-old bull bought off-farm from the Gretna House herd in spring last year.
Maerdy Hercules is a French-bred bull, also bought off-farm from D.E. Evans, Flintshire. Their latest addition is Edenhurst Leader, a two-year-old bull bought for 11,000gns at Stirling in February this year.
Mr Rix says: “He was not an extreme bull at all, but very complete, with a great pedigree behind him. He is very clean and correct.
“Our stock bulls have to be 100 per cent correct. We want easy calving, easy fleshing progeny of reasonable scale. We do not want to shrink the breed, but at the same time, the days of extremely large Charolais are probably past.
“We always have different types of cows, so we select the bulls for them. Juror, for example, is a neater and more compact type.”
The Wissington show team this year comprises Lilac, a two-year-old heifer, Melody, a yearling heifer, and Mercedes, a yearling bull.
They will be accompanied by two yearlings from herdsman Darren Knox’s own small Drumshane herd, which run with the Wissington herd.
Lilac and Melody had their showring debut at the Smithfield Autumn Show, held at the East of England Showground last autumn.
Mr Rix says: “It was great preparation for them.”
Show animals are treated rather differently to the remainder of the herd and are kept in an airy barn through summer to maintain their condition.
As well as being fed a special ration, they are halter trained, exercised and washed regularly with washing-up liquid.
As well as breed champion honours at the Royal Highland, last year also saw Wissington Jocasta named inter-breed champion at the Royal Norfolk Show and South of England.
Mrs Rix says: “2016 was a great year. The Scots were incredibly welcoming and we are more than happy to go again this year, especially as we believe we have a beautiful two-year-old heifer in Lilac.”
However, the real measure of the Wissington herd’s success is achieving high prices in the round ring, as well as trophies in the square ring.
Mrs Rix says: “To get a stonking price in the sales ring is great, and to do so with some continuity would be amazing. We are competing against herds with genetics going back years, but we are getting there.”