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Q & A: David Benson reflects on 30 years at the helm of the British Charolais Cattle Society

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David Benson is retiring after 30 years as chief executive of the British Charolais Society. Chloe Palmer speaks to him about his career.

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David Benson reflects on 30 years at the helm of the British Charolais Cattle Society

THE beef sector has changed dramatically in the 30 years since David Benson joined the British Charolais Society, but his passion for the breed has never wavered. Admitting he cannot comprehend working without Charolais cattle in his life, Mr Benson describes his role with the society as ‘a job in a million’.

 

After gaining an honours degree in agriculture from Newcastle University, Mr Benson decided he wanted to ‘get some muck on his boots’ and obtain some practical experience.
He says: “My life has been mapped out for me. In my teenage years, I knew a local farmer, Billy Turner, who ran the local shoot and in 1975 after I graduated he established the Brampton herd of pedigree Charolais. He was looking for someone to manage it and I took the job.


It was during the years working for Mr Turner that Mr Benson’s love of the Charolais breed developed and so when an opportunity arose with the British Charolais Society in 1988, it seemed an obvious next career move for him.


As he reflects on a lifetime working for the Charolais breed, Mr Benson remains humble about his role within the society.


He says: “I have always recognised it is the members who pay my wages and I have tried to do my best for them. They are my employers.”


Mr Benson’s successor, Peter Phythian, will join the society in the middle of March. Asked if he had any advice for Mr Phythian, Mr Benson says:


“My first boss, Mr Turner gave me two pieces of advice when I left his employment to join the Charolais Society. He said I should never get myself into a corner I could not get out of. And he also advised me to always make sure there was plenty of money behind the organisation as I would never know what was round the corner. And he was spot on.”

How has the society changed since you took the job?

When I started with the society, the only identification the pedigree animals would have would be a tattoo. There were no passports or animal ID and much less red tape. The price paid for a finished beef animal then was the same as it is now so there is much less slack in the system today.
We charged £25 to register a calf 40 years ago and we still do. We had a single computer and it was only used for the registrations. It was enormous and filled a room which had to be air conditioned. Everything else was done manually.

What do you think is the biggest threat to the beef industry today?

I have enjoyed every moment of my career. The camaraderie, the characters and the cattle, but I am frustrated that one major threat to the industry remains. My one regret is successive Governments have not got to grips with bovine TB. They have pussy-footed around and spent a lot of money but have not tackled the root cause. Things are now starting to move in the right direction but TB continues to have a massive impact on our members, particularly in the south west of England.

How do you see the future for Charolais cattle?

Despite the downward pressure on cattle prices generally the market for pedigree Charolais bulls remains buoyant. We have seen some high prices at the bull sales recently for Charolais but one swallow does not make a summer.


There are still more than 600 pedigree Charolais bulls sold each year through the bull sales and more are sold privately. Considering there are half a million less suckler cattle in the UK than 30 years ago, it shows how the breed as evolved to meet a changing market.


The Charolais is now easier calving but it has not sacrificed growth rates or conformation to achieve this. The type of bulls produced when I started with the society would not sell today.
The market for pedigree bulls is now more competitive and the needs of buyers are more diverse.

 

We have to offer a variety of animals for sale because we must produce something to suit buyers with very different needs. The Charolais has positioned itself as the ‘king of terminal sires’ and the breed continues to provide what the market wants.

What is the main role for the society?

The role of the society in furthering the success of the breed has been important. We have never dictated to our members but rather we support them. Our robust genetic evaluation system involves 300 members who performance record using the Australian Agricultural Business Research Institute programme.
The estimated breeding values generated allow our customers to select for the traits they want in a bull so they can shortlist and go and see the ones which look most suitable.
This year we will hold the National Charolais Show in my home county at the Great Yorkshire Show and we are looking forward to excellent entries. The show ring is the shop window for the breed and it is a chance for individual breeders to raise their profile and meet future customers.

What are the main challenges and opportunites for the breed?

The industry will need to adapt to meet the challenges of a changing market and continuing pressure on prices. I think we will see fewer commercial suckler herds but they are likely to increase in size. Until now, producers have not been as aware of their costs as they will have to be.
The market will demand an animal at the right specification in as short a time period as possible. There is the opportunity to supply dairy beef bulls to the dairy herd alongside continuing as the tailor made terminal sire in beef suckler herds. The dairy sector is looking for a different kind of bull to use on Holsteins. The bulls need to be smaller in stature, with a shorter gestation period but with good conformation. We have these animals in the herd book.

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