Outside the Region they're...
For centuries, British Beef was quite-rightly regarded as the best beef in the world, although recent BSE and foot & mouth crises have somewhat dented that polished image. However, there are many responsible beef producers in the UK who are putting the pride back into British Beef - and Penny Hodgson is one such cattle breeder.
Penny farms 28 acres of lush lowland meadow in the Vale of York with her husband Geoff, just outside the picturesque market town of Easingwold. The land here is ideally suited to cattle rearing, and the farm is home to a herd of sixty-plus pampered, pure-bred pedigree Dexter cattle, under the watchful eye of her prize-winning bull, Killis Lane Arkwright.
Dexters are small black, red or dun hill cattle originally from the mountains of Ireland that first made an appearance in England in 1882. Today, these small hardy cattle are found in many areas and are a particular favourite of the smallholder. They are fast being introduced into environmentally sensitive areas of Britain, but far more importantly, they are gaining a growing reputation for the quality of the beef they produce.
As this fact is becoming more widely known, the demand for Dexters is growing accordingly. Dexters were once an endangered breed, but numbers are now on the rise due to their popularity as an ideal breed for low-input, finest quality beef products. It was with this in mind that Penny decided to concentrate her efforts on breeding, rearing and finishing Dexters in order to produce the best quality British beef available anywhere in the country.
Top quality Beef Cattle
Penny and her family only moved to Easingwold 1½ years ago, where they re-built their Dexter herd after losing their first herd during the foot & mouth crisis in a contiguous cull. Today, the Thornhill herd includes a large number of suckler cows with calves, and as many steers as the land will comfortably take, being finished for beef. Penny is now gaining a well-earned reputation for naturally reared top-quality beef cattle and for successfully marketing that prime beef profitably.
As Penny says, "We let our animals lead as stress free a life as possible, with plenty of room to graze in comfort, with any additional haylage and silage coming only from our own fields. I can closely watch what my animals eat, from the milk they suckle at their mother's udder, right the way through to when they finally go to the butcher. I know that the beef I produce is free from any additives or unnatural foodstuffs. This is what I mean by 'full traceability'." Natural and happy life
Once a calf is born it lives a natural and happy life with the rest of the herd in the fields around Easingwold, under the watchful eye of the White Horse of Kilburn. Annie is the current matriarch of the Thornhill herd, and this placid cow ensures that the youngsters enjoy a happy life on the farm. All of Penny's cattle have names and, although this might seem somewhat strange considering where some will end up, Penny firmly believes that by pampering her friendly cows they will lead contented lives, and produce tasty beef as a result.
Such attention to detail and painstaking care to feed her Dexters only on what cattle would eat naturally means that the risk of infection or illness is kept to an absolute minimum. It is no coincidence that no Dexter anywhere became infected with foot & mouth, nor were there any cases of BSE amongst Britain's Dexter herds. Dexter beef, therefore, can legitimately claim to be pure and untainted. Full traceability through double-tagging is now in place and recent government legislation should ensure that Dexter beef remains clean, pure and disease-free.
The natural cycle of a cow is about nine months, and each year Penny reckons on producing about twenty calves, while Killis Lane Arkwright, or Archie as he is fondly known, also serves other Dexters brought into Thornhill Farm by those wanting his expert services. Of the Thornhill heifers, some are kept for breeding whilst others are sold on. The bull calves are castrated and kept for beef. After about 24 months the average steer has hopefully reached a weight of around 400kg, at which time they will be taken down the road to Tholthorpe, where the next stage in the process takes place.
Coincidentally, there is currently a European Commission Research Project looking into the production of healthier beef. The bureaucrats in Strasburg have finally cottoned on to what beef producers like Penny Hodgson have known for many years, and that is that the consumer wants healthier, tastier beef that is fully traceable. The EU report states, "the research will offer added value to the consumer in terms of a more healthy and wholesome food produced using methods, which are safe and more natural, based on local breeds and feed resources. The producer will also benefit by adapting strategies to produce more healthy and natural beef, which may command a premium in the market." However, it is of some concern as to whether this 'research' will include creating unnatural feedstuffs, or whether it will rely on the most natural of products, grass.
The Dexter is probably the finest breed of cattle for conservation areas, and is a very thrifty breed, capable of producing top quality beef from a variety of marginal habitats, meaning there is less poaching of land.
Dexters produce traditionally reared beef that is fine-grained and marbled, and as such is much sought after by the discerning connoisseur who wants to be sure of natural, wholesome production.
Care in the rearing and finishing of Dexter steers ensures that happy, healthy and hearty animals leaves Penny's pretty farm in Easingwold en route for the dinner table.