Friday, December 6, 2019

H & E Rudge: Pick of the crop

July 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

The Rudge family are making a success of apple and beef farming in Herefordshire. Simon Wragg reports.

Difficulty picking eating apples last autumn has taken a bite out of this year’s crop – but investment is bearing fruit for the Rudge family of Ballingham Court, Herefordshire.

Farming 130ha in-hand and a further 60ha on a variety of lets, the need to have some intensive crops has always been on Esther Rudge’s mind. A fourth generation farmer working in partnership with husband Henry and son Monty, she began focusing on fruit in 2006.

“Apples are a common crop in the county mainly for pressing to make cider, but we opted to grow 20ac of Jonagold dessert apples which have a higher yield,” explains Mrs Rudge. The orchards produce around 600t annually for (national wholesaler) Copella apple juice, she adds.

Quality control

But there are constraints. Dessert apples require an intensive programme of treatments to avoid damage by pests and disease; are hand picked to avoid bruising; and need to be held off-farm in controlled atmosphere stores squeezing margins.

“Our biggest challenge has come from the uncertainty over Brexit and the changing economics of eastern European countries. Both have made it more difficult to get migrant pickers in October and November.”

That was exactly the case last autumn. The knock-on effects of late harvesting have impacted on this year’s apple yield which has been cut by up to 80% based on a visual assessment, explains Mr Rudge.

Fortunately, the family’s smaller area of organic pears grown for box schemes wasn’t affected. These are lower yielding but worth about 10 times as much as apples grown for juice and are picked in September.

Income streams

Despite being ‘out-and-out’ farmers and initially preferring to grow crops for human food rather than for producing green energy, investment in an 80kw AD plant – and ground-based solar panels – is paying dividends.

Son Monty manages the AD unit which is self-sufficient in feedstocks of triticale and maize from the family’s own land and by-products from neighbouring farms. Excess energy dries digestate used as a soil conditioner across the arable land.

Liquid digestate helps offset bought-in fertiliser and is described as being ‘pokey’. Mrs Rudge adds: “We’re also improving the livestock enterprises. We run 70 sucklers and have been moving over to Stabilisers put to pedigree Hereford bulls – fertility tested annually – selected on EBVs.”

With a typical average mature weight of 650kg, Stabilisers require less feed for maintenance than their larger Belgian Blue X predecessors. The aim is to get calves to 50% of the dam’s mature weight by weaning in October having been calved indoors in February.

The target is advocated by industry body AHDB Beef & Lamb. Mr Rudge adds: “We don’t push the calves with expensive bought-in feed over the first winter as they gain condition from compensatory growth when turned out the following spring.

“We may give some whole-crop feed to mature steers which need a hand to get finished in time for a monthly draw for Waitrose via its processor Dovecote Park. Typically, heifers go at 18-20 months old; steers at 20-22 months old.

“Our target is for a maximum carcase weight of 360kg. Using the processor’s 15-point carcase assessment we achieve R and the occasional U grades; that places us in the top 10% of suppliers for our herd size.”

Future developments will see the best Stabilisers AI’d to produce replacements for the herd. Greater emphasis will be placed on weighing growing cattle at routine husbandry tasks such as worming to monitor weight gains.

Meanwhile, management of the expanding flock of 200 Romney x Aberfield ewes put to New Zealand Suffolk tups is being addressed to tighten the lambing to just four weeks from mid February. Mrs Rudge acknowledges the issue: “It’s remembering to take the tups out in November when we’re focused on the apple harvest.”

Finished lambs are drawn from late May and are sold to processor ABP. From late July any remaining lambs – along with bought-in stores – are moved on to hybrid rape to ease demand on grazing.

New venture

A small area of grassland is being rented to daughter Steph for a new glamping venture. It features three luxury tents sleeping up to six people having attracted LEADER funding. To be launched via social media shortly, it occupies an unspoilt vista above the River Wye.

Managing expenditure is core to the Rudges’ ethos. Machinery is shared with a neighbouring relative in a bid to contain costs. Contractor Gareth Watkins undertakes grassland and cereal harvesting while Agrovista undertakes agronomy within fruit orchards and Anthony Wade of Hillhampton Technical Services looks after arable crops.

The family has been recognised for its efforts to improve wildlife habit culminating in the Wye Valley AONB Farmer of the Year award 2018.

Public education, hedges planted as wildlife corridors, buffer strips, managed woodland for firewood sales and leaving inter-row foliage for beneficial insects in the orchards all feature. “There’s a reason why everything is there,” reflects Mrs Rudge.

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