Age-old farming techniques still as important today

The 56th annual stockmanship competition took place at Bishop Burton College earlier this week – officially making it the oldest college-run stockmanship competition in the UK. And for many of the 120 Level One and Level Two agriculture students taking part, it was their first time showing livestock.

The Stockmanship showing concept started in the 18th century, when farmers prepared their stock for market – a well-fed, well-bred cow would command a higher price even then. In the 1770s, a dairy cow could fetch up to £18*, equivalent to over £10,000 today, so there was significant money to be made in perfecting the art of stockmanship. But on a more basic level, stockmanship has been around for centuries – the ability to handle an animal has been an essential skill since man started keeping animals.

This tradition has been a stalwart of agriculture studies at Bishop Burton, and more recently, Riseholme College, for over half a century. For the last 14 years, that tradition has continued under the watchful eye of Chief Executive and Principal, Jeanette Dawson OBE, and she has been fastidious with staying true to its roots, even insisting on formal dress for all competitors.

As an innovative college known for its use of technology in and out of the classroom, you would think a tradition such as stockmanship, with its pomp and ceremony, would fall by the wayside. But that’s not the case. As the principal puts it, ‘stockmanship a fundamental skill that no technology or innovation will ever replace’.

The College’s stockmanship competition is designed to show learners exactly what is involved in getting an animal ready for show, whether they are from a livestock, arable or non-farming background. The students are in charge of diet, exercise and grooming and in the case of those showing the livestock, they also have to train their animal to walk on a halter – a difficult feat for even the most patient of students.

“The annual Stockmanship competition has been an important date in the College's history for over 50 years,” said Mrs Dawson. “It’s one of my favourite days of the year as we get to see weeks of hard work and dedication come together. Its animal husbandry at its finest, and every year the students surprise me.

“The competition enables our students to showcase their stock handling and presentation skills – fundamental skills that are as just important today as they were hundreds of years ago.”  

Preparations for this year’s competition began around five months ago when, as part of their studies students from the College’s two sites - Bishop Burton in Beverley and Riseholme in Lincolnshire - were allocated an animal to enter into the competition.

The animals, all bred and reared at the College, were handed over to students in January, becoming the sole responsibility of their student partner until the day of the competition. From feeding to grooming and even training them how to walk on a halter, the students have taken great pride in their stock, putting in hundreds of hours in the lead up to prepare their animal.

Jake Clover, a student at the College, showed beef at this year’s show for the first time. He never thought the process would be so challenging;

“Before I started the stockmanship process, I thought that I was a competent animal handler. It’s taken much more work than I ever thought – hundreds of hours over the last five months. I’m pleased with how she’s got on today, but walking on halter is still a bit hit and miss.”

Jake went on to take home the top agriculture award of the day; the Overall Champion in Agriculture.

This year’s competition is being presided over by master judge Karl Schneider, editor of Farmer’s Weekly magazine. Students were judged on the general presentation and handling of the animal, their personal presentation (the College still stipulates that students are dressed in the traditional way), knowledge of the breed and their preparation in the run up to the event.

The idea behind the competition is to enable students to experience what it’s like to prepare for a large show. They can practise their grooming and clipping skills and also make sure their animal’s diet is adequate to provide optimum condition on the day. It also gives them the chance to refine fundamental skills that all employers value.

“I’m often out and about on campus early in the morning and late at night and it’s always heartening to see the extra hours some of these students put in,” said Mrs. Dawson.

“They work hard during the day and then there they are, after hours halter training the animals and grooming them. There is no doubt in my mind that such dedication helps put them head and shoulders above the competition when it comes to entering the workplace.”

Mrs Dawson added; “These core skills continue to play a key role in agricultural and agri-food industries. They are part of the development of the next generation of farmers and suppliers of the future, and I’m proud that we continue such time-honoured traditions"

At the end of the event, it was a big day for girls, with all bar two awards going to female students at both Riseholme and Bishop Burton campuses. In what was a closely fought competition, Samantha Moody, a Bishop Burton equine student, and Jake Clover, an agriculture student studying at Riseholme College, were crowned the overall champions in equine and agriculture respectively.

Other awards on the day went to Matthew Wright and Kirsty Pole for Farm team and Grooms Awards, and reserve champions for equine and agriculture went to Isabella Pirolli and Annie Shearsmith.

The stock taking part in this year’s competition will also be on display at the College’s Open Farm Sunday event – part of the national LEAF Open Farm Sunday initiative - taking place on 11 June. Find out more about Bishop Burton College's Open Farm Sunday event.