For generations, Will and Lois's families have farmed. Both our families started farming in the now London suburbs of Bushey, Harrow & Northolt. The British dairy industry was prominent for the early part of the 20th Century, and agriculture and urban areas were closely connected. Before refrigeration and supermarkets, the horse and cart dairy delivery rounds happened twice a day. I will dedicate an entire blog to this wonderful history shortly, but for now I will focus on today.
As both families moved out of expanding London in the post-war years and into the home counties, changes were afoot in the wider agricultural industry. Many farmers came away from dairy and branched into, or expanded their commercial beef production. This beef industry is something that our families have been dedicated to for decades. There have many changes from consumer tastes to industry developments and new breeds of cattle. British beef production is a process that has been fine-tuned and we are now at a time where farmers are utilising a wealth of experience and traditional techniques, alongside new technology and machinery to make the time cattle spend on the farm, and their subsequent output, optimal in every way.
This makes the the 'process' of farming sound very industrial, and sadly due to supermarket demand and at times minimal margins, many farmers are forced into 'optimising their output' and streamlining costs to the max. However, we are very lucky in the UK that our legislation, and the ethos of the British farming community puts the welfare of animals at the forefront of the farming picture.
This is something that the Waterperry Farm Shop agriculture team are particularly proud of. We are proud that our stock all happily graze the spring, summer & autumn months. They live a happy and healthy life with minimal stress and they are bred responsibly. Ultimately when the time comes, they end their days in a humane way. I want to put that last phrase in, because it is something we feel very strongly about. Many portrayals of 'good farms' are simply of bouncing lambs in glorious pastures and beautifully bedded up cosy winter cattle yards. These are indeed scenes of excellent farming across farms throughout the UK including our own. However the end of life for many of these creatures is a taboo that is rarely discussed. Here at Waterperry, we love our animals and treat them with extraordinary care. We never take pleasure in animals going to the abattoir, however it is a necessity and a part of farming that we devote as much attention to as other aspects of keeping animals.
For all our meat that will be in the farm shop we use a local, family-run abattoir so our animals don't have to travel too far. Sadly there aren't many of these places around now. Here, animals are unloaded carefully into a well designed handling system. The whole process is as humane and stress free as possible. It is fantastic that technology and research have advanced so much that abattoirs can totally minimise any suffering that animals in previous centuries here (and sadly to this day in some other countries) would have endured at slaughter. It is a shame this aspect of meat production is such a 'taboo', as some information available to interested consumers would quell any concerns and fears.
So here is the story of a beef animal bred on our farm, throughout it's life...we hope you find it interesting...
We have 6 breeding bulls on the farm. They are turned out in the summer months to graze with about 40 'ladies' each (the less experienced bulls start with just a few!!).
The gestation of a cow is the same as a human, so by February we often have our first calf. Calving then continues through until late spring, and the last few cows calve out in the fields after we have turned the cattle out to graze. The workload on the farm with the livestock is at it's height during these months, and the cows due to calve are checked regularly through the day and the night.
All the cattle on the farm enjoy time grazing for the majority of the year. There is not a nicer sight than seeing playing calves racing around the field at dawn and dusk. The older cows are very knowing at turnout time in the spring and have a big skip and a run around the field before tucking into the spring grass. Our oldest cow on the farm is 16 years old and our younger cows are 3. We often keep some of our home bred heifers (young female cows who haven't yet calved) to breed from in the future.
All the cattle are monitored for general health throughout the summer and are wormed and given a long lasting fly-repellent on their backs to help keep away the plague of summer flies, particularly when they are grazing by the river.
The calves stay with their mums until they are about 6-8 months old. They are raised purely on her milk until they start to self-wean by nibbling at the grass and some of the 'creep feed' (calf nuts) available in the calf feeders out in the field. By this time, they are perfectly able to get all their nutrients from the solid food, but sometimes they do have a cheeky drink from mum. This is often met by a kick from mum who resents being headbutted in the udder by a now very strong 8 month old calf! When the cows come in to the sheds for winter, the calves are separated from their mums at this weaning age. Although there is a little mooing for the first night, they soon settle with their gaggle of friends and the mum's start to enjoy their calf-less freedom again.
We allow the cows to 'dry off' (any remaining milk supply in their udders has a chance to stop and they are closely monitored for any problems such as mastitis, just like at weaning time in humans).
The cattle are all housed in the warm barns through the winter, and fed appropriately according to whether they are young, pregnant or 'finishing' cattle. Our feed rations consist of mainly home grown produce (hay, silage, barley, beans and oats). Any supplementary maize or minerals we buy in are natural products. They are bedded on our own straw.
It's just the grass they graze and these winter feeds, that our cattle consume. Therefore our top quality beef is achieved as naturally as possible. If the cattle are ever poorly, they are appropriately treated. Our medicine cabinet operates on a need by need basis, and natural methods are always tried first. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES do we give any growth hormones (totally banned in British beef), blanket antibiotics or any other kind of growth enhancers.
The following spring last years calves are about a year old and are put out to graze again. It is at this point that some farmers who breed cattle sell them at market to go to other farms to graze on and 'finish'. At this age they are known as 'store cattle'. But for us here, we keep them all the way through.
After this second summer of fun in the fields, they then come in for their last winter in the barns. They are nearly fully grown by this stage and we start to increase their feed ration so they can develop good muscling and marbling for an exceptional quality of meat. This is still our own home-produced natural feed ration, with some added vitamins and minerals for health.
From 18 months to 2 years old, the cattle are selected to go to the abattoir. They are selected based on their weight and condition.
The beef carcass is hung in optimum conditions for at least 14 days to ensure the best quality of meat.
The butcher then prepares all the cuts of meat for the end consumer.
There are so many cuts available from prime fillet & rib of beef through to braising steak and chuck - perfect for slow cooking. We will be selling a selection of cuts in the shop when we open at Easter. Also available will be yummy homemade ready meals such as lasagne and cottage pie made with our home grown beef. Delish!