Family fears agriculture will be ignored in European Union trade talks and see diversification as a way to protect their livelihood
Barbara Duckworth returned from assignment in England, Scotland and Ireland. She filed this report from her visit to Creslow Manor in Aylesbury, England.
Beef from Creslow Manor once graced the royal tables of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court, but today farm owners Brian and Linda Lear sell their beef to retail giant Marks and Spencer.
Located near Aylesbury in central England, the farm is rich in history but moves with the times.
The main house was built in 1327 and contains most of the original fittings with a large kitchen hearth, hefty wooden beams supporting ceilings and four floors reached by winding staircases.
“It is the oldest continually inhabited house in Buckinghamshire,” said Brian.
The estate included a church that was razed when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries as England shifted from a Catholic to Protestant state. Brian and Linda’s son, Steven, and his family live there now.
Various owners have held the property over the centuries, including the man who signed the death warrant for King Charles I following his defeat to Oliver Cromwell.
Prize Hereford cattle grazed here in the 18th century.
The British government eventually assumed ownership. Linda’s family moved there in 1954 and took over as tenants.
When she and Brian married, they were able to buy the property that includes pastureland as well as 1,500 acres of cropland.
This farm had a registered Aberdeen Angus herd, but Brian and Linda wanted to make changes.
They were looking for greater efficiency and more pounds of beef. Experiments with Limousin, Charolais and Simmental resulted in switching to a Limousin herd using imported semen and eventually live cattle purchases.
“As a producer in those days, the problem was your Angus heifers would get fat and they were very lightweight,” said Brian, who is also vice-president of the British Limousin Cattle Society.
“I could push the Limousin heifers to grow fast without getting too fat.”
Working with their adult sons, Steven and Adam, and daughter, Nicola, Brian and Linda are interested in expansion. This year they calved 380 cows and plan to calve 450 next year. They used to have 650 commercial cows, but government subsidies based on production were changed from paying farmers on a per head basis to a more land-based subsidy.
All the cattle are registered, but they do not sell any bulls. The herd is regularly tested for bovine tuberculosis, and positive results have been found on the farm, although not at slaughter.
TB has been a problem for years and they cannot seem to get rid of it, even when large numbers of badgers are removed. Badgers are suspected of carrying the disease, but there could be other sources.
“TB is a big issue in the southwest of England, and the government has not really tackled it,” Brian said.
They are told TB is not endemic in wildlife, but the family wonders about the disease being harboured in the local deer population.
“We have to test all our cows every 60 days. I put a thousand cattle through every 60 days,” he said.
“I have come to the conclusion we have got to live with it. The government is not tackling the problem in the wildlife.”
Government pays for the testing, but the Lears don’t think the compensation is adequate. Payments are based on commercial auction market data, and pedigreed stock is based on bull sale averages.
“It is all right if you’ve got rubbish cattle, but if you’ve got good cattle, you are up against it,” he said.
They sell their steers and heifers to Marks and Spencer through a special premium contract, but the bulls are not accepted in that audited program.
“We have to provide the sort of cattle they want. We can’t sell bulls there, so just the steers and heifers go there,” he said.
They also finish bulls because they cannot sell them as breeding stock due to the TB problem.
“I have gone back to fattening bulls ,which is not really what the market wants,” he said.
The cattle are housed indoors from October to the end of March in large well-lit barns. This area gets about 660 millimetres of rain a year, although the Lears consider their region to be dry because they have colleagues who receive 1,500 mm of annual rainfall.
They aim to finish young bulls at 13 to 16 months on home-grown grass and corn silage to reach a carcass weight of around 380 kilograms.
This year they are trying shreddage, in which the crop is cut into longer, rougher pieces, to see if that improves digestible fibre intake.
The bulls yield about three percent more than the steers, but the final payment is about eight cents a kg less.
“At the end of the day we are trying to get things to grow as fast as possible to get them to target weight as quick as possible so we can turn them over quicker,” he said.
Efficiency is a key outcome, and they aim to be in the top 25 percent for cost of production and profitability.
The family conducts genomic testing on their bulls to improve carcass merit and achieve an earlier age at slaughter.
They wean calves at five to seven months of age compared to the national average of around 10 months.
Heifers should calve at 24 months, and the males must grow fast.
“I need to know when bulls get to target weight,” Brian said.
“At two pounds a day (cost of) feeding them, it can be a 60 lb. difference in my costs, and so I want cattle that get to that peak quickly.”
In addition, they have imported Canadian genetics to get polled cattle. These cattle also carry a bit more fat that could be a marketing advantage, but some of them are also black.
“The traditional breeders didn’t want to know about black and there is still a lot of opposition,” Brian said.
Added Steven: “If you bring a black bull to the shows, you get a lot of comments.”
The family’s drive for efficiency is partly linked to the ongoing negotiations as the United Kingdom works to split as painlessly as possible from the European Union by 2019.
“With all the challenges we have going forward with trade, we don’t know where we are going to be. We need every advantage we can get,” Brian said.
“We’ve got a government that is desperate to do trade deals, and I think we are going to get picked off in agriculture. I don’t see agriculture as being the top of their agenda.”
They have diversified to protect themselves, and host weddings and corporate parties on the property all summer.
“We are looking to get more money out of our assets, and I think that is going to be more and more,” said Brian.
Many area farmers are doing similar things with agritourism or renting out farm buildings to companies looking for storage.
They are an hour outside of London and worry about instant suburbs springing up in their community. There is a housing shortage in England, and with astronomical real estate values in London, these farming regions could evolve into bedroom communities.
The new neighbours may like the country ambience but forget what happens when farmland is paved over.
“People forget where their foods come from,” said Linda.