Efficiency, sustainability and diversification are the ingredients for success at one Leicestershire farm. Tim Relf meets the Vickers family to find out more about their growing ideas.
The approach Vickers family have to livestock production at the 120 hectare (300 acre) Binleys Bridge Farm at Smeeton Westerby near Market Harborough in Leicestershire is this: ‘good breeding and good feeding.’
Between John, his wife Jill and his parents Michael and Elizabeth, they run 120 suckler cows and 350 breeding sheep, while hiring out a building for corporate events and is increasingly retailing meat direct to the public.
“We do absolutely everything we can to maximise returns from the land and assets we’ve got, rather than borrowing huge amounts and expanding our acreage,” says John.
“Even though the ground is heavy clay-loam – the locals refer to it as ‘Debdale treacle mines’ – it’s got real good heart.”
The ‘good breeding, good feeding’ mantra sees mostly Limousin-cross cows kept, with bulls finished at between 12 and 14 months, while steers and heifers go at 18 months. Most of the cattle are sold deadweight – the batch of bulls leaving the farm in July averaged about 340p/kg.
John says: “We’ve deliberately chosen not to go down the route of keeping the more traditional breeds. I want consistency and predictability, as well as meat and flavour. What butchers and customers want is great quality meat that’s been well fed, well looked after, butchered in the right way, well hung and obviously has full traceability. They’re less fixated on the actual breed.
“Limousins are very efficient converters of food, offering good confirmation with a nice cover of fat.
“I like the fact that with the bulls, we can hit carcasses about the 400kg-mark at 13 months of age. We finish them at a young age, so we can increase our stocking density. There’s hardly a spare blade of grass on this farm.”
This approach of turning the land into a ‘highly productive and fertile establishment’ is one that the Vickers see as key to being successful modern and professional farmers, but it is one that very much goes hand-in-hand with sustainability.
“People talk about cows producing methane, but you have to see that in the context of the environment that livestock farmers provide – the grassland that might otherwise be ploughed up, the soil we improve, the water courses we enhance, the hedgerows and trees we plant, and the wildlife we encourage,” he says.
Now in the second year of a mid-tier ELS, Binleys Bridge had previously been in ELS and, before that, two terms of the original CSS. “The mid-tier scheme was an absolute nightmare to get into, but it’s important we do it and it’s funding a lot of hedging work.”
Meanwhile, the mainly Masham ewes are put to mostly Charollais rams, lambing in a three-week window from the third week of March. “The farm doesn’t allow us to lamb any earlier because it’s too wet,” says John.
About three-quarters of the lambs are marketed deadweight, ready from the third week of July, with a target carcass weight of about 22kg. The first batch of 80, which went through a livestock market, made about £75/head this year.
With cattle and sheep prices both down on the levels of a year ago, the Vickers are increasingly keen to build direct retail sales. This was part of the reason they held a pop-up butcher’s shop at the farm in late June.
With the motto ‘From Our Farm to Your Table’, the event drew nearly 400 people and built on the momentum created by previous lambing open days, which had highlighted to them the demand for their meat.
“A tiny minority of people have chosen to go vegan or veggie, but a lot more have decided to focus on buying local,” says Jill.
“Red meat is getting a lot of bad press at the moment and, whether the negative claims are true or not, this can take hold in people’s psyche. As an industry, we need to fight back.
“Customers want to keep food miles down, they want to know what they’re eating and to be sure that those animals have been well cared for and respected.
“We try to give people confidence by explaining our animals are grass-fed and hung for 21 days.
“We’re also big advocates of not using antibiotics.
“Some farmers, perhaps understandably, have closed their doors because they’re scared of dealing with the public, but as an industry we’ve got to show them exactly what we’re doing. We need to re-educate people about all the benefits that livestock farming brings.”
The June event marked the latest step in the family’s diversification journey – they had previously been running a cookery school, Bridge 67, on the site.
“We opened that in 2005 because we wanted an additional enterprise that complemented the core farm business and drew on our skills, but that we could switch off during lambing,” says Jill.
For Jill, a Harper Adams graduate and farmer’s daughter with a marketing background, a food-related business was the ideal choice.
“The cookery school worked really well and we were offering a wide range of courses for people of all abilities, but it was a huge amount of weekend work and we were always on-call. We just fell out of love with it in the end,” she says.
“Times change and your own situation changes so you have to adapt.”
The solution has been to use the building, which was part-funded by a Rural Development Programme for England grant, as a venue for corporate meetings and events.
She says: “Our USP is that we offer a boutique away-day in a lovely, quiet spot and can provide home-produced food if people want it.”
Charging £450 for exclusive use of the building for a day, this is now a ‘back-burner’ income-generator, allowing the family to concentrate on the farm and their burgeoning retail ambitions.
They are even wondering about the possibility of opening a butchers or farm shop off-site in the longer term.
Meanwhile, they supply two local restaurants – Boboli and The Lighthouse – direct with lamb and beef. “It’s always been a personal ambition of mine to sell meat to a restaurant,” says John.
“We decided to go back to basics – we’re going to concentrate on producing great-tasting red meat and hosting events for our customers here on the farm,” he adds.
“We don’t know what will happen in the long term, but want to position ourselves so we can give our children opportunities if, in time, they choose to get involved or want to run a business here.
“Diversified farms are often the ones that keep the next generation involved – so we always try to be positive and hopefully that’ll keep them interested and inspired.”
The family firmly believes it will be the farms with various income streams that will be the resilient ones, able to withstand tough times in the future and this contributed to the decision to install a 150kw ground-mount solar array which, now in its fifth year, covers 0.6ha (1.5 acres).
He says: “You have to look at all the assets and features you’ve got around you and get into a mindset where you constantly ask: ‘What can we do that makes the most of this, while simultaneously improving and enhancing it?’
“That’s got to be a more sensible approach than constantly striving to acquire more land and saddling ourselves with a big mortgage as a result. People might talk about agricultural land being available for £8,000 per acre, but you’ve only got to have two landowners with development money looking to buy it, then that price could rocket.
“If consumers choose to eat a bit less red meat, we can live with that, as long as what they are choosing to buy is really good quality meat.
“I can’t envisage a time when we won’t be primarily red meat producers – and as a family we’re very proud of that.”