Cull cows and retired nanny goats may not seem like a lucrative business to some, but Coombe Farm Organic has turned them into sell-out products. But how have they built a business selling hundreds of meat boxes a week from a diversified dairy farm? Ruth Wills finds out.
From humble beginnings as a dairy farm in Crewkerne, the Coombe Farm Organic estate has since diversified to cover 1,011 hectares (2,498 acres) with a thriving alternative business. Set deep in the heart of Somerset, the estate is owned by the A.H. Warren Trust, which focuses on agricultural and rural development.
Marketing and sales manager Jemima Marks says: “The home farm is predominately dairy, but with help from the trust we have diversified into solar panels – which also power its commercial sites – a sporting company, a garage, an agricultural engineering business and storage.
“The farm turned organic in the late 1990s and we recognised there was an opportunity for online sales and to sell direct to customers instead of the supermarket. It was really trial and error. There’s no secret recipe, from the packaging to the box strength, or how to freeze the meat. “It’s been a long journey, but we’ve got it down now.”
They have since invited other farms to provide chicken, duck, venison, turkey and goose.
“It works really well. The customer will place an order on the website and we’ll send it out the next day,” she says.
“All the farms are regularly inspected to make sure they are meeting the Coombe Farm and Soil Association criteria.”
The business has clearly grown exponentially, going from working in a portable cabin to running six freezer containers and a butchery. The milk from the 800-cow dairy herd is sold to a high street retailer, but everything else is sold direct.
But something which has proven a real hit is producing beef from the retired dairy cows – an enterprise born out of the Soil Association’s Organic September initiative.
“It was really to encourage everyone to think about the benefits of eating organic and what it means to farm organically,” says Jemima. “We decided we wanted to do something a bit different and shake things up.”
The team was inspired by farmers in northern Spain, who graze cattle around their vineyards or olive groves until they reach an old age and are then slaughtered to create Basque beef.
“They are essentially lawn mowers for their entire life until they come to the end of it,” says Jemima. “When you cut into the beef, you get lots of lovely marbling and we thought we could do the same here. When the dairy cows have finished their productive life – our oldest being 14 – they are turned out to fatten on grass. They will grow organically, there are no pesticides or antibiotics – just grass and forage.
“Rather than the unceremonious offing of cull cows, we allow them time to fatten, then they go to a local abattoir.”
Finishing time varies from cow to cow as they are all different, and it can be anywhere between six weeks and six months. Farm manager Ryan Sloman Brown ‘knows when they are right’. Ryan says: “We normally expect a deadweight of 300-350kg. Because each animal is different, we cut them differently too. A retired dairy cow might have a nice rib, but the shin might not be as good, so we will mince that.
“As each cow comes back, we can vary it.”
The cows graze typically from the end of March through to the end of October and are milked twice a day. They are on an autumn block calving system and fed mostly wholecrop, grass silage and pea barley silage during winter and paddock grazed during spring and summer.
“It is performance based to put it bluntly. If they don’t get in calf or if the yields aren’t high enough then we retire them,” he says.
“We’re putting through six retired dairy beef cows a month and selling out each time.
“The flavour is deep and complex. We started selling it in 2018 and it’s going unbelievably well. It’s great for people who love barbecues, briskets and restaurants who want to try something different. We’re trying to highlight the benefits of organic. The cows have had a wonderful life, then they retire. It’s hugely sustainable.”
With a view to reducing dairy bull calf numbers, all the Holstein Friesian dairy cows are now served to beef bulls – either Shorthorn, British Blue or Limousin.
“We rear the beef youngstock on a diet of grass and forage until they are between 25 and 28 months old.” G o a t , l a m b and pork also make up the product range at Coombe Farm Organic. The supplying local goat farm is not organic, but the decision to sell goatmeat follows the sustainable values that run right through the business. The goats have access to silage or hay at all times, most of which is grown on-farm, and as they are milking goats they have concentrates in the parlour.
“Dairy goats are the fastest growing sector in the dairy industry, but the billies and older nanny goats are useless,” says Jemima.
“We saw a gap in the market. A lot of people like goatmeat but were saying they couldn’t get hold of it.”
Although she currently sells some stock wholesale, Jemima has ambitions to drive all the sales through the meat box business. The farm runs 2,000 Lleyn cross Texel sheep plus Gloucester Old Spot pigs crossed with British Lops and Pietrains. The pigs are reared on a mix made up of 60 per cent organic home-grown barley and 40 per cent bought-in organic meal. Lambs are grass-fed, including clover and herbs, without any cereal supplements and the pigs live outdoors all year, with access to pig arks.
Ryan says: “Many lambs are grown quickly, fed on grain to finish them at speed. We don’t slaughter our lambs until they’re at least eight months old which means your organic lamb will have welldeveloped muscle with a natural, palatable covering of sweet fat.”
It is consumers’ changing attitudes and fluctuating food trends which has helped to secure the business for the future, while also recognising the need to work in a more environmentally friendly way.
The farm is part of Higher Level Stewardship as well as The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group who regularly inspect each farm and make recommendations for how they can bolster biodiversity. To name but a few, the parkland is rich in a variety of species including meadow buttercup, red clover, sheep sorrel and field woodrush, while hedgerows are cut in rotation to leave ample blossom over spring and berries over summer and autumn. That allows a broad and deep hedge to develop which provides plenty of refuge as well as feed sources for both insects and birds.
“On average, plant, insect and bird life is 50 per cent more abundant on organic farms and they are also home to 30 per cent more species than non-organic farms,” Jemima says. “Consumers are considering more than ever what they are putting into their mouths. Without a doubt we’ve got to eat less meat, but we have got to make it more sustainable when we do.
“We’ve really built a secure business. We want the farm to be in the best possible position for the future, for nature, for the birds, biodiversity and to be a great place to work.”