Christmas is the best time of the year for one Vale of Glamorgan family, as that is when a venture stretching back for more than 100 years comes into its own. Barry Alston reports.
Beef cattle, sheep and cereal crops may be the Rees’ family primary enterprises but as far as they are concerned, they would not be without their festive season turkeys.
And that goes for their customers, too. So popular are the birds from Bryn Farm, at Clawddcoch, near Cowbridge, that every single one is spoken for even before they leave the hatchery.
As well as turkeys, farm stocking runs to 120 suckler cows producing top quality finished beef cattle, a 500-ewe flock, 10 ha (25 acres) of maize and up to 20 ha (50 acres) of barley for on-farm use.
Tom, the third generation of the family to farm the mixed enterprise, says: “It means that as a family we are busy all year round and while the four-legged variants make up our main livestock activities, there will always be a place for turkeys. We know that keeping them has been a family tradition for more than a century.
“Poults arrive at the end of September, are bedded on straw and get a proprietary cereal-based growing ration.
“We start slaughtering on December 17 and then the whole family comes together to carry out the processing.”
It is a real family affair with Tom, a Harper Adams University graduate, farming alongside his parents, Robert and Jan, and brother, David.
In all, the family is farming 384 ha (950 acres), of which 283 ha (700 acres) are owned, in a family partnership involving Robert’s brother, Ed, his wife Anne, and son, Owen, who live on the nearby Brynhelygan Farm, at Pendoylan.
“We can call on up to 18 relatives and close friends to carry out the entire finishing operation and make sure customer orders are filled to their exact weight requirements,” says Tom.
“To start with we wet feather, follow that up with machine plucking and then finish off by hand, before starting to take out the innards and hanging the birds in our cold stores.
“Demand has been boosted in recent times by other turkey rearers in the area having given up – but there is a limit to the numbers we can handle working as a family team.
“That is why our customers who return year after year make sure of their orders by putting down their markers early, even before we take delivery of the six-week-old poults.
“It is not an enterprise that will suit everyone and to be successful it needs a special sort of person. There is a lot of hands-on work but get the correct breed and the right rearing system it can pay.
“Our prices are fixed according to the general market trends at the time, plus a premium for being farm fresh.
“We specialise in the white feathered breeds, which we have found from experience produce the more tender and succulent meats.”
And as for their returning customers, many have become much more than just sales numbers.
“We believe quality is the key factor from start to finish, being prepared to match up with customer needs and all with a friendly, family approach,” says Jan Rees.
“We must be doing something right as we can have three-generations from some families coming back year after year and we are able to call many of them friends as the years have gone by.
“For some collecting their turkey is like a family outing with children, parents and grandparents all coming together. For many it’s the thrill of visiting a working farm and seeing where their food is produced, while for others it’s a chance to bump into a friendly face and catch up on the
latest local news.”
Producing quality beef is also the aim of the family’s cattle enterprise which revolves around April to early June-calving Aberdeen Angus cross Friesian and Hereford cross Friesian suckler cows, with Angus and Hereford bulls being used on the respective crosses.
Calves are autumn weaned and winter housed at Brynhelygan on a maize and grass silage, plus a home-grown protein diet.
They go back out to grass in the spring and housed again in the autumn, being fed a high protein silage mix before finishing over the second winter and early spring.
“We sell everything on the hook at around 24 months old, the Angus crosses going to Sheffield and destined for Scotbeef, while the Herefords are going into the Celtic Pride bespoke quality beef scheme run with the backing of Castell Howell Foods and Wynnstay,” says Tom.
“In the past we have used Limousin bulls on the sucklers but we found the calves did not seem to do so well off our grass and there is a growing tendency among buyers to go for native breeds.
“We were also finding that they did not want a big carcase, so we aim for a finished deadweight of between 280kg to 330kg, with the Angus crosses hitting 600kg live.
“In order to rear our own replacement suckler cows we have been purchasing around 50 bucket beef cross dairy calves a year and retaining what we consider to be the best heifers.
“The current fall in beef prices is, however, worrying but in our case, we are tending to spend as little as possible on inputs. Because we house the cows in cubicles from late October means we have low bedding costs which helps.
“We are also growing red clover and ryegrass leys, which along with the maize and barley means our feed costs are relatively low. A mainly self-feed system cuts down handling costs. “We only use contractors for drilling and harvesting the maize, a crop we have been growing for 10 years and with the cereals acreage forms a part of the rotational re-seeding programme for our grassland areas.
“Perhaps if beef prices remain poor there could well be more and more farmers moving away from suckler cows and that would be quite a serious retrograde step for the environment.
“To some extent even in rural areas part of the problem could be that the present-day generations of the general public have moved away from their grass roots and no longer know or maybe even care just how the food they eat is produced.
“I fear that for many people food is seen as a product they pick up as part of their weekly shop at the local supermarket,” says Tom.
On the sheep side the ewes are mainly home-bred Mule crossbreds with a move having been made back to a Beulah-type Speckled Face going to a Bluefaced Leicester ram. Some then go to Texel terminal tups and the others to Suffolk rams.
Over the years there have been problems with fluke but since switching to breeding their own replacement ewes a degree of resistance has gradually been built up.
Lambing is indoors from mid-February onwards in a self-built utility building, with ewes being fed maize silage from the time of housing.
“They just love it and go back out to grass well fit and with plenty of milk,” says Tom.
“All the lambs are finished and sold deadweight with grades mainly falling in the E, U and R3L brackets, with carcase weights in the 18kg to 20kg range and 40kg at the time of leaving the farm. The aim is be clear by Christmas.
“Sticking with a mixed farming regime rather than concentrating on a single enterprise allows us to be flexible, with one being able to cushion what could be poor market returns in another.”
So, with the festive season only a week away what will be on the Rees family dining tables on Christmas day? Will it be beef, lamb or turkey?
“Let’s put it this way,” they say. “Christmas would not be Christmas without a turkey - and long may that be the case.”
“Customers, whether it’s their first Christmas in charge of the cooking or a loyal regular, usually ask for advice on how to cook the turkey, says Jan Rees.
“There are lots of tips out there but what we always say is that it’s a shared process. You need a good quality fresh bird and a good cook."