A household name in the shearing world, Matt Smith, alongside his wife, Pip, has swapped the clippers for the butcher’s block as part of his new venison venture. Ruth Wills finds out more.
Nestled between Bodmin Moor and the north Cornish coastline, Trefranck Farm is an idyllic place.
Matt and Pip Smith took over Trefranck, which has been in Pip’s family since 1703, in 2014, after Matt relocated to the UK from New Zealand that same year.
The couple set about making some changes and first on the list was a bespoke shearing shed with a New Zealand-style handling system, inspired by Matt’s home country.
It was here that Matt completed his world record in 2016, shearing 731 sheep in nine hours, working out as one every 44 seconds.
It was, in fact, his rigorous training and diet regime which gave him the idea for his and Pip’s new venture.
Matt says: “When I was training for the world record, I lived on predominately venison. It is packed with macro and micronutrients. I realised there was an opportunity to provide this healthy, lean meat all-year-round.”
So, in 2016, the couple introduced their deer farming enterprise, which they now run alongside a 2,330-head Romney flock on the 174-hectare (430-acre) farm.
But they soon realised the infrastructure needed work; summing up their first year running the deer as character building.
“We bought 360 Red deer with 4ha fenced and no handling facilities,” says Matt. “We learnt a lot of valuable lessons. I am a big believer that if you put yourself under pressure you will get things done, if you are comfortable you will never get out and do it.
“The deer suffered with fluke and the shed was not finished, but I have always said making a mistake is not a problem, however not learning from it is.”
While building up the deer infrastructure, the pair also set about making the farm as biodiverse and sustainable as possible, creating 3,000 metres (9,840 feet) of hedges, three ponds and planting 5,500 trees.
“We did that all off our own back, to make the farm a better place,” says Matt. “We only received funding for the last 1,100 metres of hedging.”
Calving takes place between May and July, with 238 hinds calving this year.
Pip says: “They are all scanned to tell the exact day they will calve, then they are split into groups of similar due dates.”
The main traits the couple is breeding for are growth rates and temperament and the stags have some supplementary feed pre-rut.
Matt says: “Under the Greener World certification, we cannot feed concentrates, so we give alfalfa pellets to ensure good condition on the stags, depending on grass availability.
“Traditionally, there has been an emphasis on stags with massive antlers but there is a compromise between body size and antler size, we have tried to steer clear of that.
“We are looking at Romanian and Eastern European bloodlines, to produce the best growth rates and conformation.”
All the deer, bar the hinds and fawns, are rotationally grazed on herbal leys.
“The hinds will hide their young, so they could easily be left behind,” says Pip. “So, once they are in the field they stay there for a couple of weeks, while the calves get confident on their legs.”
Weaning takes place at about six months and depends on the season, body condition and weather, with the best females retained for breeding while the rest go through the abattoir. They are weighed regularly and will usually be slaughtered at between 15 and 24 months, achieving deadweights of 68kg.
The deer used to travel eight hours to be slaughtered, losing 10 per cent of their carcase weight.
Dissatisfied, the couple decided to do something about it.
Pip says: “We applied for a Leader grant and built our own abattoir and butchery, which cost £750,000 in total.”
“The industry is at a critical point and we need to be proactive, we need to listen to our consumers.”
Other abattoirs were visited for research and the pair honed their butchery skills with help from others. Then in December 2019 West Country Premium Venison was launched.
Now the whole system is zero food miles and stress free for the animals.
“The deer are walked into the abattoir, there are 10 minutes between them eating grass and being killed. It is all traceable.” says Pip.
Once butchered on-site, the meat is packaged and usually sold to the restaurant trade. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Smiths adapted and started selling meat boxes through their website, which proved very popular.
“We then started doing home kills for people when they could not get their sheep back from bigger chains, to try and help out,” says Pip.
The couple has also found NFU support to be integral in their development.
“It is one thing diversifying but another having the support there when it gets challenging, the NFU have been exceptional, young people need to be aware of that support.” says Matt.
What is particularly striking about Matt and Pip is how passionate they are for the industry and helping young people get a leg up, be it through hosting farm walks or welcoming people on work experience.
Matt would love, he says, to see more people supporting the next generation.
“I can understand why young people do not step outside their comfort zone. But either you sit and sulk or you convert the negativity into energy going forward. The amount of people who said my shearing world record would never happen, it made me train harder.”
Asked what his advice to young farmers is, Matt says: “Like attracts like. Surround yourself with progressive people, get advice and keep an open mind. You will learn something from everyone. The industry is at a critical point and we need to be proactive, we need to listen to our consumers.”
At home and it is efficiencies, the couple says, which are crucial to juggling their various commitments.
“We have been working hard to make sure things can run themselves as much as possible, by having a good team and good communication,” says Matt. “We have nothing against working hard, but we want to spend time
together as a family too.”
And they hope their work ethic is something which will be passed onto the next generation.
“We want to teach our three kids work and respect and give them something to start with,” Matt says.
The couple’s original enterprise, sheep, are still a big part of the farm.
Breeding is a key aspect which they are constantly improving and they have strict standards which the rams must meet to be kept or sold for breeding, the three key performance indicators being worm tolerance, growth rate and mothering ability.
Pip says: “For us, breeding is a passion, we are going to invest a lot of money in a new bloodline from New Zealand, which seems like a big investment but not when you spread it over a long period of time.”
Anything chosen to stay at the farm is selected primarily on worm tolerance initially.
“They are weighed every two weeks and if anything is falling behind, we will look at the reasons why,” says Matt. “We take individual dung samples, look at their worm burden and then make a decision.
“With the rams we start with nearly 400-head each season and get down to 60 to keep or sell; they have every merit and we are proud of that. Ten to 20 per cent of ram lambs are sold for breeding while the rest are finished. We mainly sell our breeding stock through word of mouth.”
Their breeding and system both pay off in terms of lameness too, having only treated four sheep per 1,000 this year. The sheep are also Johne’s tested, as a way of future proofing the breed and sheep enterprise.
Although Matt’s global shearing adventures might have taken a back seat, he still shears about 20,000 to 30,000 sheep a year. This year he also began running courses for shearers across the UK and Europe, and prepares keen shearers planning to head overseas.