Get bigger, go niche or go under was the challenge facing the Rowland family, who decided to pursue a new market which complemented their wetland farm.
There is a real sense of community interaction at Grange Farm. An open gate policy has resulted in a spectrum of farming activity, including direct beef sales, cider production, an on-site farmers’ market and the provision of skills training.
At the forefront of the hub is second-generation farmer Huw Rowlands, working in partnership across the 97-hectare (240-acre) unit with his father David at Mickle Trafford, Cheshire.
Following a total restructure and exit from dairying, the father and son team now runs a 60-head herd of Red Polls which complements a comprehensive conservation programme.
With a degree in humanities and a career in pub management, Huw’s plan did not involve working within the family farm, but his return in 2002 was borne out of necessity, following a decline in milk price and the demise of the milk quota.
He says: “It got to the point where my dad had to choose between losing 1ppl on milk we produced, go under or find a niche market. I didn’t want to see the farm sold and dad was happy to have me back.”
After researching the options, Huw came up with the idea of raising rare breed cattle for meat production and discovered the Red Poll breed.
“We needed cattle which were going to keep us farming rather than us keeping them. I was quite happy not to pursue dairy farming, but my dad found it strange not getting up in the mornings to go and milk.”
After contacting Red Poll breeder Mark Cheetham, near Stockport, and visiting the farm to observe the 200 plus milking herd, Huw set about introducing the breed to Grange Farm.
“One of the attractions of the Red Poll is its dual purpose and we had an aim to keep bull calves and develop a market for rare breed beef. At the time, nobody had Red Polls around here or had even heard of them. They are also bred for wet, low lying conditions, which is typical of our land.”
The herd was gradually restructured to replace the 120 Friesians with today’s numbers plus followers. Breeding is kept entire and the three bulls - Ernie, Twoby and Frodo - are used within the low input, extensive system.
“The cows are fun to work with and are intelligent and docile with good mothering ability.
“Their dual purpose means the calves are smaller, but the mother gives more milk from whichthey grow brilliantly. They are also great for conserving and grazing the land we have.”
It is the latter benefit which has become a particular focus on the farm, balancing quality food production with the conservation of habitats and landscape.
At Grange Farm, cows are predominantly grass-fed across the River Gowy valley for most of the year, although they are housed during winter where they are fed silage and straw.
Huw says: “We do not have the buildings to house all the numbers, so we sell surplus heifers in autumn to get them away for winter to reduce numbers.”
Steers are finished at about 550-600kg liveweight, butchered locally and hung for a minimum of three weeks. Cuts and meat boxes are then sold direct from the farm, through four farmers’ markets, a Whitchurch pie-maker and to a local restaurant, just a stone’s throw away from the farm.
“I manage butchery specifications, which means I am constantly checking the weather to ensure we achieve maximum yield and are shifting each cut within a period of time. For instance, if I know good weather is forecast, I will scale back on big cuts and opt for silverside escalopes and steaks you can throw on the barbecue.”
The business also supplies about a dozen customers every week via The Chester Food Assembly, an entrepreneurial new market which allows customers to pre-order online from 11 local producers.
The producer then delivers to the assembly collection point directly for customers to collect.
Huw says: “The challenge with direct meat sales is shifting the whole carcase at the same rate as premium cuts.
“The assembly is good for us because you take what you have sold, there is no waste and you have the opportunity to promote excess cuts on a weekly basis. There is an administration fee of about 17 per cent, but we see a decent return from sales.”
Huw works with Liverpool University and their final year vet students to produce the annual herd health plan.
One particular challenge is the Neospora parasite, which can result in infertility.
All calves, pregnant cows and heifers which are being kept for breeding are blood tested. Any which come back positive are kept if in-calf and, if not, culled immediately. The calves off Neospora positive cows are retained until 10 months old and then sold for rose veal.
Initially, the calving period was broadened to allow a more consistent beef supply as cattle had to be under 30 months to enter the supply chain. With these restrictions now lifted and spring-calving introduced, calving period has once again been tightened up.
The farm is one of three in the UK to receive the Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) Marque accreditation for its beef; the farming practices entailed are reflected in the meat quality of the Red Poll cattle.
Huw says: “Leaf Marque makes more sense for us than going organic which would be difficult to do anyway. We would have to stop using treated sewage cake as a fertiliser, which is the ultimate form of recycling, and our animals would have a lot further to travel for slaughter, so we would end up having to charge more for lower quality beef.”
The land is part of Entry Level Stewardship and also falls under the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme.
“Becoming part of these environmental schemes has transformed the business and allowed us to work with about 20 groups, such as the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, the Conservation Volunteers, Friends of Trafford Mill, the Environment Agency, the Butterfly Conservation Trust and the RSPB, to help activate restorational activity on-farm.”
Over the course of seven years, the business has benefited hugely from grants available through the stewardship schemes and some of the organisations Huw works with. He estimates he has received a total of £500,000 to complete the multiple projects on his farm.
Achievements so far include the appearance of otters for the first time on the River Gowy, which flows through the farm, reintroduction of hedgerows and an increase in yellowhammers, butterflies and water voles.
The boundary restoration was funded through HLS and Cheshire Wildlife Trust is now used for training courses in hedgelaying and hedgeplanting, run by Friends of Trafford Mill. The project involves running 12 courses over 12 months and offers students and those outside of farming a chance to upskill.
An older woodland has also been restored through the Farm Woodland Improvement Grant via the Forestry Commission, and a classroom/meeting room was built in 2012 to facilitate group, public and educational visits.
It is here where a small weekly farmers’ market takes place, where visitor numbers can reach anything from 20 to 200.
Huw says: “We wanted to find new ways of making people aware of our beef, so we started a farmers’ market three years ago with about six local producers.
“It used to be monthly, but it is now weekly to encourage people to make it part of their weekly shop and not to see it as one-off luxury items.”
Funding was also received to convert the main farm building into agricultural storage. It is also home to the Cheshire Cider Project, a community-based initiative which began last September.
“Cider is made from apples donated by people living in Cheshire. Production took place on-farm and a bottle was given to those who donated. The founders of the project have recently applied for a licence to sell the cider through the farmers’ market.”
The farm is a member of the Education Access Scheme via Natural England and this, combined with the other public-facing initiatives, means visitor numbers, students and rural organisations have steadily increased.
“I love welcoming people to the farm. It is the lifeblood of what we do.”
Looking ahead, Huw is reluctant to expand until the existing dairy buildings are replaced with modern beef facilities.
“We need to be able to keep them in groups of 20 according to age and size, so we are going to have to invest.
“One of our key selling points is the fact we have reared the beef we sell, meaning it is totally traceable and we can prove we know all about it.
“We can expand by selling more, which means investing in better winter housing, and by adding value, and we are planning to open a farm shop to allow us to do just that.”