High welfare and environmental performance drives success on a family tenanted farm in South Yorkshire’s urban fringe.
Chloe Palmer finds out more...
Picturesque and Rotherham are not necessarily two words you would expect in the same sentence, but the two combine at the Pearson family’s tenanted farm on the Wentworth Estate, in the midst of a former mining landscape.
The Pearsons have been farming here for 50 years since Geoff Pearson took on the tenancy from the Wentworth Estate and now his son, Chris, is in the driving seat, retaining his father’s approach to making the best of the farm’s assets.
Commanding a panoramic view of ornamental lakes and across to Keppel’s Column, a prominent landmark close by, the choice of enterprises is now driven in part by the farm’s heritage.
An arable enterprise extending across 121 hectares (299 acres), it comprises a rotation of winter wheat, winter barley and spring barley used predominantly to feed the 450-head herd of beef cattle and the 70 breeding sows.
Chris says: “We have to make the best of the traditional buildings.
“The pigs fit in well as they are fed on a home-grown ration, and the land lends itself to the beef enterprise because the cattle graze the permanent pasture from April to October.
“Most of our soils are restored, opencast land, so they are either like porridge or concrete. It makes sense to feed much of what we grow here.”
Like many farms, the rotation is now dictated in part by a blackgrass problem and Chris admits that even including a three-year grass ley in the rotation is no longer providing adequate control.
He says: “The problem seems to be the winter barley, because there is no effective method of chemical control for black-grass in this crop, so we moved to spring barley.
“And depending on the weather, growing it on this land can be very touch and go.”
But making sufficient income from the 155ha (383-acre) holding to cover the rent and make a living can be a challenge, Chris says.
Much of the land is so unproductive due to primitive restoration methods in the 1950s and little thought was given to protecting the soils.
Peacock Lodge Farm was, however, one of the first farms to sign up to a Countryside Stewardship Higher Tier agreement and despite some early misgivings, Chris now feels it was the right thing to do.
“The land lends itself to an environmental scheme because even when the land will not produce anything, we are still paying rent on it,” Chris adds.
“It was the introduction of the fallow into the rotation which started us on the agri-environment schemes.
“Previously we had used oilseed rape as our break crop, but in some fields, especially near woodlands, it was always hit hard by pigeon damage so we cannot grow it every year.
“We decided to try a fallow because we thought we might be forced down that route in the future due to the lack of chemicals, and felt it was worth a try while there was a payment to do it. So under the extended overwinter stubbles option, we leave the fallow until the end of July.”
A priority within the scheme has been the preservation of the historic parkland and protection of water quality. But for Chris, providing for a growing population of barn owls on the farm has been another incentive.
Boasting several owl boxes across the farm, the impressive work Chris and his father have carried out over the years for wildlife was finally rewarded last year when they were the regional winner of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s prestigious Tye Trophy Award.
Striving for the best performance is a theme which runs throughout the business at Peacock Lodge Farm, whether it is enhancing the environment or animal welfare.
The high health pig herd is another example of where Chris seeks to achieve the highest standards.
He says: “We have a high health status herd which are bedded on straw and are free farrowing.
“The Landrace cross Large White sows only have two litters each year and because we wean them later, we do not seem to have some of the health problems which other pig units encounter.
“It is a closed herd, but we did buy-in two boars a few weeks ago so they are still in isolation.
“We concentrate on prevention because we think it is better than cure and it seems to be working as we now use minimal antibiotics.”
The pigs are fed a homeproduced mill and mix ration which includes wheat and barley, and Chris regularly takes advice from a trusted nutritionist who will advise on small changes to the ration to address issues such as the pigs becoming too fat.
This year has been especially challenging for the pig enterprise though as the weather has taken its toll.
“Fertility has been terrible this year,” says Chris.
“First we had the freezing weather and then the extreme heat. During the hot weather, the boars were not working and when we have problems I question whether we should continue with pigs because they are very labourintensive.”
Cattle have also always been a feature of Peacock Lodge Farm and at any one time there are usually 450-head on the farm of all ages.
He says: “We buy-in male dairy cross calves which are three weeks off weaning, but it is becoming harder to source clean cattle. My father finds the calves and he has to travel further north now to buy what we are looking for because of the TB issue.
“We segregate them from the others when they first arrive and rear them on powdered milk to weaning. Until they are turned out to grass they are fed a ration of rolled wheat, barley, flaked maize, rape meal and sugar beet mix and we mill and mix the feed here to the spec we want,” Chris says.
All the cattle are sold to Dovecote Park for Waitrose and Chris believes this market works well for his farm and his ethos.
“Dovecote is not looking for a big carcase and this suits what we are doing here,” says Chris.
“Most of the cattle will spend eight to 10 months at grass over two summer seasons and are fed a cereal-based ration and our own high-quality silage when inside.
“We do not push them. They are slaughtered at about 24 months old and when I visited Dovecote Park, I was impressed and pleased my cattle were ending their days there.”
Like so many others in a similar position, Chris is concerned for the future after Brexit.
“I sometimes struggle to see a future for the small family farm, especially tenants like ourselves,” he says.
“In the next five years we have got to knuckle down and improve our efficiency to survive.
“We are working as hard as we can and I would like to continue to do as much as I can in-house because it is why I went into farming. It is not just about the money, it is a lifestyle choice.
“Ultimately, we want to produce high welfare beef and pork while maintaining the highest conservation standards.”