When you start a business from scratch, it’s not often you begin your journey on some of the toughest areas to farm. But for David Rowe, building his beef business on the White Cliffs of Dover is exactly where he wants to be. Jack Watkins reports.
Finding land to farm is one of the biggest obstacles a new entrant can face. Yet David Rowe has not just managed to secure himself 76 hecatres (188 acres) just anywhere, but on what is one of the most iconic sights in the world. His 45-strong herd of pedigree Shetlands graze on, and beneath, Dover’s celebrated White Cliffs.
“It’s a great place to be, and I’m lucky to be able to do it here,” he says, adding customers at farmers’ markets are impressed when they learn their meat has come from such an historic location. But it’s also a challenging spot to farm, even more so for a first-generation farmer.
“I’d been brought up on the Welsh borders of Shropshire, surrounded by small family farms, and I suppose a love of that had seeped into my bones,” he says.
“I moved away from home as quickly as possible by the age of 18, but over time, the love of nature and the countryside which had been with me since childhood pulled me back.”
Formerly a writer of computer software, David, already had a track record as a self-starter, having set up his own IT business, albeit with a lower scale of investment.
“When I started my own IT business, all the capital investment I needed was a laptop and a before I began farming I had no land, no tractor, nothing. It was a huge investment.”
He says he had no fixed plan about the direction he was going to go.
“I’d been thinking about a smallholding and looked all over Kent until this land at Church Houghton came up,” he says.
Going back, it had been a small dairy farm, but it had folded during the consolidation of the dairy industry and been run as a three-hectare (eight-acre) smallholding. One of the first things I did was to bring the cows back.”
The decision to establish a breeding herd came quickly after that.
“It had always been the plan to raise few cattle and sell the beef directly,” he says.
“But then some extra land came up at a cheap price. That enabled me to keep more cattle than I was ever going to be able to sell in terms of meat, and things evolved quickly from there.”
Trading as Homestead Beef, it’s fair to say his choice of the Shetland breed fit the criteria of being one with a story behind it.
“Because I was starting from scratch, I had the luxury of choosing what I wanted to work with,” he says.
“Obviously it needed to be a hardy animal, and able to thrive outdoors all year round. The grazing land on the farm is very poor, so it needed to be thrifty.
“I also wanted something that wasn’t too big, so I could handle them fairly easily. But I wanted to do my bit for a rare breed, too.”
The Shetland is on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s watchlist as a minority species. Its original purpose was a dual-purpose animal kept by Scottish crofters.
“Those genetic traits are still there,” says David. “Across the country, there is this divergence between those with milkier traits and those which favour the beef farmer. I am concentrating on the beef side and trying to breed a bigger animal.”
But this isn’t easy, he admits. As far as he is aware, his Homestead herd is one of only two pedigree herds in the south of England.
“It is a challenge finding stock,” he says.
“The herd’s bull, St Trinians Balou, came from the Scottish Wildlife Trust and is 11 years old now.
“He should be good for a few more years yet, but then we will have to look externally.
“We are a closed herd, but we need more steers. But it’s not as if we can go to the local Ashford market and pick some up. It means sourcing from the herds in the north of England.
“The plan is to stick with pedigree Shetlands, but if sales start to outstrip supply, I’ll to to look at another breed to tide us over.”
The entire farm is down to permanent pasture. The cows’ diet is entirely grass based, with supplementary feeding of around four bales a week of brought-in hay in winter, and in a drought-hit year like 2018, in high summer too. The Shetlands are a slow maturing breed in all circumstances, and on the undulating, unimproved grassland of David’s pastures the steers are given 36 months to reach maturity.
“They’ll make a fair size of up to 150 kilos a side,” says David. Females are kept back as replacements, but with the increased emphasis on developing better beef qualities, some of the heifers are taken for slaughter.
He says: “The cows calve throughout the year. Given the farm is doing the selling, it doesn’t matter when a calf is born really.
“That said, I’m looking to see when mothers and calves do best and might soon shift them to autumn calving so that they both get the benefit of summer grazing.”
The farm is fortunate in having a small family-run abattoir, JR Farm Meats, a 25-minute drive away. When David bought the farm, the infrastructure amounted to little more than an old barn and some run down out-buildings which had survived from the dairy.
A new barn has now been built, but the biggest investment has been the £100,000 Beefery. It contains an industrial-sized chiller, freezer and a cutting room. A local butcher comes in to do the cuts, after the meat is hung for a minimum of 21 days.
Inevitably, the learning curve has been steep.
“You invest in equipment and machinery that you find you don’t need,” says David.
“And while it is not difficult to keep Shetland cattle, because they really are such hardy animals, in business terms trying to get them to a market level, in the right condition, understanding the optimum time for cow pregnancies, and how long you can leave them to finish growing, is a different story. You’re learning as you go along.”
A great asset has been to take on assistant farm manager, Katie Anderson.
David says: “She already had experience of working on a similar farm and has an understanding of food hygiene that has helped us comply with regulations.
“She also has brought great marketing and organisational qualities to the business.”
While David started out selling the meat to family and friends, the arrival of Katie has enabled Homestead Beef to have a regular presence at the weekly farmers’ markets in Dover and Ashford. They also have a website and an active presence on Facebook and Twitter. David also places a high emphasis on working with nature.
“That is very important and, it’s a conscious thing for both Katie and me,” he says.
“As well as some of our cattle grazing the nature reserve at Samphire Hoe, we are effectively trying to conservation graze our own land.
“It is something we are trying to get better at. When you start out you are trying to push things, to get to a point where you have a product to sell.
"We’ve got past that point now and are looking to refine the process.”