With a reputation for showing and selling top quality commercial beef and lamb, a North Yorkshire couple are successfully combining their families’ farming and butchery businesses. Lousie Hartley reports.
For John Mellin and Clare Cropper, like many livestock farmers, Christmas primestock shows are an eagerly anticipated traditional and fun highlight of the festive season.
But knowing your customer is a key part of any successful business and farming is no exception - it is on this principle the pair are driving their businesses forward.
John and Clare have had phenomenal success at the shows and sales this year, and say this filters down to the ‘sharp end’ of their business, the butchers shop counter.
Croppers Butchers on Accrington Market has been in the Cropper family for nearly 60 years. Working with her father George, Clare, who is a professionally trained butcher, is continuing the tradition.
Meat is sourced from John’s farm, Mill House Farm in Long Preston, near Skipton.
Home to 65 suckler cows and 900 sheep, John and Clare farm alongside John’s dad, John
They have mainly Limousin and British Blue cross cows, with about 10 bulling heifers bought-in per year.
Heifers are kept until 18 months of age and finished to sell, while bulls are kept entire and sold at 12 months of age at local markets.
John, who is a director and vice-chairman at Gisburn auction, has recently swapped from using British Blue to Limousin bulls on the spring calving herd.
“The Limousin sire gets more cows in-calf and produces more live and faster growing calves. The calves may be worth 10p/kg less, but there are more of them to sell.”
Some 900 ewes lamb inside, starting with a batch of 100 Suffolk crosses. The rest are made up of Mules, Texel cross Mules and a flock of 200 Cheviots which lamb in April. These are all tupped with the Beltex and Texel.
As well as Mill House, George and Clare source meat for the butchers shop from only a handful of other dedicated suppliers. This means they know how the animals are being fed and looked after and can be confident the animals are finished to the right specification.
John, who helps in the butchers during busy periods, says: “The shop stocks Limousin and British Blue beef and Beltex lambs because of their lightweight and fairly lean carcases – which appeal to the Lancashire customer.”
George and Clare also regularly buy from Christmas primestock shows. This year George bought the champion lamb carcase at Skipton auction for a record price of £850.
“My dad often buys the champion carcases as he likes to treat our customers at Christmas, it is a thank you for coming to the butchers for the rest of the year,” says Clare, who also works part-time at Gisburn auction as a sales clerk.
George has been working in the shop for 58 years and in that time has not had a single weekend off, up until recently when he judged both the beef and lamb carcases at the English Winter Fair. While at the show George bought the champion beef carcase and champion live beef animal to sell in the shop.
“The butchers is still very traditional, the meat arrives as whole carcases and is butchered on site as apposed to being delivered as pre-cut joints from the wholesalers", says Clare, who has become more involved in the business over the last couple of years.
“Being a woman, with a busy job and a house to run, I feel I know what the consumer wants and this is what I have tried to capture in my new meat boxes,” she explains.
“Meat needs to be affordable and easy to cook. Young customers are firstly ruled by price and convenience and secondly provenance, which is understandable. They also often ask for advice on how to cook things, especially turkeys at this time of year.
“The new meat boxes include, ‘super steak’, ‘breakfast’ and ‘winter casserole’ bags, as well as weekly, family and luxury boxes. Meat is portioned up, labelled and ready for the freezer, which the customers really like.”
Clare has also introduced free local delivery and is working on building a website and being more active on social media.
The pair first set foot onto the show scene in 2010, with a Blonde heifer which John had bought out of the local auction’s fat ring the previous week. After dragging Clare around the ring, it came first in the commercial beef class and went on to win overall champion.
Since then the duo have forged a reputation for showing and selling top quality commercial beef and lamb. This year they secured any other breed champion and reserve Limousin champion at Countryside Live, and first and second at the English Winter Fair and Smithfield.
They have also won champion with cattle and lambs at Skipton and Clitheroe and Gisburn’s Christmas primestock shows this year.
They believe the secret to show success is selecting the right cattle to start with.
“You can halter train, clip and wash an animal in the most perfect way, but the key is picking the right ones at the beginning,” says John.
With a limited budget, they spend a lot of time looking for the right cattle, and while hunting for their show potentials, buy feeding cattle for their farm at the same time.
The couple usually buy out of Kirkby Stephen, Middleton in Teesdale and Carlisle auctions.
“There are a lot of good stock coming through those northern marts, off good quality, framey cows. They are generally more Limousin-bred and showy compared to down here,” says John.
“We do not necessarily buy the champion, or even class winner, it just needs to have style and catch our eye. They also have to be red or black, as that is the fashion at the moment.
“We could give anything from £700 to a couple of thousand pounds for a show beast, but always try to buy something we can make profit on.”
John and Clare usually buy 12 cattle through the spring and autumn and whittle this down to six. They say the team should also have some variation, with big and small cattle and some showy, and some more of the ‘butchers type’, as judges all have different preferences.
The best three heifers however leave the farm before the Christmas show season starts. They are bought annually by a farmer in the north of England to breed off. It is the remainder which go on to the Christmas show and sale circuit.
The pair have also judged at various shows this winter, including Otley and Kirkby Stephen.
“As judges we appreciate the time and effort it takes to bring an animal to a show and so always make sure we look over and touch every animal,” says Clare.
The show team is kept at Mill House, housed inside and in a separate pen from the commercial herd. The animals are fed on a barley beef ration, ad-lib straw and good quality hay and if needing a little extra condition, given some milk powder.
With the cattle not usually halter trained when they arrive on farm, Clare and John employ the aid of their donkey, Turpin to break them in. It is then Clare’s job to perfect walking and standing with the show stick.
John clips the beasts about two weeks prior a show, with a touch up one day before. Clare washes and shows the cattle.
Although showing is a hobby for the duo it has it benefits for both John’s farm and Clare’s family butchers.
“Showing provides a shop window for our stock. People can see the quality of animals we have on farm and this filters down to when we are selling lambs and cattle commercially in the auctions. Buyers know and appreciate they have been well looked after,” says Clare.
“It also has advantages when selling at the primestock shows. We pass on the rosettes, cards and trophies which the cattle have won to the buyers, who display it in their butchers shop.
“It is great publicity for them and really appeals to customers, who love to know the story behind their meat.”