A natural, no grain, holistic diet for cattle and sheep makes sense to Sheepdrove Organic farm manager Dan Bull. Sara Gregson reports.
Sheepdrove Organic Farm covers 1,012 hectares (2,500 acres), sitting on top of the Berkshire Downs above Lambourn.
Owners, Peter and Juliet Kindersley, originally bought a farmhouse there 40 years ago, and gradually bought more land as it became available, including the Milk Marketing Board’s old beef progeny testing centre, Warren Farm. This is now the Eco Centre – a carbon-neutral, sustainable conference facility, based at the heart of the working farm.
Farm manager, Dan Bull says: “We feel having healthy pasture, along with our organic standards and our holistic way of managing livestock, including our pigs, 200 geese, 200 heritage turkeys, 200 ducks and 300 laying chickens, is central to everything we do at Sheepdrove.
“All our animals graze and browse the meadows and hedges and enjoy a completely natural diet. Stocking rates are low for cattle and sheep. And without fertilisers we rely on the nutrition in the soil to make the grass grow, supplemented by nitrogen-fixing clovers and composted cattle and horse manure.”
A herd of 480 suckler bred cattle, purebred Aberdeen-Angus and Beef Shorthorn cows with a few British White cows, are mated with Beef Shorthorn bulls. Cows calve in two, five-week blocks, in spring and autumn. The bulls run with the spring-calving cows at grass from June for two heats and with the autumn calvers from January.
Cows are ultrasound scanned 34 days after service. Any which are empty return to the bull for the next serving session. Those which fail to get in-calf twice are culled, although fertility is generally good and this rarely happens.
Despite being on chalk, the cattle are housed in winter to stop any poaching of the grassland. Herbal ley silage and ad-lib high quality meadow hay are the only feeds offered to animals of all ages. Red clover silage is used to finish fattening stock.
The beef cattle are reared and finished off just pasture – no grain is ever fed, at between 18 and 25 months of age. Three carcases a week are hung for between four and five weeks and sold at either the Sheepdrove shop in Maida Vale in London, the dining room of the Eco Centre or via an internet retail box scheme.
Sheepdrove’s flock of sheep has 40 pedigree and 100 pure-bred Shetland ewes at its centre, chosen for their keen mothering nature and ability to survive the harshest conditions. They are good for conservation grazing on hard to access chalk banks and are used to produce hogget and mutton.
The main commercial flock is made up of the small Shetlands crossed with a much larger Lleyn ram. These are then crossed again with a Lleyn or Texel to produce a finished lamb of 36kg liveweight. Thirty a week are drawn for slaughter. There are currently 1,000 ewes in the flock and the plan is to reach 2,000 by the end of next year.
There are 688ha (1,700 acres) of cultivatable area, under a six-year rotation of organic wheat or barley, followed by oats or rye and then three years of a multi-species grass ley, with up to 23 herbs and other broad-leaved plants such as chicory and plantain. There are also 161ha (400 acres) of permanent wildflower meadow in an HLS scheme.
Mr Bull says: “Herbs sown among the grasses such as chicory, ramsons and birds foot trefoil, allow the animals to self-medicate. We rarely have to intervene and our vet and med costs are low, as shown by our AHDB Stocktake figures.
“We do not routinely treat the sheep with any wormers; we use mixed grazing systems with cattle and sheep in the same field, and leave each paddock empty for six weeks post-grazing to break any worm life cycles. We also have an on-site FEC kit, where we can analyse sheep faecal egg counts and can treat individual problems if they arise.
“High animal welfare is also really important and we have erected pyramidal rubbing posts in all the fields which the cattle and sheep all love to use.”
Mr Bull has been at Sheepdrove for four-and-a-half years, and feels everything is going in the right direction.
He says:“We are really lucky we are in control of the whole process, from farm to fork, but it still takes three years from putting the bull in, to getting meat onto a consumer’s plate. We are almost second-guessing what they want to eat several years ahead.
“What we do know, from talking to our customers, is they are all gob-smacked that cattle and sheep eat anything other than grass.
“To me, being a member of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association is just common sense, as the demand for this type of high quality, high welfare meat is out there.
“But the other thing which is important for livestock farmers are the cost savings – it is much cheaper to raise cattle and sheep on just grass and forage crops than feeding grain. The veterinary costs are also very low too. But you do have to get the breeding right.”