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Thriving retail demand for beef key to business success

It has been 25 years or more since cattle first appeared in a small way on a south-west Lancashire vegetable farm. Howard Walsh finds out what has happened since then.

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Andrew (left) and Roger Webster.
Andrew (left) and Roger Webster.

Finishing quality suckler-bred beef on home-grown feed, then retailing it all, has become a significant part of the Webster family’s business at Taylors Farm, Lathom.

 

Gone are the dairy-bred bulls reared from calves and finished on barley and beef nuts, and so are the vegetables, with cropping now all arable.

 

Visit


It was during a visit to Cereals after the turn of the millennium to investigate lupins as a break crop, when the Websters got into conversation about the alkaline conservation of whole cereal crops and grain, with the pioneer of the concept, Lancashire-based consultant Alan Sayle.

 

Following a subsequent 50- to 60-tonne trial, the Websters’ current finishing system was established. Now, more than 40 hectares (100 acres) of the farm’s 243ha (600 acres) grow wheat and barley for the beef unit, which is preserved as either grain (alkagrain) or wholecrop (alkalage).

 

The balance of the cereal acreage, including 40ha (100 acres) of oilseed rape, produces grain for sale, and potentially this season, a 14ha (35-acre) break crop of N-fixing lupins will contribute additional home-grown protein in the diets.

 

Extensive redevelopment of traditional buildings at Taylors Farm has seen purpose-built straw yards capable of holding up to 160-head of cattle at any one time, mainly British Blue cross Limousin steers and heifers.

 

There are also comparatively new grain, straw and implement stores and a bespoke, self-fabricated cattle handling system.

 

Farm shop

 

However, a most important expansion has been the farm shop. The shop trade was built around beef, and while all other meats, vegetables and a whole range of other products, are stocked, beef accounts for about half the meat sales.

Beef animals on TMR.
Beef animals on TMR.

The farm and retail business combined employs some 35 people both full- and part-time. Roger Webster and son Andrew run the farming side, while Roger’s wife Bernie, together with their younger son Joe and skilled butcher Stephen Perrins, manage the butchery and retail side.

 

Jonathan Perrins is environmental and safety officer. Daughter in-law Lucy Webster was 2015 Premier Young Butcher of the Year, while the shop’s James Henshaw won it in 2016.

In the livestock enterprise, no additional feed is bought-in apart from minerals and cane molasses.

 

Roger says: “It is working really well with a mix of alkalage and alkagrain and we have not had one case of acidosis or bloat in the 17 years we have been on this feeding regime.

 

“We buy stores from September to May, from 12 months old up to 20 months, and we can introduce them to our feeding regime straight away, irrespective of what system they have come off.”

 

However, the inclusion of the Home n’ Dry pellets, which are the foundation of the alkasystems’ technology, must be done accurately and thoroughly, whether it be to grain or wholecrop.

Roger says: “It is something of a science really. Although we are harvesting the whole cereal crop with a forager, it is a fully ripened crop and not the less mature ‘wholecrop’ normally used for silage.

 

“It is tipped and spread on concrete and the pellets are then applied by a load cell-equipped fertiliser spreader at 40kg/t of crop.

 

“You need a good man on the buckrake, as it is this action which completes the thorough mixing. Once in contact with moisture, pellets release ammonia into the crop straight away, effectively preserving it.

 

“For this reason, prompt sheeting up is essential. It needs to be left at least one month before opening the clamp, but once opened, it does not deteriorate.

 

“With the alkagrain, 30kg of pellets per tonne of grain are run through the roller mill with the grain, ideally as soon as it has been combined, to produce a good mix. Once again, it must be sheeted up immediately at the end of work.”

The butchering process

  • Seam butchering isolates individual muscles and removes most of the connective tissue and gristle which can impair eating enjoyment
  • Ensures ‘incompatible’ muscles not in same steak
  • Increased labour cost more than offset by producing affordable steaks from beef which might traditionally be minced
  • Enables effective use of larger carcases

Andrew uses a 12cu.metre mixer for feeding the complete diet once-a-day in front of weather-protected barriers, and the cattle are also bedded once-a-day by straw shredder.

 

The ration comprises 1,200kg of alkalage, 100kg of molasses, minerals and 700kg of alkagrain. Cattle are sourced mainly from auction marts in Cumbria, with Roger normally doing the buying.

 

He says: “I buy a range of ages, as we need a regular supply for the shop and I am looking for animals which, if they were graded, would ideally come out at U3.

 

“Obviously I like a good loin and back-end, but because of our system of butchering, we can make profitable use of well-filled shoulders.

 

“We keep them on the farm for a minimum 100 days and I buy a mix of steers and heifers which helps even out supply. If heifers are finished, they need to be used so they do not get over-fat, whereas we can run steers on for longer without that issue.

 

“However, because of the way we butcher our carcases by seaming out individual muscles, we take cattle on to greater weights than most people would do.

 

“We finish heifers at 500-600kg liveweight. Steers could be up to 700kg or more, but are normally around the 680kg mark.

 

“I do not buy anything with horns, because when you are butchering them yourself, you appreciate how horned cattle can sometimes damage others.”

 

Andrew designed and fabricated the roofed handling and weighing system. Motorway cash barrier fencing surrounds the livestock area of the farm, and inside the building, sheeted pen gates, with a clever linking system to mimic a curved raceway, lead to the weighing/handling crush.

 

Andrew says: “We weigh everything on arrival, then at intervals to select a weekly batch for slaughter, and try and maintain roughly even weights within a pen. We then get carcase weights back and can work out a basic p/kg cost before feed.

Farm facts

  • Taylors Farm is about 243 hectares (600 acres), comprising wheats, barleys, oilseed rape and 14ha (35 acres) lupins
  • Soils range from black sand through medium loam to clay
  • Grain dryer and cleaning system is also available to other local cereal growers
  • Alkaline wholecrop (up 400 tonnes) and alkaline grain, with sheeted storage in concrete panelled bunkers
  • Three-quarter-bred continental cattle on straw yards
  • On-site farm shop plus meat counter at nearby Derby House retail outlet; all home-finished beef is retailed, while pork, lamb and poultry are bought-in from the area
    211kW solar panels produce up to half the electricity for the site

“On an ad-lib system, it is not possible to do this on an individual animal basis, but we know bigger cattle will eat about 12kg of ration per day.”

 

While many people retailing beef like to flag up ‘grass-fed’ or maybe ‘native breeds’, it not something the Websters have found to be an issue with customers for their indoor-fed continental beef.

 

Roger says: “It is surprising really. We get quite a number of groups of people round here and had about 1,400 on Open Farm Sunday. But in general, they do not seem to want to know too much about the farm side of things as long as they can see animals are contented and well looked after.

 

“I also think most have become ‘supermarket-minded’ and do not even mention fat cover or marbling. We have learned what our customers want, which is what we produce. For the minority who do want some fat, I will buy a few appropriate animals.”

 

Cattle are drawn weekly for slaughter at Blacklidge Bros, Wigan, where the Websters are happy the handling process minimises stress and dark-cutting meat.

 

They are normally boned out within a few days of arrival back at the farm, before a combination of dry and wet ageing for up to three weeks. The Websters price their beef on a par with the ‘higher end’ supermarkets.

Step 5

Andrew uses a 12cu.metre mixer for feeding the complete diet once-a-day in front of weather-protected barriers, and the cattle are also bedded once-a-day by straw shredder.

 

The ration comprises 1,200kg of alkalage, 100kg of molasses, minerals and 700kg of alkagrain. Cattle are sourced mainly from auction marts in Cumbria, with Roger normally doing the buying.

 

He says: “I buy a range of ages, as we need a regular supply for the shop and I am looking for animals which, if they were graded, would ideally come out at U3.

 

“Obviously I like a good loin and back-end, but because of our system of butchering, we can make profitable use of well-filled shoulders.

 

“We keep them on the farm for a minimum 100 days and I buy a mix of steers and heifers which helps even out supply. If heifers are finished, they need to be used so they do not get over-fat, whereas we can run steers on for longer without that issue.

 

Greater weights

 

“However, because of the way we butcher our carcases by seaming out individual muscles, we take cattle on to greater weights than most people would do.

 

“We finish heifers at 500-600kg liveweight. Steers could be up to 700kg or more, but are normally around the 680kg mark.

 

“I do not buy anything with horns, because when you are butchering them yourself, you appreciate how horned cattle can sometimes damage others.”

 

Andrew designed and fabricated the roofed handling and weighing system. Motorway cash barrier fencing surrounds the livestock area of the farm, and inside the building, sheeted pen gates, with a clever linking system to mimic a curved raceway, lead to the weighing/handling crush.

 

Andrew says: “We weigh everything on arrival, then at intervals to select a weekly batch for slaughter, and try and maintain roughly even weights within a pen. We then get carcase weights back and can work out a basic p/kg cost before feed.

 

“On an ad-lib system, it is not possible to do this on an individual animal basis, but we know bigger cattle will eat about 12kg of ration per day.”

 

While many people retailing beef like to flag up ‘grass-fed’ or maybe ‘native breeds’, it not something the Websters have found to be an issue with customers for their indoor-fed continental beef.

 

Roger says: “It is surprising really. We get quite a number of groups of people round here and had about 1,400 on Open Farm Sunday. But in general, they do not seem to want to know too much about the farm side of things as long as they can see animals are contented and well looked after.

 

“I also think most have become ‘supermarket-minded’ and do not even mention fat cover or marbling. We have learned what our customers want, which is what we produce. For the minority who do want some fat, I will buy a few appropriate animals.”

 

Cattle are drawn weekly for slaughter at Blacklidge Bros, Wigan, where the Websters are happy the handling process minimises stress and dark-cutting meat.


They are normally boned out within a few days of arrival back at the farm, before a combination of dry and wet ageing for up to three weeks. The Websters price their beef on a par with the ‘higher end’ supermarkets.

Butchers Stephen Perrins (left) and Joe Webster
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