Monday, May 20, 2019

Full circle for Longhorn cattle breeder

May 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Lincolnshire farmer Charlie Sutcliffe has turned his passion for rare breeds into a  successful business.

Charlie Sutcliffe says he has gone full circle with his Tetford Herd of pedigree Longhorn cattle. He bought his first Longhorns in 1993 to help preserve the then-rare breed – and has established a successful niche market selling beef, first through a box scheme and then a home farm shop.

The beef now sells through a high street shop and online business run by Charlie’s son Jim, which has allowed him to concentrate on pedigree sales again while continuing to support the retail business.

The story began in 1983 when Charlie with wife Debbie took over the family’s traditional grassland at Tetford in the Lincolnshire Wolds. The land was then let out for grazing, but was gradually taken back in hand to keep stock for fattening. The Longhorns arrived a few years later.

“I’d always liked the look of Longhorns,” he explains. “I knew little about them, they were pretty rare at that time – still on the rare breeds critical list – but I had clipped a little advert out of Farmers Weekly for Longhorns from Peter Close at Fishwick. I had it in my wallet for years.”

In 1993, Charlie saw another Farmers Weekly advert for Longhorns – this time locally in Lincolnshire. The vendor was Geoff Walter – another supporter of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST). He bought four heifers, added an in-calf cow from another trust member in Norfolk, and interrupted a fishing trip to the Tweed to use the by-then yellowing press cutting to buy a cow and calf from Peter Close, followed by the bull Fishwick Olympic in spring 1994. That stock and two heifers from the RBST Stoneleigh sale were the foundation of the Tetford Herd.

Early days

Fortunately, most of the early calves were female and went into the herd. But the in-calf cow dropped a male calf, which became the alternative stock bull. The two bulls established separate lines with females by one bull going to the other and vice versa.

Over the 25 years, three bulls have been bought to introduce fresh blood. The intention was that surplus males would be sold deadweight, but this proved uneconomic.

“When payment arrived I thought it was a first instalment,” says Charlie. “I knew I’d have to do something else. Someone suggested selling them ourselves as quarters, so that’s what we did.”

Meat retailing proved to be a steep learning curve. “When we got the next beast back from the abattoir it arrived as a lot of plastic bags full of all sorts of things we knew nothing about. Luckily we had sold it all to friends and family who were very supportive but we learned very quickly about marketing.”

A quarter beast was not easy to market, so they sold by weight – 10, 20 or 30 kilos – which was more acceptable. Trading began in 1997 as Meridian Meats, since the farm lies on the Greenwich meridian. A grant in 2005 from the Lincolnshire Wolds Sustainable Development Fund helped fund a mobile sales unit.

Farmers’ markets were already well served with beef sellers but shows and food festivals were successfully attended. Adding their own rare-breed lamb to the sales offering, alongside other locally-produced foods, the unit served as a farm shop three days a week.

Online sales were added two years later. To meet growing demand, more grazing and grassland for silage and hay was taken locally, with additional forage bought in from a contractor. The herd was expanded to around 150 head, including 45-50 breeding cows.

Expansion

Charlie and Debbie’s son Jim came back into the business, and trained locally as a butcher. In November 2007, the opportunity arose to buy an existing retail butchers in the neighbouring town of Louth.

“We went for a viewing on a Sunday morning, and by Monday we had struck a deal. We stopped trading from the farm and began selling at Louth in February 2008. The online business was put on hold for a while, since we couldn’t supply enough for both, but we resumed two years later.”

Additional beef, as well as pork and lamb, almost exclusively from native breeds, are sourced following selection on a small number of local farms. The shop is now a Q Guild butcher and Lincolnshire’s only Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing accredited butcher.

Two notable successes for the herd and the shop followed in 2009. Jim won BBC TV’s Young Butcher of the Year and their Longhorn steak was declared Britain’s Best Steak in a Country Life competition.

Jim says that Longhorn beef is still at the core of the business.

“It’s massively important. It lets us sell something unique with a story behind it. Slow grown, respectable yield and quality meat – it ticks all the boxes.”

Pedigree sales

With the shop well-established and less dependent on the herd, Charlie felt he could concentrate more on his original aim of breeding stock for showing and pedigree sales. The number of cows has been reduced to 25 by not replacing some older animals as they left the herd.

“I am now able to return full circle to my original aim of breeding quality pedigree Longhorns for herd replacement and sale – but the supply to Meridian Meats remains just as important in the overall business. All surplus stock continues to go through the shop.

“In the past, you could expect to obtain improved prices by offering stock for sale tested free of disease but that is now a requirement if you want to sell breeding stock. We run a closed herd and are in our third year of tag and testing all calves born for BVD virus. We have had no PI – persistently infected – calves born and the herd is officially BVD free.”

Showing is important for pleasure and promotion. Two male champions at the Royal Show in 1999 and 2002 helped raise the profile of the herd, and Charlie remains enthusiastic about the breed and the Tetford Herd.

“Although they are not a rare breed now they’re still relatively low in numbers, so conservation is still important. They’re brilliant suckler cows producing beef
that is famed for its exceptional quality and they remain very attractive.”

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