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By Rosewood Farm, Jul 16 2017 05:49PM

Why aren’t there more farms like Rosewood? is a question I often hear, which does have a very short and simple answer, but more of that later. Unless you’ve been following us for sometime, you are unlikely to know what it is that makes us different, and for that we need to go back in time to talk about how Rosewood Farm came to be.

We grew up as part of a large extended farming-family, in the 1970’s and 80’s, so farming was always in the blood. Both families were mixed arable and dairy farms, very traditional with about 50-60 cows each, grazing on summer pastures and rearing the calves for beef. In farming the ‘farm’ was an entity in itself, a being around which life revolved. Both holidays and weddings were timed around hay making or harvest, and the daily routine was heavily influenced by milking twice a day, every single day.

The family dairy herd grazing in the Ings Photo credit: K Laverack
The family dairy herd grazing in the Ings Photo credit: K Laverack

The 1990’s were a time of great change for agriculture, the cracks were beginning to appear in the post-war drive for intensification. Europe’s farms were more productive than ever before, boosted by subsidies from the EU that encouraged us to produce more food but which, ironically, had made food cheaper and less able to support the people who produce it. This effectively spelled the end of farming for our family, the writing was on the wall, the family business was approaching the end of the line.

Paul and myself had both wanted to carry on the family dairy farm, working before & after school, and throughout the holidays to gain experience. The inevitability of it not being possible, however, was always there, so we both had to accept that it wasn’t going to happen. We set out to continue a path in farming, and went to agricultural college alongside working on farms to gain a wide variety of experience in the world of farming. This coincided with the establishment of the pedigree Dexter cattle herd, which began what we know as Rosewood today.

Despite being a mixed farmer at heart, during and after college Paul found himself working on a conventional arable farm, albeit it one that enabled him to follow his passion for tinkering with old machinery. Meanwhile I was studying for a diploma in agriculture and working on a variety of farms from intensive pig and arable farms in East Yorkshire to an upland sheep farm in Wales. Always taking an interest in animals and biology, my own passion became clear when I began my second-year assignment on forage crops. The result was a document that was five times longer than any other assignment I had written and fully illustrated, in colour!

Cultivating land in prairie-like fields used to be my 'day job'
Cultivating land in prairie-like fields used to be my 'day job'

Agriculture is an important sector in the UK, but it is dwarfed by the ancillary industries that provide farming with a plethora of products and services from tractors to software, and it is these which eventually employ the majority of agricultural students today. With an interest in livestock and biology, I decided to follow the diploma with a course in animal science, still unsure where I would end up.

During my final year at college I was somewhat rail roaded into studying the effects of comparing homegrown and milled feed with commercially formulated rations in lamb production, both absolutely grain fed, far removed from my passion. I had wanted to study more interesting subjects that were closer to my heart, such as the fascinating genetics of my own breed, the Dexter, or the behaviour of the ‘wild’ cattle of Chillingham. Unfortunately for me these subjects were too far removed from anything that happens as part of ‘commercial’ modern agriculture and my tutors were not keen.

The public perception of lamb production is one of lambs skipping around in fields, but I found myself weighing lambs each week to compare the two rations. These lambs never left the shed they were born in during January until the end of their lives three or four months later, providing for the comparatively high prices of the ‘new season’ spring lamb market. It didn’t sit right with me, compared to my own grassfed cattle at home which were grazed on pastures for two seasons (part of the fallout from the BSE-crisis was that cattle at the time were only allowed to be eaten if were they slaughtered at 30 months of age or younger) and never received a sniff of grain.

To my surprise, the home grown ration out performed the purchased feed, with the lambs fed on grains grown and milled on the farm. It got me thinking about how farmers are ‘fed’ the formulated rations by outsiders who have a product to sell, rather than making use of the farmers own knowledge and experience (and feed!).

Farmers, being on the frontline of the countryside, are often the first to be criticised for changes that lead to problems with animal welfare or wildlife. The best way I can describe ‘agriculture’ is like a combine harvester - farmers are like the header, seen to be gathering in the crop at the front. Internally there is lots going on which very few people see, the engine [supermarkets] is in the middle, pushing farmers along, controlling the rate and speed of all the other processes, including how much is wasted. Out of the back, out comes the processed product, looking quite different from what went in. It is that way because not everyone *needs* to know how a combine works in order to benefit from the food it produces.

The food industry; like a giant combine with mysterious internal machanisms
The food industry; like a giant combine with mysterious internal machanisms

By the early 2000’s there seemed to be a growing public interest in the process of food production. The internet was just beginning to become popular and we decided that a website was the perfect way for the consumer to learn more about exactly where their food comes from. It provided a window into farming, giving unprecedented access between the farm and the consumer. I started to use the internet to talk to others, both farmers and consumers, about how and why food was produced in the way it was.

Paul and I had both independently come to the same conclusion that we simply didn’t want to continue work with the chemicals that conventional agriculture had come to rely upon. They were unpleasant to apply and we didn’t think they were having a positive effect on the land or wildlife. Our main contact with these chemicals was in arable farming, but they are also involved in more intensive grazed livestock systems too. We decided that our own farm would be different and we set out to offer the consumer a genuine choice.

We found that farming without chemicals was tough - not because things didn’t grow without them but because the support network for farmers was so heavily-ingrained in the chemical culture. Most solutions include a bottle on the shelf that can be applied for best results and we got more than a few funny looks when we said that we don’t use chemicals. “Oh, so you’re organic?” “Well, no, not organic, we just don’t use chemicals”. We can see why other farmers take the advice - it’s hard going being a rebel.

This became easier when I met a kindred spirit in Natalie in 2009 and together we have been able to continue experimenting and improving, working with other farmers and conservationists to really push forward and build upon our success.

It was equally hard going with our choice of cattle too - Dexters. They suit our system because they are tough, sometimes stubborn, and massively independent (just like us, you might say). Few farmers see Dexters as a commercial breed though, and rightly so because the system is not set up to make best use of small, grassfed cattle. As such we’ve had to buck the trend of selling livestock at market and go direct to you, the customer, instead.

Dexters are much smaller than most cattle - not what the supermarkets want
Dexters are much smaller than most cattle - not what the supermarkets want

Instead of being the header of the combine, harvesting the crop and passing it on to the next stage, Rosewood has had to take on all the roles within the machine. We produce, process, package, sell and distribute our product. This has given us almost total control over how we do things and as a result we have been able to ensure that our farming methods produce good food that has a positive effect upon the wonderful wildlife we have here in the Yorkshire Ings.

The conventional markets take the animal and divide it into individual components with steaks supplying pubs & restaurants, joints made into ‘steak’ pies, mince into burgers and offal sent all the way to China. The quantities of each required by the restaurants or fast food places mean that they are selling meat from many many different animals.

We need to sell every bit of the animal, not just the steaks!
We need to sell every bit of the animal, not just the steaks!

At our scale if we supply a restaurant with 4 sirloins a week that not only means that our customers miss out on steaks (already one of our most popular cuts!) but we also have two animals-worth of joints, mince & dice that all needs to find a suitable home. We can’t kill an animal for the steaks alone and China isn’t interested in a single liver each week either. The restaurant too can change their menu at a moments notice - not something we can quickly respond to for an animal that is many years in the making.

So, back to our initial question - why aren’t there many more farms like Rosewood? The answer, as I said before, is simple; the one thing that remains outside of our control is what you, the consumer, chooses to buy & eat each day. Our passion may be the grasslands and the vast array of wildlife that they support but passion alone can only achieve so much and as much as we’d like to, it’s not possible for us to work for free. Rosewood Farm may now be full of wildlife but if the bank account is empty it’s not a model that many can afford to copy.

By Rosewood Farm, Jun 4 2017 09:54PM

You may remember my blog back in January, detailing my concerns about David Attenborough’s excellent series, Planet Earth II. I also mentioned how we didn’t catch the whole series when aired and I particularly wanted another chance to see my favourite habitat and episode from the whole series; Grasslands. The opportunity came when I selflessly invested in the DVD along with a subscription to BBC Wildlife magazine for my wife’s Christmas present.

Despite working alongside it day in, day out, I much prefer reading all about the wildlife I see right here on my doorstep. The Lower Derwent Valley is home to such a rich diversity of mammal, bird, and insect life as a result of being managed continuously in a very traditional way for more than 1000 years. All of these animals depend upon the flood meadows, pastures and woodlands that make up the most complete example of a semi-natural floodplain ecosystem left in the UK, and I feel that it continues to be a much under-appreciated landscape.

The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows
The Yorkshire Ings have some of the finest examples of wildflower meadows

The June edition of Wildlife magazine didn’t disappoint me, with an article by BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham dedicated to wildflower meadows. As Chris says, up to 98% of our natural grasslands have already gone in the space of just 50 years. I highlighted this in my last blog, about how these High Nature Value grasslands are very special. What makes Rosewood Farm extra special is that 95% of the 450 acres we farm are traditional, species-rich meadows.

Meadows are currently missing their champion - both veganism & reduced meat consumption are on trend with many celebrities at the moment and this is bad news for our wildflower meadows and grazing livestock. As a result, with fewer animals on farms, meadows have lost their reason for being and are instead being turned over by the plough to grow the foods that people demand more of.

But why have other farmers given them up?

In tough economic times, farmers have to weigh up the value of the grass produced from these meadows against the cost of time and fuel turning them into hay and grazing them. In better times for farming, more intensive cropping elsewhere may have subsidised, to a degree, the work but now it’s much harder to justify continuing to do something that you know represents an added cost to your business.

A couple of things changed for farmers in the post war years that made mono-cropping easier and altered the fortunes of traditional meadows. The first was the availability of selective herbicides in 1945. You are probably familiar with the most notorious of herbicides - Monsanto’s RoundUp, which kills any plant it touches (unless the plant is genetically modified to withstand it). Instead selective herbicides work by allowing certain plants to be killed whilst leaving the crop unharmed. By eliminating competition from other plants, the crop thrives and any fertilisers applied feed only the crop and not the ‘weeds’.

The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow
The plastic perforated drainage pipe killed many a meadow

The second change was the invention of the perforated plastic drainage pipe in the late 1950’s. This made drainage of farmland far cheaper and easier than ever before and as a result land that was once only good for damp-tolerant perennial plants such as grasses can now grow a whole variety of annual cultivated crops.

Continuing with the article, my hopes were built up when I read the line ‘the only way we can hope to preserve these species-rich places is…’. However, hope turned to dismay at an opportunity lost as he continued ‘ visiting and celebrating them’. I’m all for spreading the word about how important grasslands are to wildlife and to us all, but the only way, seriously? I think not. The best way we can preserve meadows in the long term is to maintain their value and continue the traditional use that created them in the first place - with grazing animals.

Breaking with my habit of only reading about our local wildlife, I moved next to another article in the same magazine titled ‘Of Bison & Burgers’, which was all about how the demise of the both the wild bison of North America and the Great Plains on which they grazed. This resonated with me as it sounded very much like the loss of traditional grasslands from the previous article. However, the author of this piece proposed a very different solution for the preservation of wild bison - eating them!

The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains
The Ings are Yorkshire’s Great Plains

I didn’t realise until the very end that I had been reading an article by Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming, but I felt that he had grasped the crux of the problem far better than Chris Packham had. If we are to preserve a landscape, and the wildlife within it, influenced by man for millennia, it is wishful thinking to expect a totally hands-off approach to achieve the same results. This is what they have found in America’s Yellowstone National Park, one of the few remaining places you can still find wild bison, which culls the bison to avoid them becoming over populated and suffering due to lack of grazing.

Philip also highlighted another crucial issue - the fact that whenever a solution like eating wild bison becomes popular, a whole host of cheaper pseudo-versions spring up to take advantage of the ethical reputation of the name without going to the bother of supplying the genuine article. This has happened too in the UK, when ‘grassfed’ beef became the latest ethical cuisine. The problem for the consumer is that 100% grassfed can mean anything from our 1000-year old hay meadows to the latest varieties of mono-cultured ryegrasses sprayed with liquid nitrogen fertiliser and various herbicides to ensure that ‘weeds’ (or wildflowers, as we know them) don’t take hold.

Most marketeers of grassfed meat will wax lyrical about the value of traditional wildflower meadows, but how many actually feed their cattle on them?

Rosewood is all about supplying the genuine article. We have built everything around preserving our local Yorkshire landscape of wildflower meadows by turning back the clock on cattle farming. This starts with breeding cattle of the right size that can traverse the damp ground damaging neither the soils nor the plants. Careful management also ensures that our pastures provide the ideal habitat for insect and birdlife that once existed in abundance, before the advent of pesticides. Our cattle feed only on grasses & wildflowers grown without any artificial fertilisers or pesticides, including our own hay made right here on the farm.

You can celebrate our wildflower meadows and help to keep them alive. Throw a party or go for a picnic but don’t forget that the food on your plate has the biggest impact upon the landscape around you. We’ll happily keep preserving the meadows here at Rosewood for as long as you keep buying the beef.

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