Having now trialled the breed’s economic capabilities for over a decade, BWCS member Paul Pennington gives his take on using British White cattle in commercial beef systems
What is the background of your farming enterprise?
As a family partnership with my parents and brother, we run a mixed farm of approximately 700 acres on mainly light, sandy ground in Shropshire. We have a herd of 100 or so British White cattle – I’m really too frightened to count, but around 35-40 breeding cows. We run a commercial beef enterprise finishing 350-400 cattle a year, of which the British Whites would account for around 50. We also finish and trade around 2500 sheep a year comprising cull ewes, store lambs and some in-lamb ewes that we lamb on the farm. We don’t keep a standing flock, save for a small group of pedigree rare breed Greyface Dartmoors which belong to my son James. He produces very popular lamb in a box with his wether lambs and pockets the profit gleefully! The arable business consists of growing maize silage for cattle feed and a local bio-digester. We also grow fodder beet for cattle and sheep feed, and stubble turnips for over-wintering grazing for sheep. Corn crops are largely winter and spring wheat, barley and winter beans. Our British Whites live on grassland grazing, predominantly permanent pasture which encompasses some parkland and conservation grazing areas. The White herd itself generates steer calves for the commercial beef system.
All the British White beef supplies several farm shops and our own beef in a box scheme, although at the moment the demand for the beef is so high that we haven’t had enough to do both, so we focus on the farm shop demands first. There is a huge market out there for high quality, largely grass-reared beef, and although we are biased the customers aren’t, and we just can’t supply it fast enough! Rare breed beef production is a challenge due to the limited supply, and the ethos that its purpose is for the support and growth of the breed itself and is not simply a regular factory system with unlimited availability. We do have to change the mindset of the butchers slightly to recognise this, though I think that they are becoming more aware of these issues now that they appreciate the advantages of selling beef that is local, natural, environmentally and ethically sound, and is so enthusiastically received by the customer.
What attracted you to the breed and how did you get started?
I first saw British Whites at the Royal Show many years ago. I liked the look of them and took a leaflet which got buried in a drawer for years, whilst we milked a dairy herd. At the time of the milk price crisis we decided to sell the dairy enterprise, and the buildings lay comparatively empty for a while, save for commercial store cattle which we built up to replace the dairy business. One day I was sorting out some papers and found the leaflet. Coincidentally, the following week, I saw some British Whites advertised in the Farmers Guardian. I picked the phone up on a whim, and was totally hooked by the knowledge and enthusiasm of British White breeder Vivien St. Joseph, but blanched at the logistics of buying cattle from Essex – I was quite naïve regarding the British Whites at the time! However, she suggested that we visit Melton Mowbray Sale the following week, and we met some fantastic people who have become great friends since. Keith and Ro Harding had a cow and calf at home which was too young to take to the sale and everything started from that one Faygate/Templar cow and calf; collecting them then became addictive! Dallyashes stock soon followed from Angie Hamilton, alongside several Faygate heifers from Colin and Pauline Cooke. Our first stock bull was Castleton O’Driscoll, with Dallyashes Push Off, Latchygors Teasquare, Cadarn Dump Truck and Ladbarrow Zorro (who actually belongs to my son Harry) following as new bloodlines were needed. Later injections of breeding cows were from the Bridge Homestead dispersal sale at Worcester in 2012. The latest additions were a core group from the Ladbarrow herd, and the herd boss Pip Perry herself, who moved up to Oldington at the same time, moving the cattle in the stock lorry even before her furniture! Her knowledge and expertise have been invaluable in working with the herd and the herdsman himself, all of us being trained in the ways of the British Whites. We have been working on the herd for ten years, keeping the best female youngstock as breeding replacements and using the steers for the beef enterprise. This summer we were able to sell our first crop of ten maiden and in-calf heifers to another new breeder, which is a really satisfying achievement for us.
We discovered the potential for the British White as a commercial beef animal largely by accident. We had a big group of youngstock which were comprised of continental crosses, natives and British Whites which we outwintered on grass and fodder beet during a really hard winter a few years ago. When we weighed the cattle in the spring, it was clear that whilst many of the crosses had barely held their own over winter, the British Whites had performed significantly better. It proved to us that the British Whites will thrive and perform in adverse conditions with minimal inputs, and although with our commercial target as a priority we do push our cattle to achieve their maximum potential, they are impressive either way. The place of the Whites in our commercial system was assured and they have never looked back.
Being involved with the British White Cattle Society over the last ten years has meant that we have been fortunate enough to be able to travel the length and breadth of the country looking at herds of British White cattle. It is fascinating, as a beef producer, to witness the variety of situations in which these cattle thrive – from two thousand feet up on a Lancashire moorland to the lush green pastures of the South, and the exposed coastlines of both East and West. They truly are an all-purpose breed that has huge potential as both a high-quality beef cow, a reliable suckler, an economical converter, a conservation grazing machine, and everything in-between. These are attributes that I hope will be significant for the development of the breed as we traverse the terrain of Brexit, and for the future of British farming.
So, what next for the Oldington herd?
We began our herd with a varied collection of bloodlines, some of them from the very oldest herds in the breed. Now my aim is to produce a herd of cattle that pleases my eye as much as possible. Obviously, we are all trying to produce the perfect British White – and I don’t expect that will be me! – but if you can enjoy looking at what you have in the field then you have won. It would be nice to think that, from time to time, we might be able to show our best in the show ring again, but honestly it is the taking part and the fun and support that we receive that makes the showing so rewarding. As a family we have had some fantastic experiences over the last decade, and we are really hoping that the shows will be able to resume soon.
As far as the herd is concerned, we are at a crossroads. We have about as many head of cattle here as we can reasonably support on our limited grazing, so unless our situation changes, we will continue to focus on producing good beef and breeding stock. The boys have a few interesting ideas for the future, but we will have to see. At the moment we will concentrate on keeping the British White reputation as strong as we can with our customers – the butchers, farm shops and direct customers. That way, and through working with the Society, we can ensure that British White cattle remain at Oldington for future generations to enjoy and benefit from, and keep the breed profile as competitive as possible in the commercial market. I am convinced that this is the only way to safeguard the breed’s future and have a little enjoyment along the way, which is the benefit of owning and farming these fantastic cattle. The Society itself, and the friendly support it offers, is as much of a safeguard for the future as the attributes of these lovely animals themselves. We really hope that their future continues to flourish in the manner which they deserve.
Photograph by Harry Pennington