Farm Of The Week: Keith’s stand over tenancy reaps reward

Keith with his highly contented cattle
Keith with his highly contented cattle
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Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States in 1861, which subsequently signalled the onset of the American Civil War. That same year Joshua Knapton Pickard moved from Spofforth to farm at Swindon Hall.

In recent times the present incumbent at Kirkby Overblow, Keith Pickard, has fought his own personal civil war to remain as a tenant farmer where he grew up with his 10 brothers and sisters.

Following an arduous campaign, Keith emerged victorious in his quest for extended farm tenancy rights that now apply for both himself and one of his sons. He is relieved and can now plan for his and his family’s future with greater confidence.

“It cost me £40,000 and a great deal of time and effort, but it’s done now. The problem had been that my father and my brother, Maurice and Michael, had the tenancy before me. I wasn’t named in the previous agreement. My father had passed away some years ago and when my brother passed away the farm’s tenancy was just in his name. That meant that I had to reapply for it and in so doing I had to prove that I had made an income from the farm over the past seven years.”

Ironically, one of the problems Keith faced was down to his reliance on another job. He’d only taken it on to help the farm’s finances and yet that could have been the very reason why he could also have lost the farm.

Whilst farming hadn’t been looking too clever in the early part of the 2000s Keith had combined his work on the farm with employment as a forklift driver at Golden Fry in Wetherby.

“I had to do it at the time to make ends meet, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still farming here too. I’d work shifts at Golden Fry from 6am until 2pm. I’d then come back home and work on the farm until midnight. The debate was over whether I had made my income from the farm. It was madness, but you do what you have to at the time. I changed back to full-time here once farm prices picked up.”

The farm runs to 245 acres and is a mix of cereal crops, grassland and a herd of around 250 predominantly Charolais X cattle. The cattle are the mainstay.

“We have 120 cows plus followers. I have crossbred them up from having started with just one Charolais cow. I keep a pedigree bull but I don’t want the herd going too much down the pedigree line because of the better results I get with them as a crossbred.

“I cross them with the Welsh Black and the Shorthorn. That keeps them milking well and means that they feed their calves well too. It’s a closed herd apart from buying in a bull every now and again to ensure there is no interbreeding.”

Following the tenancy rights success at tribunal Keith was strapped for cash. The legal bills had cost him dearly and he quickly changed his system of selling cattle to bring in much needed funds.

“I used to send cattle for the fatstock sales at Wharfedale Farmers’ Auction Mart in Otley, but I switched to sending them as 6-7 month-old stores. Poor weather affecting the grass was another reason why I made the move, but the main determining factor was that I needed to generate increased cash flow.

“We’ve developed a decent reputation for producing quality stores that kill out well and give a good proportion of meat to bone. I have quite a few asking when my stock will be coming to market. We’re moving forward again now and because the tenancy issue has now been resolved and prices have improved we’re looking in good shape.”

That doesn’t mean that everything is rosy just yet though. Poor weather this year has brought about a combination of a disastrously poor yield for Keith’s barley crop, pocked grassland and early winter housing of the herd.

“Last year’s spring barley produced 2.5 tonnes/acre but we have struggled to even make one tonne/acre this year. That’s bad enough but I depend on the straw for bedding. I grow Wagon barley because of its length as straw but it looks as though I will be buying in plenty this winter. I’ve had to bring the cattle in this week. That’s a month earlier than normal, but there’s just no way they could stay on grass any longer. It looks like being a long and expensive winter.”

Keith’s cattle are fed on silage and grass along with minerals purchased from local suppliers. He also incorporates a high copper mix into the herd’s diet. It is this combination that he believes makes all the difference when at market but facing the prospect of increased costs during the winter he is already rethinking his plans for next year.

“I may look at reducing the herd number and ploughing up a little more than the 45 acres we currently plant with barley. That way I can produce more feed and keep costs under control a little better.”

Keith recalls his childhood at Swindon Hall with great fondness.

“Mum used to run two plots in the garden producing every kind of vegetable you can imagine. She was a great cook as well as being a wonderful baker and she taught us all how to bake on wet days. She’d have had plenty of those this year!

“Haytime was always one of our busiest periods of the year. Dad would produce a mass of small bales and hundreds of stooks were made. I used to work hard on the farm when I was a child, as did my brothers and sisters. I’d work before and after school every day.”

Keith is married to Kerry and they have a four-year-old son, Joshua, and four- month-old Isobel Lilly. He has two children from a previous marriage – Laura (22) and Thomas (19). Thomas currently works on a farm near Easingwold and also helps out at his mother’s parents’ farm in the same area.

Outside of farming Keith was once a sidecar man – the passenger in sidecar racing whilst his cousin rode the motorbike. They competed at local grass tracks at Pickering and York.

Now that the tenancy issue has been resolved and livestock prices have improved Keith is starting to reinvest in the farm.

He has purchased new farm machinery and would like to put up new farm buildings for his cattle. But like many other farmers he doesn’t believe in over-spending where it can be avoided.

His purchase of a combine harvester 20 years ago is proof of that. He bought it for just £1,000 and was back using it again this year.

“I worked out how much I was paying for having my corn cut by a contractor and reckoned that if I bought one cheaply it would pay for itself in three years. It’s done pretty well so far. I’ve had another 17 out of it and it should last a while longer yet!”