Farm of the Week: No reasons to feel blue when working with pigs

Anthony Bradley with the Gloucester Old Spot pigs on the farm at Long Preston.  Picture: Simon Hulme
Anthony Bradley with the Gloucester Old Spot pigs on the farm at Long Preston. Picture: Simon Hulme
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WHEN A farm has been in a family for five generations there can be an assumption it has largely just been a matter of each one taking over from the next. The Bradleys know different.

Brothers Andrew and Anthony took over from their father William, as he had taken over from his father Anthony, but at their now wholly-owned 170-acre Mearbeck Farm just outside Long Preston, near Settle, their farm business acumen, gathered up from on-farm work and both having been graduates of Newcastle University, was put to test in the year 2000 when the milk price hit another low.

They’re in a far healthier state today but 15 years ago they had to bite the bullet on their dairy future.

“We were under pressure with the bank due to a catastrophic fall in milk price, as it has gone this year,” says Anthony.

“It wasn’t quite foreclosure but it led to us selling the cows, the quota, the parlour, all of the dairy equipment and the sheep.

“We had geared up for the future and had been working all hours but making nothing from the 100 black and white cows with 100 followers and a flock of around 250 predominantly Dalesbred ewes.”

Coming out of milk didn’t have as much effect on Andrew as it had on Anthony.

“I would have gone back to getting up at the early hours of the morning to milk the cows as I like them and enjoyed milking but the practicalities of going back in and the scale of capital involved are huge.

“The first week or two I was thinking that I should be getting up when it reached milking time,” says Andrew.

“But not long afterwards I was thinking how good it was to have a lie in.”

Foot and mouth disease hit the north of England just six months after their stock had been sold. There were those who told the brothers they could have made more from their cows if they’d been subject to a contiguous cull but they had done what they needed to do by then.

It was a regular on-farm task that became the brothers’ new enterprise and the one that set them back on the road to farm recovery.

“We didn’t restock for several years,” says Anthony. “I worked as a labourer for local builders and Andrew was working on disposal of livestock during foot and mouth.

“We then started picking up a few drystone walling jobs and it just grew. We worked on stretches around the Settle-Carlisle railway line and for the National Parks. With the drystone walling and letting our land for grass lets we started getting the farm back on its feet.”

They quit walling when Anthony says they had bought so many sheep that they didn’t have time to leave the farm any longer.

“We then bought the farm in 2006 and now have sheep, pigs and cattle. We now have 200 Mule ewes with a few Mashams and also a few Lleyns I’ve recently bought.”

Anthony keeps around 30 cattle that are split fairly evenly between a pedigree Beef Shorthorn suckler herd and bought-in dairy-bred calves.

“The Shorthorns are such easy care cattle. They live on fresh air and we’ve never had to calve one ourselves.

“I like the dairy bred calves because an animal’s feed conversion is best when it’s young. It will convert your grass into something to sell. They go at around 14 months.

“Everything I do with the livestock is about running a grass based system with as little hard feed as possible. I’m also working on rotational grazing.”

Pigs came to Mearbeck in 2007. Anthony had seen an advertisement offering Gloucester Old Spot pigs for sale just up the road and the brothers went to take a look.

Anthony recalls his brother’s initial reaction was in the form of an expletive or two, but that soon gave way to The Blue Pig Company and Andrew’s familiar role today as butcher and produce marketer.

“We bought six sows on the basis that if we couldn’t flog them we could at least eat them, but we sold out of sausages we made straight away. Then we started attending farmers’ markets.

“As soon as we moved into breeding pigs I knew we needed to market differently because being a rare breed with more fat than the commercial breeds there was no point sending them to market.

“I found out there was a pig breed called the Yorkshire Blue in the 1930s, brought about from crossing a predominantly black pig with a predominantly white, and since we then had Saddlebacks too I crossed the two of them to create our own version.

“I also wanted something that stood out from the crowd. Every butcher or meat seller at the time had a red and white stripy apron and straw hat, so I thought we’d be different and blue.

“Today we have eight sows rearing up to nine at a time and although we still go to a couple of farmers markets most of our business is now selling to pubs, restaurants and B&B establishments, as well as our growing online sales.

“Regular sales are bacon, sausages and black pudding, all breakfast stuff; and our Christmas orders for hams is already well under way.

“We process everything from our pigs on site and have 13 sausage flavours. Pork with chunks of black pudding is the current favourite.”

Andrew and Anthony have rebuilt the farm enterprise at Mearbeck. Andrew believes one of the main ways I which they have done this is by changing their farming methods.

“The most important machine is my labeller. I control what price goes on and while you can’t get carried away I can get a consistent price and as such we’re more protected from the vagaries of the market.

“Farmers’ traditional weakness is that we’ve been price takers rather than makers and we’ve found that because we are close to our customers and talk with them about costs they understand if we have to make a small increase every now and again.”