From pop to a ‘mob’ mentality

Martin Lowcock

Martin Lowcock

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LEMONADE helped pay for Martin Lowcock’s farm and he learned business watching his father make and sell it.

Lowcock’s once-famous lemonade is part of the story of Maltby Grange Farm, Maltby, on the rural side of the junction between Yorkshire Teesside and Middlesbrough.

Martin’s dad, John, inherited the lemonade recipe and ran a Middlesbrough factory making it.

After marrying into the farm, which belonged to Martin’s mother’s father, he bought Upper Farm, which adjoins it.

When the generation before them retired, Martin and his brother sold the factory and Martin, now 43, ended up with the combined farm. It was what he wanted. But by the time he took it over, in the late 80s, it had been squeezed out of dairy and its land was drained from growing without muck.

Martin imported hen muck and took in pigs. He saw the soil getting better and started building a beef herd. But then came 2001. The ministry wanted to take his livestock out as a precaution and he would not let them. After four months in quarantine, he ended up with no compensation and his sheds more or less empty.

“I shot a couple of heifers and let them hang and then cut them up and sold them down the pub on quiz night,” he says. “I had quite a nice little business developing until a man took me aside and said: ‘Look – your beef is beautiful but I am from Trading Standards and technically you are illegal’.”

He did a course in butchery and a deal with a local abattoir, switched to Saddleback pigs, bought in some lambs to fatten and started a shop. That went well, too.

“But it was basically a butcher’s shop,” he says. “And nowadays people expect somewhere to have a cup of tea and a playground. Before we committed the investment, we sat down for a family conference including the children – Tom, who is coming up to 16, and Kate, who is 13. And Tom said he didn’t want to run a shop. He wanted to farm.”

Martin reckoned the farm shop boom had peaked anyway. He helped his two butchers find work and closed the shop in March.

And the lemonade factory? Ah well, the new owners tinkered with the product and somehow the magic was lost. Martin still has the recipe, tucked away in a safe. Meanwhile, the shop has done its job and the farm is back to health.

He has about 360 acres, plus rented access to 60 more for sheep grazing. He has 120 beef sucklers, mainly Simmental crosses, bulled by two Simmentals and a Hereford. With the shop gone, he intends to build the breeding herd to about 200 and sell all their calves as stores, at Darlington and Northallerton.

Two dozen Saddleback sows, living on straw, produce porkers which sell at Darlington, mainly to local butchers. About 400 lambs are bought in autumn and fattened for sale at the markets in spring. The arable fields produce crops for feed.

Best feed is his ‘crimped’ wheat, cut moist and then rolled and clamped, with additives, to make a cake which suits both pigs and cattle, and he sells some easily to other beef finishers. The rotation for silage also includes beans, lucerne and red clover, because they have deep roots which break up compaction and put some nitrogen in the ground for the wheat.

“I realised very early the importance of the ground I was standing on,” says Martin. “And that has made me very conscious of the need to save on inputs. I’ve planted six and a half miles of hedge since 1994, because ladybirds and hedgehogs save on pesticides. It’s not just about the environment; it’s about money.

“When my father was running the lemonade factory, he was checking his costs every day – sugar, lemons, glass, energy. And I’m doing the same thing every time I look around. That stack of silage is costing me £2.50 a bale in plastic, which is £6,000 a year, so I’m building a clamp for £12,000.

“It’s the same with the N. If I can get it cheaper, I want it cheaper.”

A neighbour and friend is David Hugill, an enthusiast for farming outside the box. Five years ago, the two of them went to Canada to see Neil Dennis, a pioneer of ‘mob grazing’ – packing pastures with cattle for a short period and moving them on quickly. Sward is trampled in and the topsoil massaged. The cattle eat the sweet tops of the grass and then leave it to recover. And they are away before flies and parasites hatch from their manure.

But not everything which works in Saskatchewan would work in Yorkshire, where land is much wetter and comes in smaller parcels. “Neil is using a lot of electric fencing and moving cattle every couple of hours,” says Martin.

But he started breaking up his fields, using four miles of conventional fencing which he will eventually replace with hedges.

“My perfect field for now is 14-15 acres, where I can put 50-60 cattle in for a couple of days,” he sums up. “The New Zealanders are pushing it to about 10 per acre. The usual practice here would be about 1.2 an acre for the whole summer. But my way, I get faster grass recovery and I break the (intestinal) worm cycle.

“The calves gain weight faster because the cows are milkier. I got 98 per cent conception success last year, up from 86 per cent before I started. The cows are fitter, so I can leave them out longer. And they are coming in with a condition score of 3-plus. My nutrition adviser, John Naylor of Carrs Billington, complains they are too fat. But I’d sooner have them too well to do than the opposite.”

The sheep play their part. He uses his own stores and wintering hill sheep to clean up and crop down in readiness for the following spring, after the cows have come in.

The field re-organisation has gone along with other moves towards more holistic farming. For worming, for example, he now uses a product called Cydectin, which does not kill dung beetles. And two years ago, working with Mark Webster of Wilton House Vets, Guisborough, he went in for testing the cattle for trace element deficiencies, which he has been countering with boluses and bespoke soil dressings.

The results are better birthing, stronger calves, milkier mothers – hard to measure precisely, but Martin is sure he is getting his money back. And he can say he is spending £5,000 less on artificial fertiliser for his grass than he was before he started getting more out of it. He is now working towards taking some of the pasture into his arable rotation, to see how intensive grazing compares to tractor-drawn preparation.

His wife, Beverley, runs a cattery, by the way. Call that on 01642 593552, Martin on 07885 332677 – or email martin.mgrange@btinternet.com/

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