Farm of the Week: Operation to put Herefords back on table

Childhood memories of cattle and a passion for their taste led a semi-retired surgeon and his wife to take a different turn in life, as Mark Holdstock reports.

FOR more than thirty years, Jeff Price worked as a surgeon in Bradford.

He left the NHS five years ago but still works part-time in private practice.

However, his wife Heather knew that slowing down, and eventual full retirement, would not be easy and was keen to find something else for them to immerse themselves in.

"Surgeons, particularly when they work for the NHS, work seven days a week, twenty four hours a day. So we knew that he was going to be retiring and he needed something that was going to keep him busy," she said.

Thirty years ago, Mr Price bought Coley Hall, a manor house near Bradford, which at one time had twelve farms attached to the estate. His wife had horses, and was keen to buy a field from the neighbouring farmer for them.

"For about 10 years I tried to persuade him to sell me a field. Eventually he said to me it will be the whole farm or nothing."

They decided to buy the farm, which at the time was rented out for grazing, but after a year the farmer who was renting it decided to retire, leaving Mr Price and his wife Heather, who shows cattle under her maiden name of Whittaker, with all the land for their horses, with a total of 70 acres left over, bringing the question of what to do with it.

"If I'd wanted to make a lot of money I'd have turned it into a livery yard" she said.

"That seems to be the only thing around here that really pays, because so many people have horses nowadays. The land has always had beef cattle on it, suckler herds who were basically brought in, fattened up and sold on.

"So we were used to seeing beef cattle about but I wanted it to be a pedigree herd that was in keeping with the landscape and the surrounding area and that's why we chose the Herefords because they're all finished on grass."

For her husband, Jeff, the choice of Polled Herefords was very personal.

"When we were kids, the sign in the butcher's shop was a Hereford Bull. It takes you back to beef you had as a child."

Mr Price is also passionate about the flavour of the meat.

"If you're talking taste there's two requirements," he said. "One it's got to be hung, and secondly it's got to have a certain amount of fat in it.

"We think the taste of pedigree Herefords, is better than 'Herefords so-called' which is not full Hereford."

By this he refers to the common practice in supermarkets of labelling beef as either Hereford, or Aberdeen Angus when only the bull is from one of those breeds, the cow could be one of the continental commercial breeds which make up the vast majority of the beef sold in Britain today.

Becoming a beef farmer has ignited a passion to put the Hereford well and truly back on the table. "The taste of native, especially Hereford beef has not been made enough of for years, and we are beginning to have generations of people who are brought up on beef that has not been hung, and is not, in fact, native breeds."

Before setting up the beef herd, neither Heather Whittaker nor her husband had any experience of farming, although she had worked as a soil scientist for The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology.

Ms Whittaker can clearly remember the first of her new herd to give birth.

"It gave me a great buzz because it was a new piece of life, just arrived, and it was something that I was responsible for. I'm very pro-animal welfare, and looking after the animals. I know them all by name and the cows let me help as soon as their calves are born, I can make sure the calves are OK. They're a very docile breed."

There are just over a hundred animals in the herd, of which about 45 are breeding females.

"We keep about half a dozen of the bulls each year, and they're sold either for pedigree breeding or for cross breeding.

"The remainder of the calves are castrated before they're about six months old. The heifers fall into three categories, the ones that don't have the best conformation, or the best breeding qualities, they will go for beef.

"I sell the good pedigree ones for breeding, and some of them are used as replacements for our own herd, as the breeding cattle are getting older I'm replacing them in house."

All of those going for meat go to the respected Weetons shop in Harrogate.

However, selling pedigree animals to other breeders is also vital, as is showing them, something which is becoming increasingly important to Heather.

"The next stage is to get myself known so that I can sell more for breeding, and that involves doing a bit of showing. I like it.

"I was very nervous to start with. The poor heifers could feel my legs shaking together more than theirs were. This summer I came second in the senior bull class with my young bull who was two years old at the Great Yorkshire Show, but I support all the local shows, and I think it's important to do that."

Mr Price says that selling breeding animals is important because making money from selling meat is hard. He says that becoming a livestock farmer has given him an insight into how animals behave, and how the cattle interact with each other.

"I'm surprised at how very much they're herd animals, they don't like being alone … they have a sort of language which I didn't appreciate, both body language and auditory. The cows as soon as they calve have a different note in their cry to the calf.

"I think if you're outside of farming you probably don't appreciate how they've got their own little world and environment.

"Within the shed there's a leader, a matriarch and there's definitely a pecking order."

Due to Hereford cattle's performance at crossing with commercial cattle Herefords are now found in more than 50 countries around the world.

CW 8/1/11