Farm of the Week: Great Yorkshire Show stalwart back with the beef herd after recovering from a brain tumour

Changing farming practices, representing others through the National Farmers Union, assisting with decisions on this year’s Great Yorkshire Show and battling major personal health issues have made for a dramatic last 12 months for a farmer in North Yorkshire.

Steven Crabtree and his sheepdog Tag

Third generation sheep and beef farmer Steven Crabtree of Bolton Park Farm, Bolton Abbey had a brain tumour removed last June. As a trustee of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society he has been instrumental in this year’s showpiece event going ahead at Harrogate.

Steven said he had been fortunate the tumour had not been cancerous and that he had been delighted to play his part in the show returning this year, subject to any resurgence of the pandemic.

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“It’s the society’s flagship and everyone wants it to happen. Our primary concerns were the restrictions that need to be put in place and how we could run the show without losing money, as the running costs are huge. The timing has worked in our favour being in July, but others haven’t been so lucky.”

Steven with his North Cheviot flock

Steven’s nine-year stint as a trustee ended at the annual general meeting on Thursday this week. He said it has been a rollercoaster period for the show and society, and that he is immensely grateful for the opportunity he has had.

“It has broadened my horizons, made me look at things differently and shown me just how much good work is done by the society in addition to the Great Yorkshire Show.

“My first year as trustee was when the show was cancelled after torrential rain on the first day in 2012. We invested massively on car parking facilities to make sure, as much as we could, that it never happened again.

“One of the most amazing highs was the building of the multi-million pound Hall 1. For me, just a little farmer from the Yorkshire Dales who has never spent that kind of money it has been an amazing experience.”

This was the year when Steven was to take on the role of West Riding NFU county chairman, he’s presently vice chairman, but Rachel Hallos is continuing in the position.

“I just didn’t feel I could do justice to the role at present, given the past year. I want to give the job 100 per cent as I believe in supporting and trying to influence people who make decisions in government or elsewhere, who can sometimes be way off the mark.

“I think it’s important to try to stay ahead of the curve, especially where farming finds itself. We have never been in more of a state of flux than we are with the aftermath of Brexit and the end of the single farm payment.”

Steven said his own priorities and farming policies have changed at Bolton Park Farm and on other land he has in pockets elsewhere.

“Going back 20 years when headage payments were still around we were running 1,400 breeding ewes and 200 suckler cows.

“We now lamb around 700 breeding ewes and have a suckler herd of between 90-100. We are not as intensive, not pushing as hard. We send all of our lamb and beef largely to Dunbia and some beef to Morrisons.”

Steven said he is moving his suckler herd back towards native breeds, which thrive off a grass-based system.

“It is grass that we are realising is our future. Grass for grazing and the silage it produces for feeding in winter. We are also switching back to an Angus type of bull, using native breeds on to what have been once-crossed dairy cattle to twice-crossed.

“Previously we would have had a Limousin, Simmental or Hereford-cross-dairy cow providing our sucklers, now that cross will be crossed again with an Angus and we will keep the Angus out of it for the suckler herd. We’re trying to get more native breeding into the cows because of them doing better off grass.

“We’ve got to be realistic about our location, what we have at our disposal and what we can do best. We can grow grass and we can grow cattle, but we cannot fatten cattle here, or at least not modern cattle that need to grow quickly. To do that you need to buy in concentrates and straw.”

Steven said his latest change of farming policy also sees his stock going to another farm, more suited to fattening. “The cost of keeping the fattening cattle on the other farm is something I cannot match at Bolton Park. We started on it with the heifer calves and we’re continuing now with the steers.

“When you look at our costs for doing that here, against what it costs us to have them elsewhere it’s a no-brainer.”

Steven tenants 680 acres at Bolton Park but also owns land in several other locations including 240 acres at Hawkswick, near Arncliffe, where he grazes native breed cattle such as Beef Shorthorn-cross and Highland-cross purchased from hill farmer Matt Ridley in Northumberland.

“We can fatten those animals on the hills because it’s their natural environment. The cattle graze at Hawkswick from July 1 each year.”

Steven said his sheep policy is also changing, from Swaledales to North Country Cheviots.

“We’re swinging away from the Swaledale. We moved on to the Cheviots about 15 years ago. We send most of our stock as fat lambs, other than keeping replacements, but we have also found there is a ready market for the Cheviot Mule-cross-Texel gimmer lamb.”

His sheep graze away from Bolton Park during winter as they have for 40 years since taking over the farm from his father Christopher in 1982.

“I’ve not moved very far. My grandfather John brought my father here in 1957 having come from a 40-acre farm in Askwith where he had dairy cows.

“My wife Ann looks after the farm accounts. Our son Simon works for Dunbia and Breedr and rears calves. Our daughters Sarah and Beth are not involved in farming. Sarah is a lawyer and Beth works in the food industry.”