Farm of the Week: South Yorkshire family gets set for the big bird rush

Christmas is coming and the geese are nearing that time sung about in the nursery rhyme at Firs Farm, Ringingrow on the south-west edge of Sheffield.

8 Nov 2016....Jim and Angela Battye of Fir Farm, Sheffield for Country Week feature. Picture Scott Merrylees

Turkeys and geese have formed a key part of the annual income for Jim, Angela and son John Battye for many years and this week signalled the start of Yuletide’s rush of orders. Jim recalls his first seasonal job at home when he was a child.

“As a lad at Oxspring, where my parents Albert and Gwen farmed, I was always around turkeys and geese in the lead up to Christmas. I plucked my first goose when I was six years old. It was just chucked on my knee and I was told to get on with it. That’s the way it was in those days. Everyone had to be involved and it didn’t matter how old or young you were.

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“My grandma Alice Battye started the tradition over 80 years ago as a way of generating extra cash during winter and today we have 250 turkeys and 170 geese. Back then everything was hand plucked dry. Today we hot dip them before plucking. The two days we process them, one for the turkeys and another for the geese, sees us with a gathering of around 15 friends and family. It’s become an annual social event and Angela puts on plenty of food to make sure everyone is well looked after with a good dinner. We hang them for around a week after that and spend a further two to three days dressing them. Collection day is December 23 and it’s mayhem, but managed mayhem, in our yard.

“It’s all just started,” says Angela, who was brought up on her grandparents’ farm at Stannington near Sheffield. “As soon as Bonfire Night is over everything kicks in and from now on I will spend at least an hour a day booking orders whether through phone calls, visits, emails, texts or social media like Facebook. Our page is getting more popular every year. Most people know where to go to get a turkey but like to make sure they’re going to get a fresh one and that’s why they come to us, but there are not many that have geese and definitely not to the number we have.

“When we moved here about 30 years ago it turned out that the previous farmer before us had sold some turkeys and since we also had some orders to keep up with back over near Penistone that got us underway nicely. We gradually upped both our turkey and goose numbers from 50 to 100 until where we are today. It’s now the right amount for us to cope with both on shed capacity and the number of orders we receive.”

John recalls a similar introduction to the family’s Christmas enterprise as his father’s. He and his sisters Ruth and Helen were also involved as they still are today. John was happy for his own reason.

“I was about six-years-old when I started plucking my first goose, but I also remember it was a useful excuse for not going into school just before Christmas.”

Firs Farm runs to 230 acres of which the Battyes own 130 acres and tenant much of the other 100 acres from Sheffield Council. The farming mix sees sheep as their largest single sector with cattle and agricultural contracting making up the rest of their income.

“We have 500 mainly Mule and Mule X breeding ewes with our stock destined for the fat lamb market,” says Angela. “We’re using Meatlinc and Suffolk tups to produce the quality butcher’s lambs we’re looking for to go into Mr Pickles’ Yorkshire Food Emporium on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield with the rest sold at Bakewell livestock market. We lamb 100 ewes in February and 400 in April. This allows us to spread our lamb sales across a longer period and assists with cashflow as it means the first lambs are going in June. Prices have been better than last year with averages around £70-£75 per lamb.

“Mr Pickles’ Yorkshire Food Emporium only started a couple of years ago but in this day and age of low food miles it’s a good thing for us and they are doing a wonderful job of promoting Yorkshire produce. We also supply beef and they take everything we produce, which is currently two beasts every three weeks.”

The Battyes have a suckler herd of 35 cows that calves all year round using an Aberdeen Angus bull on the heifers and a Limousin on the cows, which are mainly Belgian Blue X with some homebred Aberdeen Angus. Steers and heifers go at 15 to 22-months-old and they also buy in store cattle to fatten.

The majority of their land is between 800-1,000ft above sea level and John says this usually brings them early winters and late springs.

“We have 50 acres of cereals, growing wheat, barley and oats with some fodder beet. It’s nearly all for feed but we do sell some wheat. We make good silage that is mixed as a feed for our in-lamb ewes using an old Kennan feed wagon to a mix managed by Carrs Billington. We can grow good crops but because of where we are if we’re not all drilled up by the first week in October we might as well leave the seed in the bag and not bother. We bring the ewes in at the end of January and they don’t go back out until they have all lambed. It allows the ground to freshen up.”

John works with a silage contractor and looks after a number of farms with a variety of contracting jobs from raking to mowing, ploughing, drilling and re-seeding. He also works on game covers, sheep shearing and fabrications.

All of the Battyes attention for the coming weeks turns to geese and turkeys. Angela tells of how geese can differ from one year to the next.

“Sometimes they’re absolutely scatty and their first two to three months from being day-old chicks can be horrendous. They can get in holes, get stuck behind doors and just generally not know where they’re going but this year’s are lovely.

“They produce a darker, rich moist meat fed on our own home grown wheat. They’re not organic but they are as near as you can get without being so.”