Farm of the Week: Beef and beer prove the perfect match

Robert Thompson of Manor Farm, Cullingworth.
Robert Thompson of Manor Farm, Cullingworth.
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Beef breeding, beer, a big annual event and harness racing make an interesting mix for Robert Thompson at Manor Farm in Cullingworth, near Keighley, but it wasn’t always that way. Until 2002 this was a dairy farm complete with a milk processing plant.

“My grandmother came here, to what was then a 40-acre tenanted farm around 1939 from Malham, with her two sons Tommy (my dad) and John, both in their early 30s. My granddad had died when dad was 12.

“We’d always had dairy cows and were running our own bottling plant. Dad had around 40 milkers. I took over in 1973 and by the time we came out of dairying we had 80 cows. We were approached by someone who had lost their herd during the Foot and Mouth disease year in 2001 and my dairyman, John, who had worked with me for 17 years was ready to retire so the timing was just right for us.”

Robert switched from dairy to beef and chose the Salers breed to run a pedigree herd.

“I’d been quite impressed by the size and quality of them on a friend’s farm near Halifax. We went up to a breed sale at a market in Castle Douglas and bought ten heifers and cows. We now have over 60 Salers suckler cows with followers. The Salers is a French breed but the biggest herds are in Scotland and we’ve been back to Castle Douglas to buy many times.”

Around two and a half years ago Robert’s eyes were also drawn to the Luing breed that was started by the Cadzow brothers on the Isle of Luing, one of the Slate Islands, in Argyll.

The breed emanates from crossing the Beef Shorthorn with the Highland and was officially recognised as a breed of its own in 1965. They have been growing in popularity and there are now several pedigree herds in Yorkshire.

“I saw a packet of them at Skipton livestock market and then heard of a herd of 16 coming up for sale near Settle. They were all purebred and I bought it complete. The cows all had calves at foot as well as being back in-calf. That gave me twice as many as I had bought and we’ve kept all the heifers.”

In recent times Robert has moved away from purebred stock and has shifted to putting a Charolais bull on to the Salers and a Simmental on the Luing.

“They’re stronger animals than they were as purebred and by using the Simmental bull on to the Luing cow you breed a better size. Anyone can go into a market and buy quality but it’s a clever person that can breed it. I get a great deal of pleasure from trying to breed something that will sell well at market and I don’t particularly like to see little cows. I’m breeding for quality, marbling and size.

“The Luings start calving around the end of February and the Salers start at the end of April. I’ve gone on to Sim-Luings now which can still go into the Luing herdbook.

Wharfedale livestock market has been Robert’s first choice for years and just two weeks ago he took two six-month old stirks there making £850 and £860.

“It’s such a sociable place to be at. I’ve gone there all my life. The first milk cow I ever sold was at Bridge End market in Otley. We used to go to both Otley markets. My grandfather sold at the first sale ever to be held at the old Skipton livestock market that is now a Morrisons supermarket and I sold at the last sale to be held there.”

Today, the farm runs to 160 acres and is all owned. Although hard to believe in modern-day farming there were once seven farms on this acreage and all predominantly with dairy cows. It was all part of the Bardsley-Powell Estate. The family owned virtually all of the property in Cullingworth and Thornton at one time.

Robert is married to Anne and they have two sons Christopher, who lives in the original Manor House built in 1560 that Robert’s grandmother first came to when moving over from Malham; and Nicholas who lives on a farm in Haworth. Neither son has followed Robert into farming although Nicholas has shown the first inklings of interest by taking on two Luings.

To keep the business ticking over Robert has undertaken other roles away from the farm, including wagon driving and abattoir cleaning.

“Before 2001 cleaning of slaughterhouses was one of my main paying jobs; and I have a class 1 licence for driving wagons.”

Robert has also driven in a totally different style. His hobby and enduring passion since 1960 has been harness racing.

“My father-in-law Charlie Ibbotson was the handicapper for England in the 40s and 50s and he got me involved. I used to be a driver and would love to still do it. We’ve been owners of the best two-year-old in the country and still own a horse now. I now drive the starter car for the races at York Harness Raceway at Moor Monkton and I’m regional steward for England. We have also held our own race meeting on the farm here since 1999.”

Ten years ago Robert visited a micro-brewery in Bradford. He was so taken with the idea that he bought one from Castleford and shipped the kettles and all the equipment over to Manor Farm and launched Old Spot Brewery, named after his old dog. On the night he bought it, by the time he’d driven back home he only owned a quarter of the business.

“On my way back Christopher, Nicholas and Anne all took quarter shares! Christopher now runs it and is the brewer. All our beer is by cask and he has at least half a dozen different ales ranging from Old Spot itself to a favourite dark bitter called OSB and a lighter beer too.

“He also does a Porter called Spot of Bother. If you like Guinness then try Spot of Bother I don’t think you’ll go back.”

Robert’s farm also hosts the Bronte Vintage Gathering, a major event held over a weekend in May that attracts up to 10,000 visitors and raises funds for Manorlands Hospice in nearby Oxenhope.