Farm of the Week: Champion bides his time

Two years ago Stephen Pepper was the only Yorkshire-based breeder to win in the sheep or cattle classes at Countryside Live, but he’ll not be competing when the increasingly popular autumn agricultural show takes place again next weekend.

Stephen and Tracey Pepper with son Thomas, amongst their cattle at Windle House Farm.

Marriage to Tracy took precedence over the defence of his crown last year and with 16-month-old son Thomas taking up much of their time at present, along with two other sons Jack, 11, and Max, seven, it is next year’s shows that Stephen intends to return to the ring with the best of his pedigree Beltex flock.

Weather forecasts of extreme conditions in November could give Stephen enough of a short-term headache before next summer’s show season can be contemplated seriously. His concern won’t just be about making sure his ewes retain their form in order to present him with new recruits for his show team, but also his other business of doorstep delivery of milk in the nearby village of Haworth. This week’s wind and rain has served as a timely reminder of what winter often holds for hill farms.

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“I’ve delivered milk close to 17 years and on days like today (Monday) it feels like I’ve been doing it forever. The main thing on a windy day is to make sure that it doesn’t ruin my pick-up door; and wheelie bins are an absolute nightmare when they have been emptied, with them being on wheels they are like missiles!”

Windle House Farm is perched 900ft above sea level, looking down on Leeshaw reservoir on the edge of Oxenhope. There’s one single-track road in and out from the water board gates and their land reaches a height of 1,100ft. Stephen’s parents Ronald and Anne came to the 75-acre tenanted farm in May 1964 from a smallholding in Thornhill Lees in Dewsbury. Today they still tenant the same acreage but also rent another 60 acres for summer grazing.

“When dad started here he had a milking herd of 14 Friesian cows and 30-40 mainly Swaledale and Dalesbred breeding ewes around the reservoir banking. He also had a milk round.”

The Peppers went out of dairying in 1978 with the changeover from cans to bulk milk tanks and Ronald started a suckler herd, but Stephen’s first steps into showing livestock brought about a return to milking cows when he built up a Dairy Shorthorn herd in his early 20s.

“I joined Aire Valley YFC when I was 21 and the club held its own show at Bingley livestock market. That’s what kick-started me into thinking that I could get into showing. I loved Dairy Shorthorns so I bought a heifer out of Bingley, showed it and things just snowballed from there.”

The catalyst for today’s farming operation at Windle House was foot and mouth disease in 2001.

“We found it very hard and with no markets open it cost us a small fortune. At one time we had both the previous year’s lambs and current lambs coming forward. The same was true with the cattle and their calves. I was trying to find a customer, negotiate a price, negotiate with Trading Standards and with the vets. It was so difficult to do any trading. I could see that abattoirs were more likely to take artic loads than a little trailer load from a small hill farm like ours but you have to be strong. We just had a big clear-out when we could.”

Ronald was still in charge at that time but Stephen took over the sheep side of the farm. He switched from hill sheep to Beltex in a bid to provide quality butchers lambs and good breeding stock.

“I will always change things if what we have isn’t working. We’re now members of the Beltex Society and I currently have 100 Beltex and Beltex X amongst the 140 breeding ewes and followers. The best way I have of describing them is like tables of meat on legs.”

Cattle and pigs are also kept with a herd of 70 cattle predominantly Limousin X put to the Belgian Blue. Stephen has his own stock bull. Pigs were kept before foot and mouth and they’re still a useful part of the farm today.

“We have 30 at any one time. I buy them in at eight to 12 weeks from Gisburn Mart and sell them at Wharfedale Farmers Livestock Market at 85-100kg. They help with the farm’s cash flow, as does the milk round too. The milk comes from a farm at Luddendenfoot.

“Where this farm is situated is great for livestock markets. There are three fantastic marts all within 20 miles and another three within easy striking distance. I’ve always been a firm believer in them and bought my first calf at the now closed Bingley Mart when I was 12. Last week I visited three markets and prices were certainly heading in the right direction.”

Stephen hadn’t shown sheep until 2005-06. Having built up his Leeshaw Beltex flock he triumphed at Countryside Live, Keighley Show and in monthly market shows, but next year he’s hopeful of a significant return to the sheep pens in the summer show season.

“I’m planning on starting at the Great Yorkshire Show and then taking part in several local shows finishing off at Countryside Live and at Skipton Livestock Market. We normally start lambing on March 20 but I’m hoping to be about 10 days earlier this year.”

Tracy is a farmer’s daughter from Cullingworth. She and Stephen were friends at Aire Valley YFC but hadn’t seen each other for 10 years until she moved into the village. It was Stephen’s other job that brought them together.

“All I wanted was a milkman and so I followed his pick-up into a cul-de-sac one morning and tracked him down. And now here we all are!”

She talks of one of her husband’s greatest farming strengths being in his ability to observe. It’s a trait she believes is under-rated.

“The one thing I’ve always noticed about Stephen is he can just stand and look for maybe an hour and it might seem that he hasn’t achieved anything, but he studies his animals. It’s about thinking and planning and not just feeding and mucking out.”