Farm Of The Week: Only the very best livestock will suffice

When corn prices are running at around £210 per tonne and livestock prices on cattle and sheep have been holding up well for the past two years it is easy to forget that there are still many farms that could not survive without subsidy payments.

Rob Paisley

Two miles north of Ilkley is the hamlet of Middleton; and a mile further north is the tenanted West Moor Farm, which runs to 540 acres of heather moorland and 320 acres of permanent pasture.

It’s a hill farm that is situated between 750-1100 feet above sea level and is not as isolated as those in the heart of the North York Moors or the more sparse areas of the Dales but it presents its own challenges for Rob Paisley.

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So how much is today’s farming operation about being ‘guardians of the countryside’ to qualify for stewardship payments and how much is it about farming?

“It’s probably half and half. There is no chance that we could manage without being a part of the HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) scheme. It has certainly improved our income and also the way we farm, although we have always been conservation minded.

“We’ve taken some land out of production and planted woodland, but the majority of what we have done has not seen us make major changes. I went to Newton Rigg College in Cumbria to get a better understanding of marginal farming management and see how other farms such as ours coped.

“What we have done has led to us reducing our stocking rates in the springtime. The options we have taken have seen us increase the number of species of wading birds. It’s working, but just how much benefit what we are doing here gives to the general public I don’t know. We do have several public footpaths across the farm.”

Rob’s father, Joe, came here 53 years ago after having farmed up in the Scottish borders and his mother, Paula, still takes an active part in the day-to-day running of the farm.

“Mum lives for the farm and loves working on it. We have embraced conservation, but we farmed in that way before the payments and now we get recompensed for it. We have always aimed to produce the very best livestock we can and we have 30 pedigree Beef Shorthorn cows; 250 Texel x Mule ewes; and 160 pure bred Swaledale ewes. The numbers suit everything we have and the type of land.”

When Rob was younger he didn’t like cows and the farm was completely given over to a sheep operation with 700 Swaledale ewes. The Texel x Mules came in during a time when prices were low for Swaledales and produced good butcher’s lambs for market.

“We had a few cows in the mid-90s, but we went pure in 1996. We had been crossing the Beef Shorthorn with Limousins and Belgian Blues but it seemed a waste of time crossing pedigrees and I like the Beef Shorthorn. They are easy to manage, quiet and fit in well with the stewardship arrangements.

“We had a lucky break by going in to them when we did because they have now become a lot more popular and there is a big demand for breeding females. We have had two champions at the Society sale at Skipton and achieved top price for a female two years ago.

“There was a time when if you took Shorthorn steers to market they would be laughed at and the price was around £200-£300 below the rest of the market, but that’s all changed. They are now making the same if not more than the rest. It has been a big turnaround.”

The Paisleys’ Westmoor Herd was recently recognised by EBLEX as the Most Improved Herd for the Beef Shorthorn breed. It was awarded for the greatest genetic gain for commercial traits over a 12-month period.

Rob is now a director of the Beef Shorthorn Society and he believes the breed can go on to become even more popular.

“I am very passionate about the breed. The meat is of good quality. Its natural marbling produces tasty beef and we have operated a successful meat box scheme for many years selling prime beef from the herd and lamb from our Swaledale flock.”

Most of Rob’s cows calve in the Spring and are turned out to grass in April or as soon as it is possible. The cattle are housed again in the autumn. He likes to bring them in by November but last year he brought them in during the early part of October as the ground condition was particularly poor.

Strong bulling heifers are sold at 16-18 months old to other pedigree breeders and bull calves are finished at 24 months, going in to the Paisleys’ meat box scheme. Any surplus goes into Morrisons’ native breed scheme.

As the herd has built up the sheep numbers have been reduced, but they still play an important role.

“We lamb from mid-March until the end of April with all lambing taking place indoors. The Texels have scanned at 205 per cent this year and the Swaledales at 170 per cent. Considering the weather we have had over the last year all of our livestock has done very well. We breed our own replacements for the Swaledales and buy gimmer lambs from Skipton. Our fat lambs go to Rowland Agar in Ilkley or Morrisons.”

Silage production is handled in just one cut per year, which is just as well given last year’s challenging summer.

“We don’t have to get a fantastic cut but what we produce usually lasts us during autumn and winter. We normally cut in July and it was ready at the end of June last year but then the rains came and it just got wetter and wetter. We ended up not getting it finished until the end of August.

“All year was a battle. Trying to get grass conserved making big bale hay was a nightmare. The fields still haven’t recovered.”

The Paisleys set up their boxed beef and lamb business around 13 years ago and Rob is pleased with the way it is even more popular today.

“People are certainly looking much more at where their food is coming from and of course traceability is in the news again at the moment. Our beef and lamb goes to John Penny’s abattoir in Rawdon and is then cut by butcher Andrew Seed.

“We deliver the boxes to our customers, many of whom have been with us for several years. That way they know exactly where their meat has come from and where it has been, and we can provide total traceability.”

Rob is married to Penny and their enjoyment away from the farm, when Rob gets chance, is to follow Formula 1. Last year they attended the Hungarian Grand Prix.

“We don’t get a lot of spare time as there is only mum and I to carry out all of the jobs.

“That’s where the Beef Shorthorns being an easy breed to work with really helps.”