Second chances on farm with careful approach

Farm manager Chris Cole with the longhorn cattle at Caring for Life, Crag House Farm in Cookridge, Leeds.  Picture: Tony Johnson
Farm manager Chris Cole with the longhorn cattle at Caring for Life, Crag House Farm in Cookridge, Leeds. Picture: Tony Johnson
Have your say

CREATING a balance between productivity, efficiency, income and quality in line with market demands is what most farms endeavour towards.

Many have diversified into other sectors to broaden their potential and the 125-acre Crag House Farm, near Cookridge, Leeds, leads to its own farm shop and restaurant.

The farming enterprise runs to a herd of Longhorn cattle, a flock of Lleyn breeding ewes and has 700 free-range hens. On paper it could be any another livestock farm, but things are done very different here.

“We’re not commercially driven and this is not a viable farm because that’s not its purpose,” says estates manager Chris Cole.

That’s because it is part of the Caring for Life charity started by Baptist minister Peter Parkinson 29 years ago and provides opportunities for vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

“Once you’re caring for people in workplace situations such as working on a farm, which is just one of 17 projects run here, productivity drops through the floor. It can’t be avoided as supervision and instruction is needed and that all takes time. The farm is a vehicle for caring for people and providing a safe and stimulating environment where new skills, abilities and social interactivity can develop.

“The people who come to work on the farm, presently all young adult men are extremely vulnerable and may have been oppressed for many years. Some have emotional baggage and come to us because of abuse or neglect and most have never had any form of rural or agricultural background and so we’re exposing them to fresh air, often wild weather since we’re 600ft above sea level and the highest point in the Leeds area that’s always draughty, farmyard smells and getting their hands dirty.

“It’s a completely new world for those who haven’t yet found their way of fitting in to any social situation and Peter originally conceived the farm as an oasis of safety and security while also real and connected with society.”

Although Chris mentions unviability the farm is run very much as a normal farm business. Earlier in his career Chris ran a farm in Derbyshire where he managed a herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle. His first challenge when he arrived at Crag House six-and-a-half years ago was to grow the pedigree Longhorn herd.

“Soon after I was appointed we took on a new project leader for the farm, Steven Charlesworth. It’s a combination of his skills and ability along with the assistance of renowned Longhorn breeder John Backhouse from Scarborough in establishing the herd that has led to where we are now with 20 cows and 50-55 head of cattle on at any one time.”

While Chris also talks of how productivity diminishes, this doesn’t mean they simply let breeding and meat production drift.

“We try to make the most of what we have as we only farm 90 acres, and barn space, and that means we push the yearlings on a little harder than normally with a traditional native breed.

“We put the heifers to the bull at two years rather than three. That saves pen space and moves stock through quicker. We kill out from 20-21 months onwards and we’re looking at weight and condition.

“The heifers go at around 550kg and the steers around 600kg. If they start getting near 650 they run to fat and that’s not what we want as it doesn’t help with selling in the shop, which is where all of our beef goes.

“We produce our own herd replacements and bring in a new stock bull every three years. It’s more cost effective for us to buy an older proven bull rather than a younger, showier type. We start calving around mid-February until the end of May. Our ground is quite wet so they’re in from early November until early May.”

When Chris arrived the farm had White Faced Woodland sheep. Today it is a pedigree Lleyn flock of 50 breeding ewes whose progeny goes into either replacements or into the shop, but they’ve also developed another new market.

“We started with Lleyns about three-and-a-half years ago through Linda Barnard of Malton who gave us a lot of our establishment stock. Linda shows and judges Lleyns and is club secretary for the northern area breeders’ club. Her support has given us a massive boost and has fast-tracked us into the pedigree sheep showing world. We’re not top of the board yet but we had some seconds and thirds at Driffield and Bakewell this year. We’re in the process of getting NV accredited so we can attend the Great Yorkshire and Lincolnshire next year.

“Showing the sheep also creates a goal and new, interesting tasks for our men that’s different to everyday activity on the farm. They’re finding it something to look forward to and be engaged with. A lot of these men may have been very low achievers up to now and have found themselves outside of any form of recognition. Here they have the opportunity to be centre stage and bathe in some public glory.”

Since taking on the Lleyns Chris reports lambing gains: “We’d only been getting around 1.5 lambs per ewe with the White Faced Woodlands, now we’re up around two lambs per ewe, which is great news for our farm shop where we have a professional butcher.

“We’ve also opened up another avenue of income generation through the sale of females. In autumn we sold some unregistered shearlings for £130 a head.”

Income from livestock raises around five per cent of what Caring For Life needs. Most income comes from donations as the charity receives no government funding - but it’s their work with people that’s their primary concern.

“One chap started with us and he couldn’t read, write, didn’t know how old he was, didn’t know the days of the week, didn’t accept instruction easily, discipline was totally alien and we believe through abuse and neglect had missed out on education. He’s now full of life, he’s engaging and a joy to be with.”