J&R Paisley's freezer-pack service has made it possible to squeeze an extra living out of the farm his parents, Joe and Paula, have run for 50 years.
Now 39, he spent two years studying hill and marginal farming theory because he wanted to return home to West Moor House Farm, Middleton, near Ilkley.
But he had to wait. He worked three years for a plant contractor, then part-time at Skipton Mart for eight more, until he returned home full-time in the general emergency of 2001. His wife, Penny, works off the farm.
He and his parents started running Beef Shorthorn sucklers in the early '90s, and bought their first pedigree bull in 1996. They are now evangelists for the breed. But Shorthorn still does not mean as much as Aberdeen Angus in the market place and it was worse then. They needed customers who would appreciate the meat.
"Then," says Rob. "We got 50p a kilo for fat Swaledale lambs at a Christmas show in the late '90s. That was another turning point. We were working 20 hours a day at lambing for animals which would fetch £18-£20."
At one point, they had 700 Swaledale ewes – some bred for pedigree stock and some crossed for the meat market. But economics and Higher Level Stewardship have changed the mix to 150 Swaledales for breeding pure and about 280 Texel Mules, going back to Texel sires for butchers' lambs.
The lamb for home delivery comes from spare Swaledales – which mature more slowly than the crosses and deliver a meat worth hanging. In the Mule flock, the Texel element gives a more consistent lamb but Rob keeps it in on a tight rein, because it can also cause lambing problems.
Like most hill farmers, he sees nothing for anyone in the next big change looming – EID. It is claimed computerised record-keeping will facilitate breeding for better returns. But he is not that interested. He will buy high-index tups but prefers to pick his ewes by eye.
"If you select too much for one trait, like muscle, you lose out on another, like milk," he sums up. "We record the cattle and it can be a tool, but that's all. Go too far down the science line and you breed some horrible things. I prefer to look for the characteristics of the breed."
On the subject of breeding, the cost of stock is one area where the Shorthorn farmer gets some compensation for being in a minority. The Paisleys spent 4,000gns on their latest bull and the top of the range would be around 13,000gns.
AI is routine in dairy, of course, but beef animals are harder to deal with and shorthorns are particularly tricky to catch in heat, so they need to rely on the bull to serve 25 spring calvers and a dozen autumn calvers.
Home-delivery customers are expected to take at least 10 kilos of mixed beef cuts, averaging £8 a kilo, and/or half a lamb at an average of £90 for a whole carcase.
Rob says: "I once spent a day knocking on doors and got three customers. People are reluctant to pay out a lump sum for meat they are used to buying week by week. But we do hang on to the customers we get. You can get a good piece of beef at the supermarket but buy one that looks the same the next week and it's rubbish."
The advantage of his system over farmers' markets is that he sells the whole animal. His customers accept the challenge of the cheap cuts in exchange for a bargain overall. There are about 130 of them, nowadays, between Skipton and south Leeds, taking 12 bullocks and 80/90 lambs a year between them. The animals go to John Penny's of Rawdon for slaughter and Andrew Seed at Brimham for cutting and packing. Deliveries take Rob six or seven long days a year and phone calls and organisation take hours.
The Texel-cross lambs go to Roland Agar at Ilkley, which mainly supplies local butchers.
Some beef goes into the general purposes market, while the shorthorn producers work to improve awareness of its virtues. A few of the Swaledales sell through Skipton Mart for breeding.
The farm is picturesque but wet. It sits at 750 feet, with 300 acres of rough grassland around it, and has grazing rights on 540 acres of Middleton Moor, where the Swaledales live, up to 1,100 feet. The moorland drains down into March Ghyll Reservoir, on the corner of the farmstead, which used to supply Denton, Weston and Otley.
Nowadays it is used simply to regulate flow into the Wharfe and the pressure has been on for some time, from various quarters, to allow the old drainage ditches to fill up.
Now, that requirement is part of a Higher Level Stewardship agreement which is mainly about wading-bird habitats.
Rob is not sure how much difference it will make to the shepherding. He can see it making a difference to flow into the reservoir, however, and wonders what the policy is going to do to water supplies in general. It is a good question, which Yorkshire Water has considered, but a spokesman said this week: "Gravity will determine where the water goes in the end. Without the grips, it will have a slightly longer journey but most of it will end up in the same place. And importantly, it will be less coloured."
On the in-bye land, the Paisleys can keep their drains running. Even so, the cattle are better off indoors for winter, mainly eating home-grown hay. And the ewes all come inside for lambing.
Rob has lost some stock in the name of Higher Level Stewardship and is waiting to see what else he has to do to get Uplands ELS instead of Hill Farm Allowance. He does wonder, he says, whether the general public really finds it easier to accept subsidies for redshank rather than sheep. But he does not mind going that way.
"If, in nine years' time, production was the direction we had to go again, none of what we are doing is irreversible," he points out.
n J & R Paisley's website is www.westmoor.plus.com
. Phone 01943 816068. Their butcher, Andrew Seed, performs the same service for other farmers and also supplies pork – 07740 637497 or email@example.com/
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