Belted Galloway herd becomes Norfolk’s first ‘Pasture for Life’ farm
- Credit: Nick Butcher
A Norfolk cattle herd has become the first in the county to achieve Pasture for Life certification – and its owners hopes it will help them meet the demands of an increasingly inquisitive and demanding food consumer.
Not so long ago, simply 'buying local' was enough to give a conscientious consumer a sense of satisfaction.
But customers are becoming more demanding. Now, a growing number want to know every detail of exactly where and how their food is produced, to give the clearest possible picture of food provenance and traceability.
And this evolution has been a key driver for a cattle farm near Beccles to become Norfolk's first certified Pasture for Life producer.
Carr Farm in Burgh St Peter is one of only 54 UK farms certified under the scheme, which audits and promotes livestock enterprises whose animals are 100pc pasture-fed, rather than being fed or finished on cereals, concentrates or imported soya.
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The herd of Belted Galloway cattle stay outside all year round, eating natural grass and hay for their entire lives, which their owners say gives them longer lives, healthier meat, and a reduced environmental footprint.
Nicola and David Chapman, who established the herd three years ago, said conversations with customers at Aldeburgh Food Festival prompted them to seek Pasture for Life certification – partly to overcome misunderstandings about other 'grass-fed' claims, but also to give them a valuable selling point on food traceability from farm to plate.
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Under the scheme, each piece of butchered meat is given a QR code, unique to the animal, which can be scanned by a customer to reveal details about the farm, its welfare and feeding plans, and the breed, age and sex of the cow.
Mr Chapman said: 'There has always been an interest in stuff that's local but, particularly at Aldeburgh, we found people are concerned about how this animal has been cared for, and what has it been fed? People are much more interested in the whole welfare process now, and this gives us full traceability.'
The farm is inspected annually, and has to supply paperwork including plans for grazing, health, transport, veterinary medicine and, crucially, a feeding plan.
Mrs Chapman said the certification is 'massively important' to help the farm stand out in a competitive market, selling meat directly to the public.
'We've had a lot of conversations about what 'grass-fed' means,' she said. 'There was a realisation that in some schemes it means 51pc of the animals' feed is grass, and the other 49pc could be anything really, from cereal grains to concentrates or food waste.
'With this scheme it is really all about the feed. They can have hay and silage – but not grains and concentrates – and the whole idea is that's all they are going to have for their whole life.
'There are health benefits to grass-fed meats, but most of the benefits come in the last six months of their lives before they are slaughtered. We have great beef in this country, and most is outside and grass-fed, but there is a lot of finishing going on. This differentiates us from those farmers who are finishing the animals by packing them with barley and other feed to get them up to the spec that the abattoirs want.
'Our animals take longer to finish – just under 30 months – but the meat is great and there is a lot of interest from the customer.'
The farm's hardy cattle graze the lush marshes of the Waveney Valley throughout the spring and summer, and are brought onto higher ground in the winter, which has more sandy and free-draining soil.
'They can cope with quite extreme weathers,' said Mr Chapman. 'They are a native of Scotland and they have got a double-layer coat which helps them withstand the inclement weather. They are real characters, too.'
The herd currently has 34 animals but the numbers are being built up gradually in the hope it could eventually become the main income for the couple, who both currently have full-time jobs – Mrs Chapman is a self-employed surveyor and her husband works in the IT department at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
While Carr Farm is the first Norfolk producer to be Pasture for Life certified, the nearby Calf at Foot Dairy, just over the Suffolk border at Somerleyton, also has the certification.
A major study will begin in January to assess the economic, agronomic and environmental benefits of Pasture for Life farming.
The organisation says animals fed entirely on pasture live longer and are more fertile than those farmed and fed more intensively – as well as producing healthier meat, with a lower environmental footprint.
It says pasture-fed meat contains higher vitamin and mineral levels and less fat than meat from grain-fed animals, but many of the associated health benefits decline after only a few weeks of grain feeding.
In October, a £600,000 study was announced at the Pasture for Life AGM which will be funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and led by Dr Lisa Norton from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), analysing measures including soil quality, pasture biodiversity, animal growth rates, veterinary visits and consumer satisfaction.
Pasture for Life director Sara Gregson said: 'We feel there is a wind of change at the moment. We have this new research, and lot of consumers now want to know where their animals come from, how they are looked after and how they are fed.
'Farming minister George Eustice opened our AGM this year, so we are also hoping there will be some kind of support for people who farm like this. It is a slower process, because we are not feeding animals grain which will bump up their weight quickly before slaughter.'
Pasture for Life currently has more than 300 members across the UK, but only 54 certified farms, most of which are focused on the cattle heartlands in the west of the country.