Farming with nature – The Horned Beef Company

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David and Bekka Corrie-Close of the Horned Beef Company farm cattle out in the wild, selling beef ‘en primeur‘ via their website. On land that requires a sensitive touch, the addition of these animals is beneficial both to the ecosystem and the cattle. With no background in farming, they have built the business from the ground up, living in a yurt and often spending hours scouring these wild places looking for their animals.

Locavore spoke to David about the idea of farming with nature, of allowing the land to find its own identity, and of the advantages of native breeds.

How did the Horned Beef Company start? 

In my early twenties I was a drifter, leaving my Chemistry degree after the first year; a hard-working drifter though, working in hotels, restaurants, and retail. We moved to Cumbria when I took a job managing a wine shop in Kendal. Meanwhile, Bekka completed her Zoology degree and came with me to Cumbria. She got to grips with the conservation sector through volunteering, before securing a job at South Cumbria Rivers Trust.

I packed in my job about 8 years ago; I craved a more full-time connection to the land.
The journey from then to now has been one of determination, sacrifice, and moral integrity.
It all started when I stumbled upon an apprenticeship entitled “Heritage Grazing Traineeship”. In our jargon-filled world, this meant a modern interpretation of proper, old-fashioned farming. Within a few weeks, for the first time in my life, I was convinced I was doing the right thing. Learning from an organic beef farmer over the next few years paved the way for an enterprise of our own. It was easy to recruit Bekka as a joint director; farming was her opportunity to combine her interests in the environment and conservation with her love of animals. Horned Beef Company was born in 2015.

The business plan was vague. It was more a set of guiding principles and an ambition to get ourselves a farm of our own. With no farming background, no agricultural qualifications, very little money, and a commitment to going against the grain, this was going to be tough.

You espouse a ‘farming with nature’ ethos. What do you mean by this? And how does it benefit the land and ecosystem?

In the beginning, we knew that there was a demand from landowners for “conservation grazing”. This meant an agreement to move our animals on to land, to graze and browse and trample and create a set of conditions that promoted maximum diversity.

We were uncomfortable being branded as environmentalists and not farmers; we were producing food within the natural productive capacity of the land that we had. When you do so, complex healthy ecosystems means wildlife thrives. It’s no coincidence that the livestock do too. We call this farming with nature. The beauty of this concept is that it can be used in all sectors of our diverse industry.

What type of cattle do you raise, and why?

Native breeds: some pure-bred, some mongrels. They are smaller and easier to manage. Their energy requirements are lower and this is an advantage during the winter. They are adapted to converting a varied, natural diet of grasses, herbs, trees, scrub, brambles, weeds. Given access to this variety, there is evidence that they select what they need to avoid deficiencies associated with single-species grasslands or a cereals-based diet. They have thick coats that shed the rain and keep them warm in the winter. This is especially important for our animals as they spend the winter outside. They’re handsome beasts that we enjoy looking at and looking after. Most native breeds have horns; to us, cattle don’t look right without them!

There are those who refute the efficacy of regenerative cattle farming, saying that moving away from meat and cattle farming is the only way, and rewilding should be put in place in its stead. Do you think meat can be a part of a sustainable diet, in the face of an ever-growing population?

Wow – this is a question for the world leaders really… Our response to this touches on a few things.

Firstly, what do our most complex modelling programs tell us about feeding a larger population? Is it possible? What is the maximum population that we can feed? Based on the systems that we implement to feed this population, how long can we carry on doing so?

Our approach to farming is one that tries to understand what our land wants to be, and works with that to create a landscape where livestock thrive within a ‘natural’ set of ecosystems. It would be impossible to produce other food crops from our land (apart from fruit and nuts that we produce already). Yes, we could ‘rewild’ the land. However, I think that a thoughtful grazing regime, and some intervention to increase the structural diversity of plants on our land (i.e. more trees, scrub, hedges, tall herbs, flowering grasses etc) would produce a better outcome.

How does sustainability impact other aspects of your business, and life? For example, you live in a yurt…

We’ve lived off-grid in a yurt for five years. It’s been beautiful, inspiring, rewarding, challenging, and bloody hard work! We now approach everything that we do knowing that we can succeed. In addition, our approach to finding solutions to problems always explores the low-tech, low-cost, ‘green’ options first before turning to the off-the-shelf, manufactured ones.

You don’t come from a farming background. Locavore has spoken in recent months with many people who have come to farming or food production later in life, with backgrounds from investment banking to journalism to transport. What do you think drives this move?

How far back in our family tree do we have to look until we find a relative that worked on the land? Not very far I expect. Most of us love to get our hands dirty and grow or build or fix something. We love to get soaked, and warm up next to the fire. Our urban population are disconnected from soil and stars and fresh air. It doesn’t take much to tempt a banker back to the countryside.

What is your ‘beef en primeur’ scheme?

The French do a wonderful job of describing their food and wine: ‘terroir’ describes a wine’s sense of place – we’ve always thought that it’s a lovely way for us to describe why native breeds of cattle, grazing on diverse pastures, taste so good!

Following on from that, when we were scratching our heads about how to streamline our beef sales, we thought about the ‘En Primeur’ concept – that is, in a nutshell, to sell a wine before it is bottled.

This means that customers place their order with us and receive their beef within 8 weeks. It’s a great way to keep costs down and supply all of beef fresh.

What are your plans for 2018?

Enjoy settling in to our new National Trust farm, and explore ways of making our business work better with the benefit of a secure base to operate from.

How do you think the coming political changes will affect your business?

We’re very optimistic that a new agriculture bill, and the systems that are implemented as a result of it, will revolutionise farming. The direction of travel is one that promotes soil health, human health and wellbeing, biodiversity, clean water, and acknowledges our land’s capacity to positively affect our climate; it’s great news for everyone. The challenge is to apply it across our diverse industry.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

We live and work in a beautiful place. As land managers, we have the opportunity to learn how this landscape works and to try to make it even better. As farmers, this land and the way we manage it gives us the opportunity to produce a world-class product.

For more information, visit the Horned Beef Company’s website.

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