An introduction to rare breed farming

President of the Rare  Breed Survival Trust, Jimmy Doherty, shares his passion and tips for rare breed farming

I’m especially passionate about rare breed animals. There’s always something different and exciting happening with them and they keep me interested in what I do. Feeding the Gloucester Old Spots, for example – I really admire their unique colour, coat and temperament. I’m also really fond of our Dexter cattle.

I believe that farmers have always been educators as well as food producers. Rare breeds always give you something different to talk about – customers love hearing that extra bit of story and significance behind what they’re buying.

Here are some of the other ways in which rare breed animals can add value to a diversified farm

1. They produce a better end product

Rare breed, indigenous cattle, for example, aren’t at the cutting edge of commercial farming. They’re not likely to produce beef rapidly and consistently within the parameters of what a supermarket might expect.

But, the fact that they’re typically slower growing and take more time to put on fat makes them taste better. The muscles and the fibres are lovely and fine grained. And I am all about the taste.

2. They provide a unique selling point

Farming rare breeds adds interest for the general public. They come and have a look at all these different breeds we have.

We like to farm a lot of traditional British breeds. You’re not going to get the carcass sizes supermarkets want, but, if retailing yourself, that’s something you could really build a brand around.

So, if we’re putting on an event – a beef night in the restaurant, for example – we’ll showcase a specific breed. It tells more of a story and makes us different. People really respond to that.

The diversity is also great for the retail side of things. This week our butchery might have Dexter beef, then British White the next. It means that we can keep offering something different and keep our customers interested.

3. They promote the field-to-fork ethos

We’re lucky to have our farm shop and restaurant here on Jimmy’s Farm. People can come for a meal, see our butchery in operation and then look out of the window at our livestock and vegetables – there aren’t many places where you can see the field-to-fork ethos in action like that. It’s a really unique selling point for us which attracts more visitors to the wider farm.

4. They help land and stock management

Our farm is quite diverse in terms of grasslands. It’s dry and sandy up top, then heavier and clay-like down the bottom. Having a diversity of breeds allows us to manage the farm better and get more value out of the land we have.

Our Dexter cattle are quite small and light compared to your bigger commercial breeds. That means that we can over-winter them up top without damaging the land as some heavier cattle would.

5. They help to showcase the best of farming

There’s an underlying romance to farming that people like. Creating more of a story behind what you’re doing can really help to promote a business.

At the moment, I really want to build up our herd of Riggit Galloway cattle. They’re wonderful animals, but one of the rarest breeds. They look spectacular, are absolutely delicious and are real go-getters.

For me, they’re the kind of animal that best represents farming – something that doesn’t give up and can survive in the toughest environments.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

I’m President of the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST) and have a farm park open to the public. Naturally, we have umpteen different species of animals.

My advice to someone starting out, however, is to start small. Get yourself a few animals and see how it goes. If you’re a commercial cattle farmer, maybe rear a few Dexters and sell them to a local butcher.

Or, anyone can easily dip their toe into the market with a few rare turkeys at Christmas.

And amid the excitement of getting started, don’t forget about the risks. Seeking professional advice will help you understand and manage the risks that can really hinder you from the get go.

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