This article by Angus D. Birditt was produced for Pasture Fed Livestock Association
A few miles outside of Braintree in the county of Essex is Deersbrook Farm & Farm Shop, run by ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmers Phil and Anna Blumfield. Phil and Anna discuss farming their native herd of Sussex cattle and what it means to be a ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmer.
Angus D. Birditt: Tell us about Deersbrook Farm?
Anna Blumfield: We are a family run farm in the heart of the Essex countryside. We own 105 acres and rent six times that for permanent pasture, which includes local heritage sites and meadows that are conservation led. I am the third generation to farm here at Deersbrook Farm, having grown up here with my mum and dad and having only gone away to university to study Sports Therapy – which included studying sports nutrition, a subject I am very passionate about and something that lends itself to why we became ‘Pasture For Life’ certified with our cattle.
I came back to the farm in 2012, at which time we were more commercially led than pasture-fed. At first, we kept the commercial herd because that kept the farm running, our income and what have you. But over the course of the next decade, we evolved slowly to farming our Sussex cattle on a pasture-fed diet. We now have around 150 breeding Sussex cows in our herd. It was all about flipping the balance slowly to a more regenerative, pasture-fed system. It didn’t happen overnight, it was certainly a gradual process but we are really happy now that we are pasture-fed. Our pasture-fed stock are reared for at least 26 months and sometimes goes to 30+ months at an average weight of 325kg.
ADB: How did the Deersbrook Farm Shop & Butchery evolve?
AB: We started off by doing farmers markets and food festivals where we sold our meat to customers directly. From there, we gradually grew from word of mouth and people started to come to the farm gate to try and buy our meat, so we thought we must open something on the farm.
I've always had the idea of having our own butchery on site where we could cut in our own time and dry-age the meat as long as we wanted, so setting up the farm shop and butchery was a perfect fit really. It’s fantastic for us to be able to have complete control over our produce and the process, literally the whole way through.
Once the cattle are ready, we take them to a very local abattoir, which is only a few miles and about a 10-minute slow drive down the road. They are farmers themselves so they know how to work to high levels of animal welfare, not stressing the animals out. The meat then comes back to us as a whole carcass, which we place in our chiller on the farm. If we went to a commercial abattoir, we wouldn’t get our carcasses back whole, so working with such a local abattoir is really fantastic. Once the carcasses are in the chiller, we can hang them as long as we want and butcher them how we want. We love to promote a nose-to-tail ethos here at Deersbrook, encouraging our customers to buy a variety of cuts and not just the normal steak cuts you get. There are some amazing cuts people may not know like the oyster steak, the Denver steak and the hanger steak, which all have lovely marbling through. We have a couple of special air-dried fridges in our farm shop that help age the meat on the bone, normally dry-aging them for around twenty-eight days to tenderise the meat and produce a nice layer of creamy fat. The result is wonderfully rich tasting, tender meat.
ADB: And why farm the Sussex breed of cattle at Deersbrook Farm?
AB: We heard that the Sussex breed of cattle was a lovely, docile breed that produced quality meat. They are a native species of cattle and thrive on a pasture-fed farming system. And as we have found, they were well suited to our particular conditions here in Essex. They are very manageable cattle and also great mothers, calving outside throughout the winter, and of course, easy to rear on a 100% grass-fed system.
The cattle are very easy animals and love to graze on the herbal leys we’ve planted, rich in clover and native species of grasses. I think it’s always nice to watch them graze, picking which plants to eat first. We also make our own hay and silage to top up their feed throughout winter if needed. As I mentioned earlier, we rear them until around 28 months or even go over 30 months. They would never be good commercial animals as they take a very long time to rear – commercial animals normally reared up to 18 months!
ADB: Why did you become ‘Pasture For Life’ certified with the PFLA?
AB: We became ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmers in 2015, the first I believe to become certified in East Anglia. It was a no brainer for us, joining an initiative that was the head of their game in sustainability and promoting regenerative agriculture.
It was important for us to become ‘Pasture For Life’ certified with the PFLA because we wanted to promote the fact that we were 100% grass-fed. Sometimes you’ll get producers saying they are ‘grass-fed’ but in reality they are perhaps 40% grass-fed and finished on grain. Certification with the PFLA was a way to prove we were completely 100% grass-fed, and well, truly ‘Pasture For Life’. The PFLA rosette is also a great way to showcase it!
Another significant part of why we became ‘Pasture For Life’ certified with the PFLA was that the food and farming standards they set were better for lots of reasons; the animal (their welfare and digestive system), for us (nutritional values in the meat) and the environment (soil health and more natural grazing).
It was especially relevant for me having a nutritional background with my Sports Therapy degree. I was really interested in how a pasture-fed system could improve the nutritional density in the meat. I even sent off samples of our meat for nutritional analysis. The results showed that our pasture-fed meat had a healthy balance of fatty acids, high in vitamin D and B12, as well as good levels of iron.
There are lots of people who have been told that they need ‘this’ and ‘that’ in their diet but don’t want to supplement it with chemicals, so what we’ve found with our customers is that they'll have a little bit of our pasture-fed meat to try and improve their diet. We even get a few vegans and vegetarians coming to our butchery and buying just a little meat to increase their vitamin and fatty acid levels. Others come and buy meat for their friends and family who need a boost of nutrients. It's always lovely to meet our customers in the farm shop to tell them about our story, our cattle and our ethos on the farm. Plus, it’s great to hear their feedback first-hand, something that wouldn’t happen with many farmers rearing livestock.
ADB: What is the procedure to become ‘Pasture For Life’ certified?
AB: At the start you have to fill in a big questionnaire, and then you send in evidence of your farming system. Once that’s done, you’ll get an audit from the PFLA. During the audit you present the evidence of your farming system, and if you’re all reaching the correct standards, you can be certified within the month. It was rather easy for us, I guess, because we knew what we were doing and had the mindset to farm pasture-fed.
It was a toss up between being ‘Pasture For Life’ certified with the PFLA or certifying as organic. We chose not to be certified organic because with the organic certification you can still feed your animals grain, albeit organic grain, and for me, that wouldn't benefit the cattle nutritionally.
So that’s why we went for the ‘Pasture For Life’ certification, it benefits the animal as well as ourselves. They have a real focus towards caring for the animal’s welfare and what they are eating. The PFLA are also great at singing the ‘whole-carcass’ message, promoting eating the whole animal so nothing is wasted.
ADB: Tell us about the PFLA’s South East region, in particular?
AB: The region has quite a few ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmers now, which is great. We can exchange ideas and suggestions and even visit each other’s farms. For example, Fidelity at Romshed Farm has a wealth of knowledge. She has helped us a lot in what to plant in our mixed herbal leys and being pasture-fed in general.
There is a real sense of community in the region, not only with the other ‘Pasture For Life’ certified farmers, but also with the general public getting involved in eating ‘Pasture For Life’ certified meat. There’s an event we always do during ‘beef week’ at the end of every April – in line with St. George’s Day – that brings everyone together. It’s essentially a big feast at our neighbour's thatched barn where we cook various cuts of our ‘Pasture For Life’ certified meat. We have a chef come in and we do a lovely meal for the locals and people that come from far and wide. The feast is really a tasting menu for what we produce, from the usual cuts like ribeye and sirloin, to more quirky things like smoked tongue skewers – which are delicious by the way! We never reveal the menu until the day before the feast so that’s always exciting.
The PFLA organisation also invites us to interesting events like Meatopia in London, a food festival driven on ethical and sustainable values.
ADB: What’s your favourite recipe using your ‘Pasture For Life’ certified meat?
AB: A favourite of ours is the bavette or flank steak, simply cooked whole on the barbeque with a little salt and pepper, or you can marinate it using a few simple ingredients (https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/marinated-bavette-steak).
It’s that simple and all about the pure flavour of the meat reared purely on pasture.
We have our pasture-fed meat at home so much now that we can even savour the different flavours in the meat, produced from what the animals are feeding on at that time of year. For example, we’ve found that our pasture-fed tastes nutty around early wintertime, and then towards summer, the meat takes on lots of delicious buttery notes.
Anna also writes articles about the life and workings at Deersbrook Farm on their website blog (https://www.deersbrookfarm.com/blog)