We’ve been farming organically at Coombe Farm for almost 20 years now, but our origins don’t lie in livestock - it’s dairy that has been at the heart of the business for most of that time. We are proud to produce dairy organically as it means that our cows benefit from a system that is less focussed on yield and more on welfare and quality - throughout their lives they graze our clover-rich grasses, are milked less often, have fewer calves, and are kept outside for as much of the year as the weather permits.
However, it still causes a conundrum. The by-product of milk production is the many male calves that are born within the dairy herd to enable them to produce milk. These are effectively surplus to requirements which seems incredibly wasteful to us. They hold very little value and we found ourselves looking for a sustainable outlet for them. This is what drove the decision for us five years ago to diversify into beef to complement our dairy business. The idea was to produce grass-fed, organic beef by making the most of what were by-products from the existing farming enterprise.
We started crossing our dairy cows with Hereford or Shorthorn breeds to produce a beef animal. This produces a shorter and stockier animal, which is well-suited to our grass-fed system and the fact that they live outside for much of the year. We reared these bull calves on before selling them at market. We had solved the initial problem but we saw an opportunity to make more of these animals and instead follow the unique process of rearing through to slaughter - adopting a nose to tail philosophy and selling the organic meat in the form of meat boxes, delivered to customers doors.
To this day, this allows both the production of organic milk and organic meat to work in harmony. It also proved popular with customers and since, we've diversified from only keeping cattle, to keeping our own flock of sheep and in the last couple of years extended our animal family to include organic pigs too.
More recently, we have taken this one step further. We'd been following with interest the increasing demand for 'Basque beef'. Farmers in Spain take ex-dairy cattle and retire them on good pasture, sometimes until they're as old as 15 years. The result is award-winning beef that's like nothing else.
At Coombe Farm, retired cows from our organic dairy herd, typically between six and nine years old, which would not traditionally be heralded for their meat – are now grown on. With nothing more pressing to do than wander the fields and graze our organic pasture for several months, they gain condition and fatten up, before going to a small, independent abattoir just seven miles away. They then come back to our own butchery and the meat goes direct to our customers. The unique process of controlling the whole supply chain from beginning to end, means we are able to offer an impressive amount of traceability. The product’s batch number links to the cow’s passport number and right back to conception on this same farm.
And the result? We like to think of our Organic Retired Dairy Beef as the beef equivalent to mutton. With a little more bite than younger beef, our organic retired dairy beef offers huge, long-lasting flavour, wonderfully complex marbling and is rich in nutrients such as Omega-3s.
Not only is it another way for us to cut unnecessary waste out of our farming system, making the most of every aspect for a truly sustainable food chain, but it's also a way to produce unique and delicious meat. That's a win-win, we think you'll agree.
You can also find out more in Riverford Organic Wicked Leeks article: "Sirloin, Rib-eye or Retired?" below.