Ian Wilkinson ventured into the heart of rural Cheshire to Langford Farm in Lostock Green near Northwich to meet up with lively, hardworking owner, John Gate.
Langford Farm is home to the Langford Pedigree Rouge flock of sheep quite a quirky looking sheep with a characteristic red face, hence the name. The Rouge breed originates mainly from the Loire area in France. Renowned for its rich thick milk, the Rouge was originally kept as a dairy sheep producing the famous Camembert cheeses. The Rouge is not an expensive breed. They lamb easily on their own and suckle quickly, they are highly milky ewes. They can gain very strong weights without getting fat and have a very good kill out %.
John comes from a farming background. He went to Myerscough College to learn poultry and went on to manage a big poultry unit in Cheshire for 17 years. He started his farming career some 30 years ago as a tenant on parkland on the Tabley Estate nearby, establishing a small sheep flock as a sideline. But it was always John’s ambition to have his own farm and he had looked just about everywhere when a friend alerted him to Langford Farm.
Initially it had been a 160 acre dairy farm but land lords did not want to re let as a dairy farm. The whole area was owned by ICI who were involved in brine extraction and there were plans to flatten the farm buildings.
John took the farm on initially with just 11 acres with the rest of the area managed by the owners on a stewardship basis; however, it was not that effective and the area looked a mess for some 10 years. John is now up to 120 acres all on short term lease. Inovyn now own the land and the brine operation and John says they are excellent landlords. There was a lot of work to mainly with the land – basically there wasn’t a fence in sight and barely any hedges. John has spent three to four thousand a year establishing fencing and hedges and it has meant that fields have been grazed hard.
The sheep flock was initially made up of all sorts of crossbreds about 300 – basically whatever they could afford. John became interested in the Rouge’s because of their easy lambing and ability to get up and suck quickly. John buys about 150-200 Mule gimmer lambs a year from Kirby Stephen and Bentham Auction Mart.
Today his flock is around 650 North Country Mules with April outdoor lambing as the buildings only house about 100. He has about 100 Rouge ewes that lamb inside early March. The flock spend part of their time on the home farm and majority of there time on Tabley park and the Cheshire Showground, which entails a fair amount of transport. For the week of lambing they are all brought back to the farm and after lambing they are pure grass-fed. From late July- August they are sold mainly deadweight to the Two Sisters Food Group which is conveniently has a collection centre a mile away. Out of 650 that lambed only 10 needed assistance, a fact which John is proud of.
John is very much the commercial farmer – he is there to make money so can’t afford sentiment: if a sheep is not good enough then it goes to kill. He does, however, take great pride in his animals and their welfare and gets a big buzz from seeing lambing and calving as well as achieving a good price.
As well as the sheep side of the business John has an equally important livestock herd with 100 sucklers, of which 75 spring calvers and 25 autumn calvers.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
John’s son, Richard mainly looks after the livestock and also the machinery. Richard has a real passion for cattle. He took a three year agricultural course at Kirkley Hall in Northumberland, and admits that being away from home was a good opportunity for him to learn new ideas and stand on his own two feet. He continued his valuable experience by doing a year out on an arable farm. The final piece of his educational jigsaw was spending time in New Zealand. By the time he returned he was a well-rounded individual with a lot of extra skills and ideas.
The herd was made up of Black Herefords and a blonde bull was used simply because they could be purchase at a good price. This produced good calvers who were finished at 12 months for cash flow. They have changed tack slightly now as the heifers were getting fat too quickly and these days butchers just don’t want fat as much.
As time went on it was becoming more difficult to buy Herefords at the right price so they then started to buy Limousin cross cows and using the Blonde on them ; which proved ok, they now have Limousin bulls too. The original source of blondes was shut down owing to TB. On the lookout to source a good bull, they heard about a Limousin bull been sold at Skipton Mart, unfortunately he had lost part of his tail. There was nothing wrong with him and he proved a good buy and they then bought another privately from the same breeder Ian Sedgewick of Kirby Lonsdale.
The herd is now a very strong one and relatively diverse, producing good animals and excellent meat.
The whole ethos of the farm is that it is a business that needs to make profit while maintaining scrupulous livestock welfare. Both John and Richard get a real buzz from achieving this delicate balance. They have a fair bit of machinery which is all self-maintained. They do all their own silaging and often work on other farms a well at busy times.
They keep some 200 laying hens and 750 turkeys at Christmas which are all traditionally reared and hand plucked.
John’s other son, Andrew has established a very successful business as an agricultural engineer, fabricating and helping install new milking parlours right across the country. He does return home to help at Langford from time to time when his busy schedule permits.
What about the ladies in the family? John’s wife Rachel has run her own highly successful catering business, Country Kitchen for the past 20 years – her motivation and no better grounding was winning WI cook of the year! She works primarily for the farming community doing functions, weddings, buffets and show catering so consequently has time to look after her men but no time to work on the farm. It does provide yet another revenue stream for this prosperous family farm business.
So far as future plans are concerned, John aims to keep things pretty much as they are. He says he has no intention of retiring whilst allowing Richard to make more decisions.
This is clearly a winning team with a keen eye for the farming business and we wish them continued success.