Big Beef by Ginger Pig

A bull & a cow

All Photography shot for Pasture by Liz Seabrook

I sat down with the Ginger Pig himself ― unpretentious, sagacious, and a true gentleman.

It’s time to look into beef farming on a larger scale. I wanted to meet Tim Wilson and learn more about just how long it takes to rear heritage Longhorns and understand the process of producing high end beef ― proper beef, as far away from commercial farming as you can imagine.

It starts with a bull and a cow Tim explained, “The gestation period is nine months … if you chuck a bull in with a cow or with cows you will have births all over the place. The best time to have a calf born is April. Pasture is good, and good beef is all down to good grass, really.”

It’s said that English beef is the best in the world and that is because we have the right climate ― it rains. (In fact, it’s raining as I’m writing this.) Once spring comes, it gets warm and the grass grows. If you’re in the West Country, it will grow in March (the ground needs to be around 14 degrees Centigrade for grass to grow). Up north at the Ginger Pig, about 900 feet above sea level, grass starts growing in April.

You put your bull in with a cow in June for six weeks. “You have quite a closed calving time,” said Tim. “You don’t want to calf forever as you need to be there for all the births. And then you just leave him to do his job. One bull would work with (depending on the age of the bull) around twenty-five cows.” 
 Tim continued, “You don’t want to tire the bull out too much. At the end of the six weeks the bull does come out looking decisively worse for wear, poor bugger.”

I asked if that’s because it doesn’t know when to stop. Tim said, “The only animals that shag for pleasure are monkeys and humans.” In the rest of the farming world the male only works when the female is in heat. “It’s fascinating how a bull goes round, and sniffs the appropriate parts and it pulls its teeth back, and grins.” Tim laughs. Basically, the bull knows when the time is right.

Spread from the first Issue 0 of Pasture magazine

Problems start if the bull doesn’t take. If we lived in an ideal world, it would come back on heat after about four weeks, but you might get a return ― farming jargon for when the cow hasn’t taken to the bull. So you then have to leave the bull in for the next cycle as well. If it goes past two heats, calves will be born sporadically and that’s no good for management.

The bulls are home-grown. “The big thing for beef is conformation. You want weight in the right places,” Tim explained, “which is in the loin. A good calf wants to be like a little house brick, with four short legs. No daylight to be seen under its bell and a pretty flat back.”

Tim Wilson, Founder of The Ginger Pig

The value to a butcher of a carcass is in the sirloin. Getting the right piece of beef is tricky. Rarely can you go out and purchase the ideal bull and the ideal cow and breed your lines how you want. Ultimately, it depends on how they react to each other.

I asked Tim what he looks for in a bull. “You don’t want a bull and a cow with the same characteristics,” Tim said. “Say for instance a cow is nice and long, maybe a bit thin, plenty of ribs there, lot of length in the sirloin and maybe a bit leggy. If you pair that with a similar bull, you’ll get a scrawny calf. So you’d look for a bull that’s a bit wider, more stocky. It’s all about finding the right combination.”

I wonder aloud if this always works out and Tim proudly tells me it generally does. He has built his herd up over twenty-odd years and has learned what works and what doesn’t.

After nine months you get your calf. The longer you leave the calf to live, the better the flavour. Because of modern rules and regulations regarding BSE, thirty months is as long commercially as you can leave them. Tim explained, “The first ten months are spent with its mother, it’s drinking milk, it’s chewing a bit of grass, it’s wondering around and has a pretty natural diet of eating grass.”
 
 “The modern way of fattening cattle quite intensively is with high protein barley in large amounts, which is not great from all sorts of angles,” Tim added. “Barley is grown to be fed to people. Feeding it to cattle who can convert grass into muscle is worrying.”
 
A finishing ration, is then fed to the cows (which will have a bit of wheat, a small bit of barley, and a bit of soya to bring the protein up) for about six weeks, four to five weeks before it’s slaughtered and that brings the fat down. Marbling comes from living longer; grass on its own won’t put a hard covering of fat on its back, it’s got to be by protein. Tim said, “If you’re going to hang a carcass, to mature it you need fat. Fat basically doesn’t go off, it is like a protective shield. Pure flesh goes sticky and it’s no good.”
 
So a cow, bred for taste and pleasure, to be slaughtered lives a life span of forty months; nine months gestation, thirty months calf life, and thirty days hang.

The cows are joyous creatures; the mums want their backs scratched and the kids are curious thunderbolts roaming around the fields. They are loved animals, hand-bred, and they ultimately provide some of the most flavourful pieces of beef you will taste. An ingredient I respect.
 
I’ll pay the extra price for the flavour, and the happiness the cow once lived. The odd thing is my lack of guilt. I wondered before visiting the farm if my choice of being a beef eater would be affected. It did. I’m now an even happier carnivore.

Article taken from Pasture Issue 0 | You can buy it here