Judith Tooth visits the Paterson brothers – producing top of the range beef and hosting weddings in a former woodyard.
Only the best will do for the Worstead Wagyu herd: premium grade accommodation for premium market beef.
All is calm in the cattle yard. Soothing music plays as the newborn calves lie deep in straw and their mothers chew the cud or get a good scratch from the cow brush. Come nightfall, the lighting will dim to a red glow so as not to disrupt their sleep.
The first Wagyus arrived on the Worstead estate in the Norfolk Broads – run by brothers Gavin, Alex and Bruce Paterson – in 2016, following the dispersal of its two dairy herds. They needed some cattle to fill the sheds previously occupied by the dairy cows, and decided it made more sense to go for a high value market.
“We were blown away by the quality of the meat,” says Gavin. “It was the obvious thing to do.”
Embryo transfer was used to produce a nucleus herd of full-blood Wagyu. Now sexed semen is being used to build up numbers more quickly. The brothers now claim the biggest Wagyu herd in Norfolk, with 40 head of breeding stock.
Herd size was also given an early boost using some of Alex’s cattle – he runs a herd of Angus and Red Poll cows on the estate – to produce Wagyu crosses. This helped introduce potential customers to the eating qualities of Wagyu beef at less than full price.
“Beef from Wagyu crossbreds is about the same price as, say, high-end Angus beef, so you can afford to try it and get used to the difference in flavour,” says Bruce. “It’s a half-way house. Full-blood Wagyu is so packed full of richness, you don’t need a lot.
“In time, people will know the taste of Wagyu beef and the herd will be purebred, and we’ll have learned the trade.”
Building up the herd in this way also bought some time to learn the essentials of Wagyu production – such as the importance of slow growth rates. “Our first Wagyu-Angus crosses were fed on a commercial ration and went to the abattoir at 16 months – and there was no marbling in the meat. We learnt our lesson quickly.”
Feeding only grass and forage doesn’t produce the necessary marbling either, he says. But imported feedstuffs such as soy are avoided, and only local byproducts, such as rapeseed meal, sugar beet pulp and wheat bran, used in the finishing ration.
Apple pomace proved popular – and difficult to transport. But with a young cider orchard on the estate, planted three years ago, it may be back on the menu before too long.
The cattle graze the estate’s meadows, most of which follow a watercourse and woodland through the estate, and which are being linked with gateways funded by a Countryside Stewardship mid tier grant.
A mob-grazing trial produced big improvements over set stocking rates, with an increase in the amount of forage produced, a more diverse sward, lower inputs of fertiliser and less need for fly treatment. The system will be rolled out in 2021, along with reseeding some swards.
“We plan to introduce sheep to run behind the cattle, grazing on plants they didn’t want, cleaning up the edges of the paddocks, introducing a different type of dung and a different hoof pattern,” says Gavin.
Pasture poultry is also planned behind the sheep to tread in the cattle and sheep, treading in their manure, and adding their own, eating fly larvae and benefitting from a more varied diet themselves.
While the cattle are currently overwintered in straw yards, the aim is to get to the point where finishing and youngstock can stay out year-round. Arable fields adjoining the permanent pasture could be used to grow forage brassicas, doubling up as a green manure and improving water filtration through the soil.
Wagyu production is a long-term investment: while the crossbreds are ready for slaughter at between 26 and 30 months, the full-bloods take up to three years. While the shortage of local facilities creates difficulties for many livestock farmers, the Worstead estate is within just a few miles of multi-species abattoir HG Blake Ltd.
From there, carcasses are hung for 28 days, butchered, and returned to the estate for freezing in a dedicated container.
Direct sales are growing – with Covid, more so than planned – and a range of boxes with different cuts of frozen meat are boxed up and delivered via a courier each week.
“We’re building up repeat local custom,” says Bruce. “And we’ve had a big marketing push through our website and on social media, in local magazines and in London-based restaurant guides such as The Handbook,” says Bruce.
Quality begins to deteriorate, however, after six months in the freezer, so Bruce has teamed up with London-based food redistribution waste charity The Felix Project, and with Carol McWhinnie of Norfolk-based meals on wheels project, Food and Beverage Buggies, to supply surplus beef.
Selling direct also means getting closer to customers: “People are talking lyrically about our Wagyu beef, and the more people that try it, the more want to get it,” says Gavin. “With a milk tanker or a load of grain, there’s no feedback from customers, but with this, we get instant feedback and it’s a reward for our work.”
Setting up the Worstead Wagyu herd is one of many recent developments on the 800ha estate. With three brothers needing to earn a living from it and to plan for the next generation, they had to consider options for new streams of income.
What emerged was a decision to make the estate a destination: a place where people could experience and interact with the landscape, and enjoy its produce. And the park, says Gavin, was the obvious place to start.
“It was my father’s dream to open up the park in some way,” he says.
Worstead House was demolished in the 1930s, and the surrounding park, set out by landscape designer Humphry Repton, had fallen into disuse, apart from pheasant shooting. Now, a courtyard of farm buildings centred around the old estate woodyard has been transformed into a wedding venue.
Due for completion by end of the winter, it has a flexible series of spaces: couples can marry in the ceremony room, or opt for an island wedding on the lake; they can hold their wedding breakfast in a marquee, and dance in the large thatched barn. There are full catering facilities on site, with lists of preferred suppliers to maintain high standards. And there’s plenty of room to relax in the walled garden nearby.
Bridal accommodation is offered in a newly restored Georgian house opposite the venue, and restoration of further buildings for wedding accommodation is underway. The bride can even arrive by boat across the lake.
Gavin is confident the timing is right: “Between Christmas and February is the traditional time for engagements to be made. Then there’s the trade season in spring, and then we’ll kick off with summer bookings. We have a few already. And we hope to capture weddings cancelled [because of Covid].”
His father’s dream is about to be fulfilled.