David, Joanna and Margaret talk about their complete family farm, including cows, chickens and holiday lets at Wheatacre in Norfolk.
I was born and bred at the Oaklands Farm in Aldeby; brought up on the family farm. It was a very mixed farm; we had cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys for the Christmas trade and we grew a variety of arable crops. Everything was horse farming then and I can just remember the last horse being used on its last year rolling some barley and then he died and then, of course, the tractors come in.
I went away to school to Duncan Hall, Scratby, which in this day and age don’t seem too far away at all, but when you’re ten years old that seems like it’s another world. My father always insisted that because I was a country boy and loved farming that he would send me away to make sure that I done my studies without the interruption of the farm, hence, I boarded. Friendship-wise they were very good days, but I never was very studious, in fact, if my time come again I could do without it.
Easton agricultural college
I was there for the fifth form, but I didn’t go on to further education. I decided that I would go to Easton agricultural college, because that’s where my interests lay. So I left school in ’69/’70, aged 17, come home for the summer harvest and then went straight to college.
Easton was very different to what it is today. We were hands-on all enterprises. They had pigs, chickens, cows and we had to do stock duties weekends. We were hand-hoeing sugar beet in them days and moving irrigation pipes individually for the potatoes. So we were virtually a workforce, plus still doing our studies.
We only used to get one weekend off in two, because of our stock duties. Father used to see to the pigs and when I came home to Oaklands Farm I used to help out and give him a couple of days off and then go back to college.
Early days at Oaklands Farm, Aldeby
My father bought the farm off his father and moved there in 1942, so it’s always been a family concern. The farm then was quite a mixed farm of about 400 acres. We had roughly 50 milking cows, 40 sows and all the pigs went to bacon.
Doing different on the marshes with milking cows
We had some marshes. Most farms in this Waveney Valley area had an area of marshes with the upland. The simple reason was that if they kept stock on the upland in the winter, they had grazing to go to in the summer. We were a little different though, because we had milking cows. We moved them all down to marsh in the summer and we milked them in what they call a milking bail, which is a six stall abreast parlour that was on skids. We used to milk the cows morning and nights and then move on to a clean pasture after a day’s milking, which was very arduous, but in them days that seemed quite modern.
We collected the milk early on in churns. Then we actually brought the milk in one big container, but the biggest problem with that was we couldn’t get it cool enough to keep the bacteria right.
We transported the churns from the marshes in an old three ton trailer. We used to tie ’em up and get them on as best you could. We brought ’em back to the home farm where they’d be further cooled and this is where we had all the washing facilities. Then later on we bought a refrigerated tank, so we tipped what would have been five or six churns and the contents into this.
Arable crops were also a very important part of the farm. We grew barley, not much wheat, but also a fair bit of sugar beet. Of course, we grew kale and stubble turnips for the cows when they come home from the marsh in the autumn and the beauty of sugar beet in them days was that nothing was wasted. The root went to the sugar beet factory. We used all the tops for the milking cows and they would strip graze kale and stubble turnips during the day and be out day and night.
Acquiring Wheatacre Hall Farm
When I left Easton College originally I was going to come home because I loved pigs and that was my main interest, but we’d just entered the Common Market and the pig industry was very volatile and my father was reluctant to invest money to expand that side of the business.
I married my wife Joanna in 1982 and in the early days of marriage she was working in a bank and I would go off milking and she would be off carrying out her bank duties during the day. We had some farm buildings, which later in life we converted as she fancied her hand at doing holiday lets.
We’d been contract-farming Wheatacre Hall for several years for the owner, Mr Skoulding, so we knew what the land was like. So in 1982 when he died, we took the opportunity to buy the farm.
We’d always been buying marshes. I can remember father was always very progressive and he never stood still; he’d buy 50 acres here and 70 acres there. Then when this farm came on the market that was a big step for us; that doubled us up. The cost of buying marshland was certainly an attraction. In the early days father bought some marshes at Worlingham for £10 an acre and then they went to the dizzy heights of £50 an acre and that gave us scope to do things. We visited Charles Wharton and saw what he was doing on his marshes; growing exceedingly good crops and we thought perhaps we could bring it back to our marshes.
We began ploughing up the marshes at this time, ploughing all this grassland. It was very difficult the first year because of the thickness of the old grass. It was a job to turn in, but we got it ploughed, got it drilled with wheat, and we just couldn’t believe the yields we were getting in those days.
There were grants in them days for drainage work and also to better ourselves in growing crops. When we went into it full time we put in a big drainage scheme, where we could keep a low water level for the arable side, but we had to put damns in for the grazing cattle. So that was a big big event for us and quite costly. Then we decided to drain the marshes we cropped. These would have been tile drains with stone on top and the drains would be a chain apart and worked very very well, but in the later years we used plastic piping, no stone, because that was thought to be the thing, but that didn’t work so well.
At that time I was milking back at the Oaklands and we had 60/70 cows and I wanted to expand the business, but the size of the Oaklands area didn’t lend itself to expansion. Because we’d just bought Wheatacre Hall, which bordered the marshes, that opened a great area for me to expand the cows and graze these marshes.
So the cows moved up from the Oaklands in 1991. We put a brand new greenfield site in and we went up to 150 cows, a one man unit, and we’ve been milking with that for 20-odd years.
Increasing dairy herd and a new rotary milking parlour
Two years ago we put a brand new rotary parlour in, 54-point, which is capable of milking anything from 6/7 to 800 cows. Our herd now is nearly up to 400 and we could quite easily at the next stage go up to 600. Again the same old thing; we never stand still. We wanted to expand and the size of the parlour just wouldn’t go for any more cows. We decided to do this as a family, as we wanted to expand the cows; our strength and depth in business, because I’m getting nearer and nearer to retiring age and this is going to be the next generation’s baby.
It’s the same old thing; if you love what you’re doing and you want to do it well, you’ve got to expand to cut your costs. We’ve gone for a block-calving/autumn-calving herd. We pump the milk out in the autumn, they’ll start calving September and finish by Christmas and then they’ll go out grazing all summer. I can put all the forage wagons away, they’ll be out day and night until they calve next September. So we’re not going for milk yield. Sometimes you chase milk at the price it is; that could cost you more than what the milk’s worth. So we’re actually going for a cheaper version and that’s the only way I can make money out of milk.
Beauty of the British Friesian
I’ve always used British Friesian. I love the breed. They’re a dual purpose cow. They produce very very good bull calves. Their length of lifespan is one/two lactations more than some of the modern cows and I just love the type of cow and that’s really a native cow that love grazing and they just suit my system. They’re well suited for the marshes; they don’t mind walking. Some of my cows now have to walk a mile after milking.
The marsh grazing now is nearly all cows. The rest of the level will be down to grass for forage grass, silage, and then we’ve got a proportion of the upland for growing about 100 acres of forage maize that blend well with the grass for a balanced ration for the winter.
The calves we always sold just as they were born; the bull calves. We rear every heifer calf and we pick what we want for replacements. They’ll be black and white Friesian calves and then we sell at pedigree sales later on with the surplus. The bull calves we do use beef bulls on cows we’re not going to breed from and they will go to designated fatteners at an early age.
Now that we’ve moved the unit to Wheatacre, we decided that health-wise the calves should be away from the main dairy herd, so they can get on with milking and the calves are reared at the Oaklands Farm now where the cows used to be and my niece, Andrea, she’s in charge of that operation.
Chicken unit at Oaklands Farm
The chickens are at the Oaklands. We decided that we’d put a chicken unit up when we moved the dairy cows from the Oaklands to Wheatacre. Because we’d had cows at Aldeby, they were all small fields with hedges, 5/10 acres, 15 acres, and not well suited for modern agriculture and big machinery and at that time free range chickens looked a very profitable enterprise.
Conservation vs ploughing marshland
When the ESA came into the scene; they wanted to stop the cultivation of marshes. They wanted us to go back to grass and the biggest problem was that we were never allowed to put enough cows on per acre stocking rate. They wanted it low and the worst thing you can do with grass is under-stock it; it just goes back to reeds and native grasses and spoils the whole job. I feel that coming in was a complete disaster and it never suited us. So we actually came out of the scheme early and we’ve gone for production new-leys, good quality grasses, because that’s the only way I can get milk from grazing cows.
Effect of ploughing marshes on the peat layer
When we first ploughed the marshes in the 60s, as you can imagine, over the years there was a lovely peat under this grass flag before you got to the clay; all fertility and we ploughed this up and wanted to mix the peat with the clay. Well the idea was good, but it never came off. What happened was the peat oxidised and actually disappeared before we got the benefit of the mixing with the clay. So in the latter years of growing wheat down there, we just had a bed of clay and that was getting harder and harder to get a seed bed. Because the peat had gone, the yields were decreasing and the soil structure was not good.
Changes in marshland grazing
In the early 40s and 50s Wheatacre marshes were well known for grazing horses on. Something in the soil, whether that’s the selenium, or the salt, whatever, and a lot of horses were reared for the First World War on farms in this area. They’d be loaded on trailers up to Aldeby station and go off to the First World War. When we first ploughed the marshes up, you would pick up a wheelbarrow of horseshoes, so you’d know that they were extensively grazed with horses.
We’ve got charity organisations now that are coming to the market on the marsh lettings and, because they’ve got readily available funds and have got all these animals, they’re pushing the rents up to unknown highs that we’ve never known before. So for typical farmers, the marshes are becoming less attractive cost-wise and there comes a point where they cost too much and you’ve got to look at alternatives.
When we bought Wheatacre Hall we were cropping the marshes, but as we expanded the cows there’s more acres been taken up with forage and our arable side has been decreasing gradually over the years, to a point where the arable side would be roundabout 600 acres now. There came a point in the last couple of years when we decided that we couldn’t really afford to buy machinery to farm 600 acres. Not only that, our concentration is on milking cows, so we made the decision to let Croxley Farms contract-farm it.
Highs and lows of farming life
I think the most exciting times were when we were ploughing up the marshes and everyone was looking for high yields. There wasn’t the pressure on chemicals like there is today; we were making serious money. The first wheats we grew down on the marsh; Maris Huntsman that was producing two ton an acre, very closely behind that there was a hybrid called Maris Hobbit, and we suddenly went from two ton to three ton and we thought this was absolutely marvellous. Also there was the buzz out of expanding. We never stood still; we’ve always been building. To see the next generation get as much excitement and thrill out of it as I do that’s certainly a high point. The low point now I think is the pressure on prices; there’s just not enough margin now. Our costs keep going up; we’ve got no control over what we sell our product for and it’s hard work these days. I think as we go into the future if we don’t diversify into some other thing, arable farming as we know it will be a struggle.
BSE was a terrible time; that was a low point in the farm. We were milking cows and this come on the scene and we thought we may not see anything like this, but we had one case on the farm. So we had the cows tested and in the end I think we had to have roundabout 50 cows put down. That would be cows and the cohorts. Thank goodness that job has finished now.
We always had ongoing things like “husk”, lungworm, because we graze wet marshland. Nowadays though we’ve got modern medicines and we know what we’re dealing with, so that’s not a big problem.
Family’s involvement in the farm
As well as myself now, Jo she does the holiday homes. I’ve got a son and daughter. Jamie’s now taken over my role dealing with the dairy side. My daughter she’s actually selling eggs and milk. We want to expand that side of the business for the premium market. I’ve got a niece who looks after the young stock and her father helps on that side as well. My sister, Margaret, she handles the chicken enterprise. So it’s a complete family working farm.
On the dairy side we employ a head herdsman and a second man and then the rest of the labour on the farm will be casual, as and when required.
Taking the farm into the future
We all had a meeting before we spent the money on the dairy and said look, where do we want to go as a family and everyone on my side and Margaret, my sister’s, said yeah, we want the farm, we want to do it well, this is what we want to do – milk cows – the decision was made and good luck to them.
A farmer never retires
As a farmer you never retire. I’d like to think I can just have the odd day or two off, but if I have one day off I’ve got to be down to the cows to see how they are. Yeah, I’ll never finish really.
Click here to listen to Margaret: Free range hens and show cattle
I was born in 1956 at the Oaklands Farm, which was the home farm and I’m still there now. I went away for a time, as I was a qualified farm secretary and worked away on another estate for about 15/20 years. That was just the other side of Diss and then I came home when I had my daughter, Andrea, and I’ve been working on the farm ever since.
Working as a farm secretary, then back home at Oaklands farm
During my time as a farm secretary, I was still very much involved with the farm. I used to be home most weekends and I took over the paperwork and various things from my mother, who’d been doing it beforehand, and dad and me always very close together with the dairy herd.
I went to school in the local village school at Wheatacre and from there I went to Beccles Secondary Modern. I then went to college to do a farm secretarial course in Staffordshire.
My first job was in Essex, covering 16 different farms doing their paperwork, and then I got the job on the estate near Diss before coming home.
I still do the paperwork for the farm, but I’m gradually handing it over to my niece, Lindsay. She’s very involved; well all the family are involved with the farm.
Free range chicken enterprise
When the dairy herd moved away from the home farm onto the greenfield site, we had some small fields and they weren’t very productive arable-wise and I wanted a little bit more to fill my time up, so we built a house for 12,000 free range laying hens. All our birds are completely natural outside and can roam wherever they wish. They’re bred by Hi-Line, a commercial bird firm, and I’m now selling the eggs to Havensfield Happy Hens, at the other side of Harleston.
The business is just about ticking over. I think there’s more and more people wanting free range eggs and, in fact, most of the supermarkets now are only going to stock free range eggs. It was also very good use of the land and I’m very happy with it. I mean I’m now just restocked and I’m on my sixteenth flock I think.
Bird ‘flu can be an issue. We’re only about three miles from the coast, so we do have a lot of the birds which can carry the disease. I’m afraid though, just like everything else, it’s something you have to live with and just hope that we can manage it and keep it away.
Working with the dairy herd
I also still keep most of the records for the cattle, because obviously we have to keep passports and we’re a pedigree herd, so they all have to be registered and I do all that. Then I help my daughter and husband sometimes, because their department is rearing the calves.
We also do a little bit of showing. The majority of the herd is British Friesian and we do the Suffolk Show and Norfolk Show, but our main one is the National Show at Carlisle every year. That’s the National British Friesian Show and I’m pleased to say we got Championship again this year.
British Friesians are ideal
There’s more and more British Friesian herds throughout the country; they’re coming back to popularity. Particularly for us, because we graze on the marshes and they have quite a way to walk sometimes; they’re very much a grazing animal, so we get very little trouble with legs and feet. They can go down to the marshes graze, come back, and also to a certain extent they’re dual-purpose animals and they’ll produce a good beef calf as well.
We’ve had British Friesians all my life. I mean father brought some of the cows here when he moved down in 1940 from Toft Monks, just two villages away, when he bought the land and marshes. There was a lot of farmers round here who had cows. I’m not sure what breed they had, but obviously back in the 40s they were mostly British Friesian type.
The farm for the next generation
I’ve got a daughter and my brother has got a son and a daughter and they’re all very much involved with the farm. My daughter she likes looking after the calves and rearing the young stock. They come down to the Oaklands at two or three days old, where she looks after them, and then they’ll go back into the milking herd at two when they calf down.
Click here to listen to Joanna: From farm buildings to holiday cottages
I was born in 1961 at Hoe, which is a very tiny village near East Dereham in Norfolk, at my grandparents’ farm. The reason I was born there was it was actually a Saturday, Norwich livestock market day, which my father was at, so he sent my mother off to have me. Our own farm was at Cawston in North Norfolk and when I was about 11 years old, we then moved to Kirstead near Brooke.
My father was a livestock farmer. His name was Tony Key and he dealt with cattle all over the country. He came from Aylsham where my other grandparents farmed and my great-grandparents. Henry Key farmed at Plumstead near Norwich. So the Key family’s quite a large farming family in Norfolk.
I met and married my husband David; we married in 1982, both being members of Loddon Young Farmers Club. The Young Farmers Club then in Norfolk was a very large concern and many farmers I think met their future wives and husbands through that society. When we first married we lived in Aldeby and then we moved here to Wheatacre Hall, where we live today. We have two children; a daughter Lindsay who’s now married and a son James and they’re heavily involved in the family farm as it is today.
Conversion of Wheatacre Hall barns
Back in 2005/2006 we were looking as a family at what to do with the barns in the farmyard. They were falling rapidly into disrepair and they were very large barns, but not really large enough to lend themselves to the modern way of farming. Over the years one had been a grain dryer and storage and livestock were housed in some of the others. There was an old granary and then a range of traditional Norfolk cart sheds. So we thought long and hard and after several options we considered, we decided to look at self-catering holiday lets.
I think really I was a bit apprehensive to start with, but I don’t think we really appreciate the county, or the area, where we live. Then when you do open your eyes you realise there’s so much more to the county of Norfolk and actually we’re very well-placed. We’re obviously close to the border of Suffolk also, only about 20 minutes from the coast and at the southern tip of the southern Broads. So David thought it was a nice little sideline for me, which actually has turned into a complete full-time job.
Planning permission was gained and we started work on the barns in summer 2006. We converted the first six properties then, starting with the first four barns, which were ready to let in 2007, followed by a further two in June 2007, so it was Easter and June. I really wanted to hit the Easter market being the first major holiday time of the year. It was a very busy build, a huge learning curve, but I spent all day every day on site with the builders, which has been actually quite valuable, because now I know where everything is, all the services and how things are built and how everything works, which has served me very well.
We then converted a further two smaller barns, which were originally cart sheds, in 2010/11. So the current site as it is now has eight properties, sleeping from 2 to 7 people, therefore, 41 people can be catered for on site at any one time. We also grade our properties, so we’re actually “five star gold” and that’s graded annually by Quality In Britain. We’ve actually added a few other facilities. We’ve now got a games barn, hot tub, fitness barn and a soft play barn. There’s obviously lots of outdoor space and we’ve also got bikes for hire, enabling guests to explore the local countryside.
Holidays and a farm experience
We actively encourage people to look round the farm, especially the dairy unit. We’ve got a viewing gallery there. In my office, which serves as a reception as well, I sell our own raw milk and free range eggs. I’m also concerned that a lot of younger guests really haven’t got much idea about where food is produced. So if we can send them back home with a bit of information on why British food is the best, then I, hopefully, have done my job.
We’ve been open 11 years now. It’s been very hard work starting from scratch, but year on year our bookings are rising. We do get a huge amount of returning guests, which, hopefully, means we’re doing something right. I advertise on lots of travel websites, including Farm Stay, and so far so good.
The guests come from all over really. We have a large proportion from the M25 corridor, going down to South London as well, but Essex in particular, especially for the short breaks. We do a weekend and a midweek break, which is very popular, because guests can leave work on the Friday afternoon and obviously within an hour and a half they’re here.
We’re very lucky really with local attractions. Being only about 20 minutes from the coast you’ve got, for instance, Great Yarmouth and Southwold, easily accessible from here. Then there’s Africa Alive and Bewilderwood, which the kids love, and a castle at Framlingham and Norwich. Norwich is a beautiful city in itself, with a wonderful cathedral and everything there you could wish for. I’m sure guests go away with heavier-laden cars than they came with through shopping in Norwich.
Hard work, a big investment, but well worthwhile
I’m here every day, 24/7 as such, at guests’ beck and call. I do have a great team of local girls though, who help me on changeover days, which is pretty manic at times. We like to try and provide a home from home really. We always keep a close eye on the latest gadgets. I think probably the biggest change I’ve noticed is Internet connection. We are very rural here and we do have a “rural” broadband, which is quite a shock to somebody coming from the middle of London, who’s used to the superfast highway. When we started people perhaps would bring an odd laptop with them, but now the gadgets all come out. A family of six could easily have twelve gadgets between them; a few telephones, I-Pads and so on, down to a toddler, who now demands Internet access as well.
The original investment obviously was very large and the day to day running costs do rise all the while. We’ve recently had a very large business rate rise when the VOA did a national re-evaluation, which came quite unexpectedly, so that’s been a bit of a hit for us. This is, hopefully, outweighed though by the worth of conservation and preservation of these traditional buildings.
Health and safety
Health and safety is obviously very important being on a farm. We’re now actually doing a new health and safety audit. I have to obviously issue terms and conditions for guests. A sensible head is really what’s required more than anything, but to date, touching wood, we haven’t had any major issues anyway.
Wheatacre Hall Barns into the future
Luckily all our family are involved in the farm in one way or another, so definitely the holiday lets are part of that and my daughter does help me quite frequently. As a family I think we’re committed to the holiday barns as a long term investment, working hard and which, hopefully, the family will continue to grow as there’s large potential for future projects.
Andrea Vale (Margaret’s daughter), Graham Vale (Margaret’s husband), Margaret Vale (David’s sister) , David Burroughs, Joanna Burroughs, James Burroughs (David’s son), Lindsay Miller (David’s daughter) (taken 2018)
David and Joanna Burroughs (b. 1952 and 1961) and Margaret Vale (b. 1956) talking to WISEArchive at Wheatacre in Norfolk on 11th April 2018.
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