A self-taught female beef farmer’s quest for success

Self-taught beef farmer, Heather Whittaker adopted a ‘take the bull by the horns’ approach to her new chosen career. Seven years of hard work and determination later has seen Heather go from novice to ‘know-how’, winning national awards and producing prize-winning beef, exclusively for Weeton’s of Harrogate.

It was back to the classroom for Heather (57) when she decided to trade in her ten-year career as a research ecologist to rear Hereford cattle. Despite having no formal agricultural experience, just a love of animals, Heather purchased a 26-hectare farm in Halifax after an opportunity arose from a retiring farmer. After exploring the possible use for the farm-land, Heather decided to start a herd of Pedigree Herefords; recognised by their distinctive white face and red coat. Not daunted by her lack of experience, Heather rose to the challenge and enrolled on several agricultural courses, as well as taking the welcomed advice from other local farmers and vets who were keen to see her succeed.

After researching the breeds, Heather decided to farm Hereford cattle, a grass-fed breed native to the UK, which is renowned for being easy to handle, as well as meeting the need for high quality beef from suppliers such as Weeton’s of Harrogate. Heather said: “The Hereford breed is one of the UK’s oldest breeds and I feel passionate about increasing the presence of the breed in the UK, especially in Yorkshire.

“When I was first starting out I was overwhelmed by the help and support from neighbouring farmers and I was never off the phone to the vet! I never saw my inexperience as a hindrance though; if anything it’s been more of a positive because I have been able to bring a fresh approach to beef-farming.

Heather continued: “For me, the welfare of the herd is paramount with one of my aims being to understand the psychology of each animal. Working so closely with the herd, using low-stress methods means I produce healthier animals and understanding the sensitivities of each animal makes for placid, contented cows which are easier to handle.”

Coley Poll Herefords was established in 2004 and Heather now has 110 cattle in total, including 45 breeding females which Heather is hoping to increase to 50 in line with demand for the superior beef. The beef herd are finished slowly on a grass-based diet to ensure the very best quality and are sent at around 18 to 24 months old for Pedigree Hereford beef on sale at Weeton’s of Harrogate.

Weeton’s of Harrogate, in-house master butcher, Stuart Cove said of the beef: “The quality is second to none and we’re pleased to be able to support Heather. The grass ““fed beef is a delicious alternative to beef produced for many of the supermarkets, which is finished quickly on cereal diets.”

As well as having two stock bulls, the best of each year’s progeny are selected for Pedigree breeding, a couple of which form the show team, which has seen Heather win four national show awards this year as well as having success at a host of regional shows.