The seed of an idea, sown while still at college, has grown to help Richard Gill and his family become one of the UK’s biggest buffalo producers.
Just a few years ago, the family were in full-time milk production from their Holstein Friesian herd, and struggling to stay profitable.
But away at Harper Adams agricultural college, Mr Gill was looking for new ways to take the business forward.
“The buffalo idea began as a college project, looking at how diversified enterprises could work within an existing farm infrastructure.
For practice purposes, we had to prepare a business plan for the college’s own farm.
We could do whatever we liked, but it had to be forward-thinking, it had to be novel, and it had to be profitable,” he says.
Back at home after college, the buffalo idea was still in the back of Mr Gill’s mind.
“Milking cows was becoming less and less viable, and the overdraft was growing. It was time for shake-up.”
He got in touch with Paul Langthorne, a buffalo producer at Northallerton, North Yorks, who provided him with half a carcass.
“We took the meat to a farmers market in Castleton, thinking: This is either going to be a great success or a massive disaster – but if it goes wrong, we’ll just shrug it off and look at other ideas.”
He sold out within an hour.
“Buffalo meat has a series of unique selling points; it’s different, it’s healthy, with half the fat and twice the calcium and protein of mainstream red meat.
It’s tangy and rich, but not like game.”
Now committed to the buffalo project, the Gills bought five cows.
His brother-in-law, who trained as a butcher at the Chatsworth farm shop, would cut and prepare all the meat for sale.
“But we were only scratching the surface of what we could do.
We talked to our local NatWest agricultural manager Mark Pearson, who arranged a bigger overdraft for us to fund the project.
Then we bought every buffalo we could find in the UK, taking our herd to just under 300 head.”
An extended overdraft facility was more suitable for the Gills than a loan arrangement, says Mr Pearson.
“Because it wasn’t clear what returns the family would see from the sale of the dairy cows, and when those funds would be forthcoming, it wasn’t clear how much they would need to fund the buffalo enterprise in the end.
“An overdraft offers much more flexibility, and it’s a more cost-effective way to borrow in the short term.
Plus, they’ve been able to spend money as they have needed it and they’ve only paid interest on that amount.”
Crucial to securing support from the bank was a sound business plan, setting projected sales and costs over five years’ trading.
Capital outlay was broken down explicitly, showing the funds needed for butchers equipment, vans, fridge units and vacuum packing machinery.
Another new enterprise for the Gill family, the Farmhouse Pantry shop, has come on the back of the buffalo success.
It required more capital outlay to get off the ground, again financed through bank borrowing, but is now the flagship outlet for the farm’s buffalo produce, from roasting joints, burgers and flavoured sausages through to a hard, Cheddar-like buffalo cheese.
There are other environmental spin-offs to the species.
“Buffalo will graze on plants like bracken, which other species won’t touch,” says Mr Gill.
“The Peak District National Park has shown an interest in grazing buffalo as part of moorland regeneration.
And the RSPB is also interested, as buffalo on rough grazing can clear areas for birds like lapwings to nest.”
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