A North Yorkshire father and son team have landed a Farmers of the Year title. Ben Barnett found out how they did it.
Dairy farming has a reputation for long hours and slim, albeit improved, returns, so for a pair of North Yorkshire dairy farmers to pick up a Farmers of the Year title after strong performances in the auction ring must come as a welcome boost and a fine way to cap off a productive 2013.
Father and son Fred and Mark Houseman are rightly delighted to be recognised by Craven Cattle Marts for their consistently strong results at Skipton this year, but Mark insists it is a team effort that breeds success and he certainly doesn’t want to use the accolade as a platform for bemoaning the tough conditions in the dairy sector, far from it in fact.
Speaking from the family’s main dairy unit at Burton Top Farm near Burton Leonard, Harrogate, this week, Mark said: “There are lots of other people in lots of other lines of work that put in long hours and work hard.”
A chat with most stakeholders in the dairy sector right now will tell you that there is a more optimistic mood in the industry than in previous years. Those were certainly the sentiments of delegates who attended the National Farmers’ Union’s Northern Dairy Conference in Harrogate last month.
Greater confidence is spreading through the sector as the major dairy firms continue to invest in facilities in Europe and further afield in anticipation of a surge in demand for dairy products.
Milk prices have improved over the last 12 months, a year on from the 2012 summer of discontent when farmers staged protests outside dairies to make their feelings known about the low prices they were being paid to produce the white stuff for the supermarket shelves.
Figures from DairyCo, the organisation that works on behalf of Britain’s dairy farmers, show that the average UK farmgate milk price has risen from 28.04 pence per litre in 2012 to 31.08 pence per litre in 2013.
Conditions, and contractual agreements between dairy farmers and processors, are better, industry leaders say.
Mark though is wary of the volatility of the marketplace despite healthier prices being paid for milk.
“I think the milk price could be quite fragile moving forward. We have finally got to a price where we should be as an industry but the challenge now is to keep it there.”
The Housemans have sought to add value to their business, to shield themselves as best they can from the volatilities of a world marketplace, by breeding cattle to meet certain standards and by trading them at auctions.
Mark explains: “I use a lot of sex semen, not conventional semen, Belgian Blue semen for one and I tend to believe that people look at milk prices and concentrate on making milk when there are other ways of bolstering an income such as investing in fertility quality and selling cull cows and calves.
“We use Holsteins, predominantly with Dutch Holsteins, which produces a more durable cow. It lasts longer and gives more lactations.”
As a result of their breeding methods, the Housemans’ Senterprise pedigree dairy herd was responsible for many top-notch milkers at Skipton Auction Mart’s Craven Dairy Auctions throughout the last 12 months, with champions, reserve champions and multiple prize winners, as well as quality dairy-bred rearing calves, among their number.
Their consistent showings all year long saw the Housemans, with the support of their wives Margaret and Tina, first win the dairy cattle and rearing calves category of the awards, before landing the overall title which is earned for points accumulated at livestock shows and highest priced stock across several categories at weekly sales.
Fred says: “We have been selling large numbers of predominantly newly calven dairy cattle and dairy-bred calves at Skipton for more than 20 years. In fact, we first started trading at the old site near the town centre. We have made many friends over the years and the mart remains one of the leading dairy sales centres in the north.
“We are proud to continue to trade there and chuffed to bits to be chosen as 2013 Farmers of the Year.”
Mark, 44, a dad of two, adds: “The success comes from enjoying what we do and having a good team of people round us to do it with.”
The Houseman family’s roots originated in Nidderdale, with Fred’s father William first moving to Church Farm, South Stainley, in 1943.
In 2009, Fred and Mark took on more land and acquired a greenfield site near Burton Leonard, on which they constructed a purpose-built dairy unit and a new house. Development of the site, Burton Top Farm is ongoing. Over the years two wind turbines have been added and Mark and Fred are considering whether to install solar panels to further bolster the farm’s green credentials and produce energy for their operations off the grid.
Mark is also keen to develop the site at Burton Leonard to allow for more cattle to share the farm.
The dairy operations don’t rest solely on Mark and Fred’s shoulders. They employ three full-time staff and another two part-time milkers and while Fred is in his 74th year, he still works with the cattle on the farm every day.
In total they have some 330 dairy cows and were milking 280 at the year end, averaging 31 litres per cow per day at 4.15 per cent butter fat, 3.4 per cent protein and a cell count average of 150. All their milk goes to Paynes Farm Dairies in Boroughbridge.
As another way of maximising their cost efficiencies, the family has started to grow more of their own forage on their 640-acre holding, with 180 acres given over to wheat, 150 to maize and 55 to barley. Grass takes up much of the remaining 255 acres, with a large acreage also given over to red clover.
Red clover is well regarded for offering good production of highly nutritive feed through summer when moisture is available.
The Housemans farm a further 200 acres of arable land in partnership with Fred’s brother John and nephews William and Richard.
The pair were not the only winners in the Craven Cattle Marts awards. The prime sheep title went to Frank and Robert Fielden, of Todmorden, with prime cattle honours falling to Trawden’s Jimmy and Paul Baines. North Craven’s David and Robin Booth, who trade as WA&A Booth in Feizor, won the breeding and store sheep category, and Sheila Mason, of JH&SM Mason in Keasden, scored the most points in the breeding and store cattle section.