North Yorkshire farmers’ plan to overcome the milk price crash

Colin Johnson with some of his Bleu du Maine sheep at Low Whinholm Farm, Streetlam.
Colin Johnson with some of his Bleu du Maine sheep at Low Whinholm Farm, Streetlam.
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FINDING WAYS of dealing with difficult situations is something Colin Johnson is used to both at home on the farm at Low Whinholm Farm, Streetlam just north of Northallerton and in his role as chairman of North Yorkshire County Show that takes place a fortnight tomorrow.

Dairy farming is the main enterprise at Low Whinholm which he farms in partnership with brother Robin. The state of the dairy sector is well-documented and this week the brothers took another hit with a further penny per litre off their price that now sees them getting just over 21ppl with Meadow Foods - this time last year the price was 33ppl.

Colin and Robin’s farming operation, with Colin’s son Ross also very much part of the farm, runs to 267 acres with 150 dairy cows and 100 Bleu du Maine breeding ewes. Colin tells of how they have come to terms with the drop in milk price.

“Our cows are combinations of the Swedish Red, Montbeliarde and Holstein breeds to produce crossbred vigour that through living longer and having less illness means they are more cost effective. We don’t get the 10,000 litres you get from a pure Holstein but our 7,500-7,750 litres per cow each year works out better for us overall because we get more lactations.

“Another benefit is that we also breed much improved quality bull calves that we rear up to 10-11 months old and sell for a higher price than you would make with Holstein bull calves.

“The cull cow, when she is finished, also has a higher market value so we’re increasing the value of our cows and their offspring away from the parlour and that’s one way of compensating ourselves for the drop in milk price. It doesn’t make up all of the difference but with our vet bills reducing all the time, good somatic cell count, and the premiums we attract on our base price because of our butterfat and protein content, we’re maybe not in as poor a position as some.

“We also grow grass for silage, wheat for wholecrop and barley so our only other feed cost is protein.”

Prior to Foot & Mouth disease in 2001 the Johnsons had 100 dairy cows, finished 150 beef cattle and had 150 breeding ewes.

“Our stock was taken out as a contiguous cull. It was devastating losing prime stock that you’ve spent years breeding but whilst no-one would ever want it to happen it did allow us an open time to restructure the farm and the farm buildings and put it right for the next 20 years.”

Robin’s Bleu du Maine flock is his passion and he’ll show them again this year at North Yorkshire County Show, Masham Sheep Fair and the Great Yorkshire Show.

“I started with them in 1985 when they were first imported. Today I get a premium for my female breeding stock and quite a few go to be crossed with the Beltex to produce a terminal sire now called the Millennium Blue.”

North Yorkshire County Show has suffered more bad weather than most summer shows and was called off the day before the 2012 event.

“That nearly broke us,” says Colin. “But we turned things around and the weather has been kind since. It’s a fantastic show set in a brilliant venue at Otterington Hall and we’ve never looked back. We’ve one of the largest sheep shows with over 500 entries this year. The dairy and beef entries are at 120 and we host the largest poultry show in the country.”

This year’s North Yorkshire County Agricultural Show takes place at Otterington Hall near Northallerton on Sunday, June 21.

Keeping it in the family

Colin has been involved with North Yorkshire County Show since 1995. He joined the showfield management team and became vice chairman 10 years ago before becoming chairman five years ago.

Robin shows his Bleu du Maine sheep and is the current wood turning champion.

Ross, who is the current chairman of Great Smeaton YFC and the third generation of the family to undertake the position, is also on the showfield management team.

Colin and Robin’s great grandfather Edwin Hutchinson was the first of their family line to farm at Low Whinholm in 1897. He bought it in 1913.