Farm of the Week: Sowray brothers' enviable reputation in the rings

Bridget Rafferty absconded from the village of Clogher in County Tyrone 76 years ago when she was just 14. Her story is as remarkable as any of Barbara Taylor Bradford's novels.

From left, Stephen Sowray, James Dixon, Peter Sowray, George Sowray and Shaun Sowray. Picture: Tony Johnson

For Barbara hid in a chicken hut before leaving her family, caught the ferry to Stranraer and made her way to Harrogate where her sister lived.

Bridget had been given the name of a market stall trader who she visited and was told of work available at a hotel in the town. She worked her way up to become manageress of what was then the Studley Hotel, met husband-to-be Alfred Sowray on a blind date and became a farmer’s wife. They had six children but sadly Alfred passed away while their eldest were in their early 20s.

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“Our mother is an incredible woman. She was once told she should write a book about her extraordinary life,” says Shaun Sowray, the eldest of four sons.

“We were tenant farmers running a dairy herd of 40 cows, a flock of 600 sheep and 25 suckler cows across 202 acres in 1981 when dad died and we were all still young. Mum held everything together and kept us all right.”

Bowes Green Farm at Bishop Thornton is tucked away in rolling fields between Ripon and Pateley Bridge. Three of the four Sowray brothers operate the farm today which runs to 400 acres - 300 of them owned.

“Myself, Paul and Peter run it together,” says Shaun.

“We’re the third generation to farm here. It’s now a dairy farm with 435 cows mostly Holstein Friesian X but we do have a few Montbeliardes and Swedish Reds.

“We switched to a flying herd in 2001 and now also specialise in selling quality beef calves at a month old up to eight weeks.

“We still provide some of our own replacements for the dairy herd but I find that if you are buying-in you can choose from the best production cows.

“I buy heifers at livestock markets such as Leyburn where I’m a director and cows when dispersal sales are held. It’s dispersal sales that have kept some marts’ dairy cow sales going in the recent past. At Leyburn there’s a dairy sale every month. You can’t run it any more than that as there are no longer the same amount of dairy farms about.

“We try not to buy extreme cows as we want cows that are going to last. We’re looking for hopefully five or six lactations and we have some that have gone for seven or eight.

“Our land is heavyish clay and we have plenty of concrete around the farm so for us it is the cows’ feet that are vital, which is why we have foot trimmer Richard Anderson visit us regularly. We also want good udders of course. It’s all about cows that can last longer.

“The lower yielding cows go out to graze as do the in-calf cows. We bring them in three weeks before calving.”

The Sowray brothers chose to sell their milk direct to Payne’s Dairies run by Charlie Payne when the Milk Marketing Board was disbanded in 1994-95. His dairy is just a handful of miles away from Bowes Green Farm.

“Without Charlie’s dairy there definitely wouldn’t be the same number of dairy farmers still operating in this area. We are number five on his original list of farmer suppliers.

“If you look elsewhere, particularly in Yorkshire, there aren’t as many dairy farms left in one specific area as there are around here. That is testament to how he has run his business.

“We’re also just receiving an increase in our milk price that will take us up to just over 20 pence per litre. We’ve a long way to go before we’re back at where the price was two years ago but it’s a start.

“One of the reasons why the price has gone down is that we have been dragged into the world commodity market. I feel that has been detrimental to those who, like us, supply local fresh liquid milk.

“We cut back our dairy cows from 500 to 435 because we recognise that over production can affect milk price. Our herd average is around 9,500 litres per cow but we don’t tend to talk in those terms when it comes to milk supply as all of our calves are fed with our own milk.”

Shaun, Paul and Peter have developed a reputation at Leyburn and Skipton livestock markets with their beef calves.

“We use the best semen possible when AI-ing our cows and we have outstanding bulls too. We will purchase straws from Cogent, Genus and Norbreck Genetics and we have two Limousin bulls and a Beef Shorthorn.

“We broke our own sale record price of £700 with a Belgian Blue bull calf that made £800 at Leyburn’s Christmas Show last year and broke the record at Skipton Christmas Show with one going at £790.

“We’ve won at Skipton’s last three Christmas shows and two out of the last three at Leyburn.”

Wheat is grown across 135 acres. It is predominantly winter wheat although this year there is also spring wheat, as Paul explains.

“We’ll be harvesting Santiago winter wheat soon but we’ve sown spring wheat this year across 20 acres as we had to re-drill on account of the weather at the back end. We had a lot of crops under water for quite a while.

“We do pretty well with wheat at around four tonnes an acre. It’s grown to go into wholecrop to feed the cattle but we struggle to grow maize here. We rent some land near Ripon that works better for that and Houseman contractors look after it for us.”

In addition to the dairy and beef calf operations, the Sowrays have also invested in renewable energy in recent times with an Endurance wind turbine three years ago and since last September a solar unit.

“The combination of the two now powers the whole farm and our electricity bill is nominal in comparison to what it was.

“We’ve still to pay off the capital costs of going into it though,” says Shaun.