Farm of the Week: A dairy operation near Skipton where the cows have special diets and sleep on mattresses

Breeding and showing pedigree sheep has become the hobby that got out of hand, according to one North Yorkshire dairy farming family.

The Shuttleworths are dairy farmers but also breed Beltex sheep

David and Karen Shuttleworth and their two young sons, Henry and Robert, picked up a couple of rosettes with their Beltex sheep at the Great Yorkshire Show earlier this month but David said he took greater pride in having bred the overall breed champion, a tup lamb, which had come from an in-lamb ewe they sold in January.

It has been a momentous year for David and Karen of Home Farm in Gargrave as from April 1 they now run their own 430-acre farm with an additional 40 rented acres, milking 525 cows as their primary income. For many years David had been in a farming partnership with his brother John and parents Tommy and Vera.

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David said that while he has always been a dairy farmer the breeding of pedigree sheep is a family affair.

'Cow comfort' is a key priority for David Shuttleworth

“The thing with milking cows is that it can get very monotonous. Showing sheep is hard work but is something we all enjoy. Our boys, Henry and Robert, take part in the young handlers’ competitions and at Harrogate they both showed lambs in the main Beltex classes. They asked whether they could take part, which was really encouraging.

“I remember going to the Great Yorkshire Show just to be there and enjoy it, but the boys are now growing up getting interested in breeding sheep, going to young farmers’ club activities and meeting other young boys and girls that are also involved.”

Karen said the inspiration for the move towards pedigree sheep came from her background.

“My dad is John Bradley who is well known for his Dalesbreds and Swaledales. My mum and dad have also kept Beltex. Our grass here at Home Farm would be too rich and fancy for the Dalesbreds, so David and I agreed on trying our hand at Beltex about 14 years ago and we have bred up from the three we bought in Lanark auction mart.

Henry, 11, and Robert, nine, now enter young handler classes at the Great Yorkshire Show

“When we had been breeding for ten years we started selling some females. The first we ever sold went for £7,500 at Borderway livestock market in Carlisle, which we were really chuffed about. We also sold another female for £3,700 at Skipton.”

David and Karen’s Hever Park pedigree flock now runs to around 30 breeding ewes, breeding their own replacements as well as buying occasional females and a new tup each year. They also undertake embryo transfers using Mules as recipients to provide additional Beltex lambs.

The couple’s successes also include champion with a tup at the Beltex Breed Sale in Skipton, which made £2,200. Karen said Scottish breeder Alan Jackson has been instrumental in their success ever since they started.

“We bought one of our first Beltex from Alan and it was he who was judging at the progeny show when we took our first prizes. It was Alan’s son Ali who bought our in-lamb ewe that lambed this year’s Great Yorkshire Show breed champion.”

With limited opportunity to show their sheep at other shows this year David has now returned to the farm’s main income source.

David has always been a dairy farmer first and foremost and made the step up to 525 Holstein Friesian-cross milking cows in two main stages from having around 85 cows until foot and mouth year (2001) to 230 cows shortly afterwards; and to 525 around seven years ago.

David said he has always milked a flying herd and that last year he bought a lot more cows in than he would normally.

“I work on a theory that if cows are cheap to buy, I will replace a load of cows to increase our overall performance. If cows are over-expensive then I will hang on to what we have for a little bit longer.

“We calve all year round, which leads us to having a pretty level milk profile through the year with our cows averaging around 9,700 litres. As it is a flying herd you’re not breeding for replacements.

“One difficulty you can have with a flying herd is maintaining all of your figures, such as butterfat content, but we do pretty well and have a good contract supplying Yew Tree Dairies in Skelmersdale. We buy mainly in-calf heifers at Gisburn livestock market every Thursday and some direct from farms.”

David’s dry cows graze in the summer, but his milking cows are indoors. David said it is a system that works well for the cows.

“Cow health and their welfare is really important. Our cows are better looked after than we are. They have real cow comfort and a nutritious diet, far better than just grass. The milkers are all on mattresses and the calving cows on straw. We have several nutritionists who look at the cow diets and we use a JF Stoll mixer wagon to feed them.

“When the cows are outside there can be so many inconsistencies with the grass they are eating that you don’t get through what the mixer wagon provides, which is a consistent and better all-rounded diet, chopped up and prepared for them.”

David and Karen’s three main incomes from the farm are milk sales, calf sales and store lambs in winter. David said they have built a healthy reputation for their calf sales.

“We have a man who comes every day to AI any of our cows that are in season with Belgian Blue semen. All of the calves are sold at eight weeks. We do a very good job with the calves that are all on cow’s milk, so they go from us ready to be weaned. We also dehorn and vaccinate.”

The milking parlour at Home Farm was updated 14 years ago to 25-a-side, so 50 cows can be milked at once. David milks twice daily and has a team of five men in a morning and four in an afternoon, with one man with him all day, four days a week.

Store lambs are bought from Skipton during September to November and sold from the end of November through to April, which helps with income and also helps clean off the grass.