Farm of the Week: Dales dairy operation that has recovered and thrived after foot and mouth disease cull

Late last year and early this year the average farm gate milk price paid to UK dairy farmers reached a height never seen before when it reached over 50 pence per litre for the first time. The average in December 2022 was 51.2ppl, but it didn’t last long and the average for August 2023 had tumbled as 37.2ppl.

James Pratt of Studdah Farm, Bellerby near Leyburn farms with his brother Richard and parents Alan and Edith. They have a herd 145 Holstein cows and 120 followers on their 220-acre dairy operation where they are pretty much self sufficient in feed and have built what they feel is a sustainable farming business since James and Richard came into the family farm 20 years ago.

James says it was great to see the price reach the level it had but hadn’t anticipated quite the dramatic tumble that had followed.

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“We were at 53ppl in January this year, now we are currently at 37.25ppl. I didn’t think it would get up as high as it did, but once it had got there I didn’t think it would drop as fast. If we just had a level price, more consistency, that’s what we’re looking for rather than these peaks and troughs.

Richard, and James Pratt amongst their herd at Studdah Farm, Bellerby, Leyburn.Richard, and James Pratt amongst their herd at Studdah Farm, Bellerby, Leyburn.
Richard, and James Pratt amongst their herd at Studdah Farm, Bellerby, Leyburn.

While the price is a good deal better than the dark days of 2016 when some dairy farmers were getting as little as 13ppl, James and his family were not among those who chose to get out of dairy farming and have made a success out of their business due to prudence and an increase of cow numbers.

They had made their decision to restock and reinvest after having being taken out as a contiguous cull during the Foot & Mouth year of 2001 and next year will be 60 years since James and Richard’s grandfather, also James, came to Bellerby from Marsett, near Semer Water.

“Foot & Mouth year gave us chance to reassess and as myself and Richard both wanted to farm that’s when we made what was a major decision.

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“Our farm was based in the village at the time of Foot & Mouth. We had only been milking 50 cows. That wasn’t enough for myself and Richard to be able to be a part of it all, that’s when we made the move down to the new farm on the edge of the village, purchased a bit more land and have grown the herd.

James Pratt and his prize winning Wensleydale Show cow.James Pratt and his prize winning Wensleydale Show cow.
James Pratt and his prize winning Wensleydale Show cow.

“We currently have 145 cows, which will be at 150 shortly. They are nearly all pedigree Holsteins plus a few Jerseys. Our milk goes to Wensleydale Creamery.

“We bought 20 acres just after moving, and another 45 acres since, that’s why we now have 220 acres all in one block.

James says they also had sheep for a while, but they’ve long since gone and everything is now totally milk production related, although they do graze other farmers’ sheep in winter.

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“We had around 180 Mules. We’d gone back into them for a while because at first we had no young dairy stock.

Richard, Alan , Edith and James Pratt at Studdah Farm, Bellerby, LeyburnRichard, Alan , Edith and James Pratt at Studdah Farm, Bellerby, Leyburn
Richard, Alan , Edith and James Pratt at Studdah Farm, Bellerby, Leyburn

“We’ve been wholly dairy for 15 years. There are currently 10 Jerseys which are joint-owned with good friend Stuart Clapham. We do a bit of showing together. That’s a bit of a hobby. They’re good fun and something a bit different to the Holsteins.

“We have 160 acres down to silage and grazing ground; 30 acres of permanent pasture; and 30 acres of wholecrop, made up of barley, oats and peas.

“Our high yielders are housed on full TMR which keeps them on a consistent diet and maintains yield and milk quality. The lower yielders graze day and night through summer, generally from April to October, and still have access to TMR. Cows are buffer fed after each milking as we have no in-parlour feeding.

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“The current herd average is 10,932 litres, at 4.47 fat, 3.43 protein and with 102 cell count. We are always looking at improving milk protein and growing our wholecrop which last year lifted fat and protein levels and improved our milk quality.

Adopting good grass management techniques and caring for the soil are very much involved in their plans and has led to worthwhile investment.

“We strip graze and we’ve put cow tracks made of stone with astroturf on top, that lead to the grazing paddocks. This allows the cows fresh grass twice a day and allows the grass to replenish. We’ve also spent a lot of time on drainage.

“Last year we got the farm all mapped up and scanned so that we could produce an accurate nutrient plan. We have now begun correcting phosphate in the soil and we are variable rate calcium lime spreading. Early this spring we did variable rate P&K to improve unproductive areas.

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“We are also going into the new SFI initiatives and we have some land in countryside stewardship. We are doing the simple things that are largely easy to do. As we are a dairy farm we couldn’t just take so much of our land out of production. We need the grassland otherwise we run out of silage.

Increasing herd numbers in more recent times has led to a new building that was put up four years ago.

“We put it up to house the high yielders and that has allowed us to grow numbers on as we were full up at 120 in the building that we put up 20 years ago. It has also enabled us to bring back the dry cows and heifers that were being reared on a neighbour’s farm.

James says that they are currently using sexed semen AI to increase the pedigree herd further and conventional semen of either Blue or Angus on what will be one-third of the herd.

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“We sell beef calves at two months old in Leyburn livestock market. As well as AI we also use an Angus sweeper bull that runs with the heifers.

The family has shown pedigree Holstein cows over a number of years and James says it has been a good year as they have felt their way back into showing.

“Richard and I used to do a lot more when we were in our teens and twenties and with the help of James Robinson, who’s a good friend and from Leyburn but now lives in Cumbria, and his partner Katy Bainbridge, who helps prepare them we’ve come back into it lately.

“We had champion Holstein cow at our local show Wensleydale Show in August. I’m on the committee for the show. This year we went to UK Dairy Expo in March where we took a Jersey that was second in junior cow class. James and Katy own a share in a calf and they took that to the Great Yorkshire and she won in the Interbreed Dairy Calf classes, and we had Champion red and white calf at the North East Calf Show in September that has just stood fifth at the National Calf Show.

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“I judged at Pateley Show this year. Last year I judged the Yorkshire Holstein Herds competition and this year the Derbyshire equivalent. It’s good to see cows in different set-ups and different surroundings. You can always pick up something yourself.