The Yorkshire dairy farm which is still milking the good times

For all the talk of the death of the family dairy farm some years ago there are still many that have survived.

Father and son Howard and Tom Pattison of Willow Tree Farm, Thrintoft near Northallerton never thought of anything other than the life they lead.

“I never had any other ideas,” says Howard. “This was always a dairy farm. I remember milking in the old byre as a little boy and dad putting in a milking parlour some 45 years ago.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We had a mixed farm when I was younger. I remember lambing sheep here and we had poultry. I had a bit of interest in sheep, but by the time I got into my late teens and early 20s everything for me was about the cows. Since I got married it has always been about more and more cows.

Farmers Tom, and his dad Howard Pattison, of Willow Tree Farm, Thrintoft, near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, manage a herd of 280 dairy cows. Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer,  James Hardisty.Farmers Tom, and his dad Howard Pattison, of Willow Tree Farm, Thrintoft, near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, manage a herd of 280 dairy cows. Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer,  James Hardisty.
Farmers Tom, and his dad Howard Pattison, of Willow Tree Farm, Thrintoft, near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, manage a herd of 280 dairy cows. Picture By Yorkshire Post Photographer, James Hardisty.

“We’d have 120 in those earlier days and now we’re stood at 260-280 pedigree Holsteins. It’s the way I wanted to go. I remember saying to my wife Debbie that I just wanted to get to 200, but then you get there and just keep going.

Tom tells a similar tale of wanting more cows when he came on board, but says they’ve reached a point with the buildings where what they have is manageable.

“When I came up to leaving school it was a case of going on to agricultural college or coming home, putting sheds up and growing the business. I didn’t have much interest in going to college, so I ended up coming home, we put more sheds up and that’s when the cows went from 170-180 to 250.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“A few years ago we thought 300 would be our limit. We’d got to 280 milking and then realised we didn’t have the space. Staffing had become more of an issue at the time and we decided we were comfortable with the space we’ve got. We can’t house any more without putting up more sheds.

Howard says they have always invested in their future and that is reflected in their cows’ productivity.

“All my life and all Tom’s, we’ve invested. We’ve got some really good cow sheds, silage pits, slurry lagoons, our infrastructure building-wise is as good as any dairy farm around. Our parlour is one of the oldest bits of kit we’ve got, but I still think of it as modern.

“We can’t rule out using robots. Everything is progressing and robotic milking is coming more.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Our cows are producing an average of 13,000 litres per cow on twice-a-day milking and would maybe benefit from being milked three times a day, but robots are not necessarily the answer. The feeding regime for a robot is totally different from our total mixed ration herd, and we feel the cows benefit from our care.

Tom says the productivity of the herd has been improved by housing cows inside, working closely with vet Mark Glover over nearly 40 years and looking at breeding traits. Such has been their success they became an AHDB Strategic Dairy Farm in 2022.

“We built the sheds with wide passageways and deep sandbeds to house the cows inside and have improved our yield.

“We don’t push for milk now as we’ve already got where we needed to be, but fat and protein content are big ones for us as we are now on a Starbucks contract with Arla, one of only thirteen dairy farms in the country, and we get paid a premium for those, so we look closely at the figures.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“I started genomic testing around five to six years ago specifically looking at traits and I select bull semen based on traits we need to improve on, that fit with our system. The main trait I looked for initially was mastitis resistance as we had quite a big issue with that. It has come right down now. One of the sessions we held at the farm was about mastitis control.

“We’ve held four or five sessions since starting with AHDB and It’s opened up areas where we could improve, given us new ideas. I wouldn’t say it’s answered all the goals we set out but it has brought us a step forward and we’ve had knowledgeable, experienced people in all areas.

Beef calves from dairy heifers are all bred to an Angus and sold from a fortnight to six weeks old. Tom says it’s another system that works well.

“We rear 140 replacement heifers and they are served at 12 months, calving into the herd at 23 months. Our in-calf heifers graze during the summer months."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Willow Tree runs to around 400 acres and Tom says the crops are grass, winter wheat and maize.

“Normally, we try and get some kind of greening crop in at winter, on where we’ve had the maize, and usually we put in mustard and forage rape. We had quite a bit to swap around this year and decided to put some Westerwold ryegrass seeds in.

“We put in 50 acres and 20 acres of Italian ryegrass which gave a hell of a first cut in the beginning of May. We then ploughed it out and put it back into maize. It worked. Grass in the winter is classed as a greening affair, but we’ve managed to get an extra crop off it.”

Tom says the farm is involved in stewardship and showing more concern for the environment.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“We’re in Mid-Tier and we are just on with tweaking bits for the SFI scheme. We don’t bring any soya on the farm now. About three years ago we moved to a product called NovaPro, a heat treated rape meal, and sugar beet pressed pulp that we feed all year round.

"We are trying to use less fertiliser, but we’re still an intensive farm, so to get the yields for the cows we need the fertiliser bring about good crops. We’re also trying to do more slurry sampling. We have bought a dribble bar that should be in action this year, that should make a difference.

‘We still use the plough. We worked a field off the top last year and drilled straight into it. It didn’t work as well and you can tell the field is nowhere near as good as the rest. Our land needs ploughing, turning over. It’s medium to heavy soil, with some good land."

Teamwork is important at Willow Tree and Howard says Peter Farndale, who has worked for them for many years, is their rock.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Every farm should have a Peter Farndale because he just gets on with it, does the job once, you don’t have to go and check if it’s been done and it will be done correctly, He’ll take anything on board. He’s a farmer’s son. His wife says he’s spent most of his life here rather than at home. He handles all the feeding and tractor work.

“We’ve one man full time for milking, two part time girls and Peter.”

The rest of the Willow Tree family includes Howard’s wife Debbie, their daughter Emma, who is currently in New Zealand, Howard’s mum Joyce, Tom’s partner Rachel and their young daughter Edith. Howard’s father Michael sadly passed away last year.

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.