New beginnings down on the farm at Wildon Grange

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There’s something truly magical for many who attend lambing days and other farm experiences and at Wildon Grange, between Coxwold and Kilburn, there’s every chance those who visit the Banks family’s dairy farm on Open Farm Sunday tomorrow they may see a new calf being born.

“In the next couple of days we have fifteen cows due to calve,” says Sally Banks. “We’ve been involved in OFS for eight years having initially helped Roger Hildreth at Hessay in 2013 before starting ourselves in 2014.

Dairy farmers Sally and John Banks, of Wildon Grange Farm, Coxwold, near York.

Dairy farmers Sally and John Banks, of Wildon Grange Farm, Coxwold, near York.

“This will be our fourth day and we’ve had a cow calve before, to an audience of around fifty. Everyone was mesmerised and when the calf appeared it brought so much joy not just to its mother but to the whole party. The looks on the faces of those who were watching was worth all the effort we go to in order to ensure people have a fun time and learn about what we do too.

“Even if they haven’t seen the calf arrive people still like to know when they were born,” says Charlotte Banks, who together with sister Becky helps with milking on the day and talks with visitors. “They are amazed at how big the calves are when we mention they are just two days old.”

It’s a measure of how far Open Farm Sunday has come since its humble beginnings in 2006. Farming families throughout the UK are now embracing the opportunity like never before to engage with the public, tell their stories, explain farming practices, educate about livestock and crops, and offer a fun, entertaining time on the farm.

“Our milk goes to Arla,” says Sally. “We’re now part of a European business like many other dairy farmers in the UK and we get great support from them in terms of free product samples on the day with members of their team here to talk with those who come about everything from milk to cheese and protein pouches to milkshakes.”

Brothers John and Roger Banks have farmed together all their lives having taken over from their father Cliff who passed away a decade ago. In recent years they have gone down a route extolled by many as the only way to survive in this day and age by increasing cow numbers.

It’s a journey that has seen cow numbers rise from the 100 cows Cliff was milking in the mid-60s to 340 cows a few years ago to today’s 600 and about to step up to 800 with a 60-stall state-of-the-art rotary milking parlour that is a real eyecatcher on Open Farm Sunday.

“Our move to greater cow numbers came about in a fairly common-sense business way,” says John. “We couldn’t carry on with the milking parlour that had been built in the 70s having extended it twice, and if you’re going to invest the amount you have to borrow it has to be paid for somehow, hence the need for more cows. We have no desire to milk more cows than anyone else. It’s simply economics. We started looking at different parlour systems in 2013 and with the help of local installers Clarkson Dairy Services we found what has proved appropriate. We considered all systems.

“I really like the concept of robotic milking, but we would have ended up spending a similar amount of money as we have on the rotary parlour and yet we would still have had the same number of cows. That way we wouldn’t have created the extra revenue to pay for the money we borrowed. When we move up from 600 to 800 cows we will need to increase the cow accommodation, but we won’t need to increase the parlour, as it can cope with milking 300 cows per hour, yet to do so with robots would have cost another four robots.”

In common with many other larger scale dairy farms today John and Roger made the move to housing their milking herd all year round. The view from the platform looking down on the cow accommodation to one side and the rotary parlour to the other is one of relaxed, well-tended stock in a stress-free existence without having to suffer the vagaries of the weather.

“We made the decision to house the dairy herd over ten years ago. The facilities inside are comfortable and the cows are looked after really well. Our herd is high health status and is also high in genetic merit. The cows are not pedigree, but they are hardy, long lasting Holsteins averaging around 11,000 litres per year and are milked three times per day from 5am, 1pm and 8pm with a wonderful team of 16 part-time and full-time people including myself and Roger.

“The possibility of a calving on the day is one of the potential highlights of our Open Farm Sunday experience, but the chance to get up close with the animals and watching the milking provides other fascinations particularly with the rotary parlour.”

One of the other popular sides of OFS is the opportunity to sit aboard a combine harvester or tractor. Roger Banks sees the eyes light up when he offers the chance to visitors.

“For some there’s just as much awe and wonder in being sat in the combine as there is in watching a calf being born and it’s all very much part of what we do. We grow 250 acres of winter wheat averaging around 3.5 tonnes per acre in a good year; plus 150 acres of barley and 80 acres of maize with the rest of the 1,000 acres down to grass. It’s a mix that provides feed for the cows plus a substantial income from the wheat.”

John and Roger along with their respective wives, Sally and Angela, plus Roger and Angela’s girls, Charlotte and Becky, will all be involved tomorrow, as will John and Roger’s mum, also Angela. They are three of the four generations to have lived at Wildon Grange since John and Roger’s grandparents moved there after having had their previous farm on the edge of Dalton Airfield requisitioned when it was expanded prior to the Second World War.

“We are looking forward to another fabulous day tomorrow,” says Sally. “We’d like to thank all of the 30 people who help us in putting it on including our contractor Paul Roe who brings his tractors and neighbouring farmer Maurice Duffield with his vintage tractors.”