Farm of the Week: 100 years in dairy may be one too many

Richard and Sarah Weatherald at Low Thoresby Farm near Redmire.
Richard and Sarah Weatherald at Low Thoresby Farm near Redmire.
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When Henry Weatherald took on the tenancy of Low Thoresby Farm on the edge of Redmire in Wensleydale nearly 100 years ago the pressures he faced would have been far different to present incumbents Richard and Sarah.

Richard is the fourth generation of the Weatherald family to dairy farm on the Bolton Estate but he may also be the last if the present milk price doesn’t pick up soon. He’s seen his income slashed from 35 pence per litre to 24.8 in recent months, but he and Sarah are remaining positive and talk a great deal of common sense whilst being fully aware that money and time could be running out for them with their 100-cow dairy herd on 180 acres of land near the River Ure.

“We’re losing money each month and sliding further into the abyss,” says Richard. “We’ve gradually been paying off our borrowings on machinery and buildings, we save on cost wherever we can without impacting on quality and we’re not up to our overdraft limit just yet so we’re just hoping the milk price will turn back upwards. You can only stand losses for so long.”

In a bid to help family dairy farms The Prince of Wales has set up an initiative that brings together similar size dairy farms across the country to share ideas and experiences that will hopefully lead to farms saving money and increasing productivity. Richard and Sarah are one of 26 dairy farming families within 20 miles of Leyburn that have become a part of the newest group in the scheme. Last week they attended a launch meeting in Highgrove, Gloucestershire along with over 90 dairy farmers from as far afield as Cornwall to Scotland.

“The Prince of Wales believes that the 100 cow dairy farm is the backbone of British rural life and he’s keen to support the family dairy farm,” says Sarah. “We’ve had two meetings so far and we started with benchmarking where you put down all your costs of production. When you see how much someone else might be paying for something you can look at areas where you might be able to improve further, despite thinking you already had a good price. It’s a three-year programme and there will be discussions and workshops on everything from lameness in cattle, mastitis, grassland management, herd health and how to make your bank manager do what you want him to do!”

Richard and Sarah realise that if the dairy price doesn’t move upwards imminently they may have to forego the landmark of a century of dairy farming at Low Thoresby, due next year, for some other enterprise. Sarah explains that Richard may feel a psychological problem of having perhaps failed in some way, but if he has to leave dairy farming behind - all he has ever known - he’s showing no signs of being depressive about it.

“As a tenant farmer I can’t borrow against property and realistically our bank manager isn’t going to increase our overdraft. We have no collateral. The only things of value we own are our cows and we can’t sell them to pay off our loan as otherwise how do we make money? There may come a point where we have to consider whether we remain in dairying but fingers crossed we’re just about coping although we will be reviewing it again in summer.’

Richard sees the bigger picture of dairy pricing, alternative farming enterprises and how everyone has to dust themselves down and get on with creating an income.

“Hopefully we will start selling to Russia again. I think the Russian ban has had a much bigger impact on milk prices than a lot of people realise. They were buying 12-15 per cent of EU dairy products and that market has dried up.

“Beef would probably be our alternative if we were to come out of dairy. There is always going to be the slight fear of the unknown in moving from something you have always done but things change. I watch the news and see people losing jobs in towns like Sunderland and Middlesbrough so why should others feel sorry for me? I know a few people who went out of dairying after Foot and Mouth in 2001 who have never looked back. Between Carperby to Wensley there were once 21 dairy farms – there are now just two.”

Whenever the milk price goes down the dairies take their share of the flack. Richard doesn’t see this as serving any particular purpose. He’s with Arla.

“We’ve been with them for about three years having previously supplied Wensleydale Creamery. I’ve always liked the idea of being in a co-operative and we are members paying into it with a view to being a part of the company in the future. I know a lot of people blame dairies for the milk price but Arla are very transparent. We could just do with the price going up.”

The Low Thoresby herd calves year round and Richard has 80-90 milkers at any one time giving a herd average of around 8,600 litres per cow per annum. The herd is usually turned out at the end of April and is back inside under the shadow of Pen Hill by the end of October.

Henry Weatherald never saw too many of the pressures experienced by today’s dairy farmers as he died young. Richard’s grandfather Harry took over and was said to be among the first in the dale to buy a tractor. Richard’s father Geoffrey took over the farm in the mid-60s with his wife Carole, before Richard and Sarah assumed control in October 1997. Sarah is from Rotherham, the daughter of a policeman and midwife. They have a daughter Amy, 16, and son Matthew, 14.

“I had an aunt visit and after showing her the riches of our farm, our lovely farmhouse and explaining how privileged we were to have the view we have she simply said ‘But Sarah, where are the shops? How do you cope?’ I told her we coped very well and we will regardless of where the future takes us.”