Farm of the Week: Drama in dairy lasts more than a decade

Neville and Cath Kitching, and son Will, at Summerfield Farm, Ingleby Cross near Northallerton.
Neville and Cath Kitching, and son Will, at Summerfield Farm, Ingleby Cross near Northallerton.
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WHEN THE YORKSHIRE POST first published its weekly rural affairs pull-out, Country Week, ten years ago, one of the first Farm of the Week stories featured the Kitchings of Summerfield Farm, Ingleby Cross near Stokesley.

They’d put up a new shed for their expanding dairy herd just three years previously and had invested heavily in a new milking parlour.

Neville Kitching was increasing the herd steadily year on year from what had been 35 cows. He and his wife Cath had three school age children and their youngest William, seven, already knew that he wanted to follow his father as the sixth generation to farm where Robert Kitching had come to in 1843.

It was a time, as it is for many young families, of great happiness, treasured memories and of working hard to build a secure future.

Ten years on and the smiles they had back then are still there even though Cath points out that it’s a case of only just managing to smile given the present situation. The recent drop in nearly every dairy farmer’s monthly milk cheque, fuelled by their milk price dropping from 32.6 pence per litre to today’s 23 pence has taken its toll and Neville is finding whatever ways he can of keeping their dairy farm afloat.

Neville tells of how the farm has changed and what he’s trying to do to keep it on the right course: “We currently have 178 Holstein Friesian cows in the herd with 153 milking at present. It has been a gradual rise over the past ten years.

“We’d made the decision to specialise in dairy farming back in 2003. When my father was alive (William Leslie Kitching passed away in 2002) we had 550 Suffolk and Mule ewes; the 35 cows were milked in an old abreast parlour; we grew cereals and root crops across our 180 owned acres, and were also fattening cattle. Up until last year we still had sheep, as we ran an early lambing flock of 160 Dorset X ewes crossed to the Charollais tup in partnership with my cousin Andrew Breckon but we have finally come away from sheep altogether.

“The farm is now all grass. We had bought another 20-plus acres just after dad died which means we own just over 200 acres today, plus we rent a further 100 acres. We sometimes grow stubble turnips as a break for the grass.

“I understand why the milk price is where it is through over-supply and issues such as Russia not buying from Europe but supermarkets using milk as a loss leader isn’t helping. Dairy farmers can’t run at a loss all the time and we always seem to get a kicking when everybody else has trouble. I was in Middlesbrough two weeks ago promoting British products and awareness of the Red Tractor logo and the feedback we received was that people wouldn’t mind paying a bit more for their milk.

“In the meantime we’re trying to reduce our costs wherever we can without affecting quality. We’ve been doing that for the past three or four years but we’re looking even closer at the moment. When the price has dropped previously it perhaps hasn’t had as great an effect as it has now because everything else has never been quite so expensive.

“One of the things we’ve done is put up another shed so that we can buy feed in bulk by the artic load. That was another large expense but we may save between £20-£30 per tonne and the building should then pay for itself within four years.”

It’s these kind of hidden expenses that others don’t see. In order to save money Neville is having to invest even more and to the outside world that only sees a herd of black and white cows in a field the notion of further investment while under extreme pressure might seem somewhat foolhardy. Nonetheless Neville knows that cutting corners is just as bad.

“I’ll get the cows out as soon as I can but we won’t put them out until the grazing is right. Last year they were out by March 10 and so long as they are not damaging the land they will be out again if the conditions allow.

“We calve all year round and as well as using sexed semen on the heifers and the top 20 per cent of the cows we also have an Aberdeen Angus bull and will shortly have a Beef Shorthorn bull too. Until now the beef calves we have been producing have been an extra income like the cream on top, but now they are supplementing our loss of income.”

The Kitchings’ biggest problem in the past ten years, other than the present situation, came when they switched from supplying Arla and went with a local dairy. They felt it was right to support another local business but things quickly turned sour with non-payment.

Charlie Payne of Payne’s Dairies came to their aid, much to their relief and they are still grateful today.

“He was an absolute star and even paid us weekly by BACS for a while to help us out,” says Cath. “We have had quite a journey since we started planning everything 12 years ago. We invested in extending the parlour three years ago, putting up a new shed of 140 cow cubicles the year before last and the new feed shed last year. We’ve reinvested because of William being so keen and it has been a pleasure to work towards it but now that the milk price has crashed it does make you wonder whether it has all been worth it.

“William works extremely hard too. He attends Askham Bryan College on day release, has worked for other farms and with a local contractor leading bales and silage. He’s as keen as ever and we’re still hopeful of extending the herd further to 200 cows.”

One of the other developments in the past decade has been employing local man Dan Sayers. Cath is hopeful that in better times and with both William and Dan on the farm she and Neville will be able to pursue other family ambitions.

“Neville has worked incredibly hard and it would be nice to think that we are still young enough to do other things. I’d like to travel to Australia to see my family and go to New Zealand so we can see how dairy farming works over there.”