Wind turbines are a hot topic at the moment. Ben Barnett meets with one farmer who is making it work.
At 1,050ft above sea level it would have been foolish for dairy farmer Jonathan Sharp to dismiss the potential for making wind power pay on his farm.
Tewitt Hall Farm’s location on the tops outside Oakworth, near Keighley, is stunning. On a clear day you can see as far as Ingleborough, Pen-y-ghent, Ilkley Moor and Wakefield and it’s a clear and sunny afternoon as Jonathan drives us 500m from his farmhouse over the brow of a hill to take a look at the latest addition to his farm – a wind turbine measuring 34m to the tip of its blades in a position where the average wind speed is in excess of 6.3m per second.
The arms of the turbine turn at a continually steady pace generating a noticeable hum when stood at its base, a sound which diminishes greatly within a couple of hundred metres. It stands sentry among Jonathan’s 200 acres, alongside a former quarry now filled with trees and ponds, and fields of high-sugar grass and oats which are used as silage to feed his 125-strong herd of pedigree Holstein cattle whose milk is supplied to Asda.
Jonathan, 43, lives on the farm with his wife Emma and is an award-winning dairy man having last year scooped Best Junior Cow in Yorkshire in the Yorkshire County Milk Recording Herd Competition. The contest involves judges visiting farms across the county to score the animals based on how they look.
A wind turbine came into the equation when Jonathan realised he was working his land at full capacity. Driven by a need to add value to his operations, especially given the margins currently achievable for dairy farmers who maintain they are underpaid for what they produce, a green energy solution beckoned and one which would see him knock a substantial sum from his electricity bill and generate income by selling power back into the National Grid.
The installation of a phone mast on his land had already provided one additional source of income.
Explaining his dilemma, Jonathan says: “The cubicle sheds and parlour are already close to their full capacity so we’d need to invest heavily in new housing and milking facilities if the herd was to expand. As well as the up-front capital this would require, I’d also need to take on additional labour which would instantly erode any extra income.”
It was his milk buyer, Asda, that suggested he should consider investing in wind power.
“They were keen for me to reduce my farm’s carbon footprint as it reflects well on their own green credentials.
“Wind speeds have averaged almost 7.5m per second since the turbine went up and we have seen an uplift in income without the addition of any more cows to the dairy herd.”
Based on current levels of production, the turbine will pay for itself in as little as five years through Feed-in Tariff (FiT) payments and exported electricity sales, he says.
“After that, it will continue to earn a good income for the farm for at least another 15 years, without the need for any labour. In the meantime, the turbine is also being used to power the milking parlour and farmhouse which has helped to cut our electricity bill by approximately £500 per month.”
Jonathan says it took longer than expected to obtain consent but he is glad he made the £300,000 invest to install the turbine as it’s reduced his electricity bill by two-thirds. “Our location in the Brontë hills meant we had to be careful not to create an eyesore so we ended up moving the proposed site slightly downhill from its original location to make the top of the turbine less visible from neighbouring properties.
“The whole installation and commissioning process took less than three weeks which meant we were able to beat a deadline after which FiT payments from the Government were reduced from 25p per kilowatt to 21p.” Since its installation, the turbine has generated more than 121,000 kilowatts of electricity.
Jonathan keeps track of its progress via data sent to his laptop. He can even check in on the readings using his mobile phone, something that’s become a minor obsession, he says.
Jonathan is the third generation of his family to run Tewitt Hall. Frank Sharp, his grandfather and a dairy farmer from Airton near Malham, bought the farm in 1947. At that time, where the farmhouse is now, was Tewitt Hall.
Built in 1859, the hall had a 50ft tower and Jonathan’s records show it was built by a couple named Israel Thornton and his wife, Rose, who employed two servants, farmed some 218 acres on what had been moorland before they vacated the site in 1881.
From the photographs Jonathan shows me, the original hall was an impressive sight. Sadly in 1977, racked with damp, most of the hall was demolished. In the years that followed and with a young Jonathan and his parents Peter and Noëline then living there, parts of the hall were slowly restored and added to with new buildings. With his parents running the farm, the family kept a small dairy herd.
When Jonathan left school the family was milking 90 cows and he joined his father working on the farm. The pair still work together and next up on the agenda is automating the milking process by investing in robotic technology.
“We know these cows could give a lot more milk but they would need milking three times a day so I’m looking at robots. With robotic milking I should be able to get a 10 per cent increase in yield and up to 10,000 litres per cow a year. In a normal year I produce just short of 1.1m litres. In Keighley, Asda sells 1.4m litres. I’d love to put two robots in and produce all the milk for Asda in Keighley.”
Jonathan’s mantra is simple: make the most of what you’ve got.
“A friend of mine has this saying and it’s that you have to decide whether you have to be the best farmer you can be in which case you move to wherever you need to be or you be the best farmer you can be on the land you have and on a day like this there’s nowhere better.”