Farm Of The Week: Going by the book to get balance right

The Ribys of Fraisthorpe
The Ribys of Fraisthorpe
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There is a myth perpetuated by some in the countryside that farmers are not great readers, and that the only time they read quickly is when their suppliers are making out an invoice.

Geoff Riby of Low Stonehills Farm, Fraisthorpe, near Bridlington, may well fit the latter description in much the same way as many, but he’s certainly not typical of the myth.

His favourite writer is the late AG Street who died in 1966 having written around 45 books about farming. Geoff has 30 of them. Street was a farmer, author and broadcaster from Wiltshire.

“It’s amazing how many of his writings are relevant today on a different scale. The debates going on back in the 40s and 50s were how big farms needed to be to make a living. That’s the same as it is now it’s just that some of today’s small farms are what would have been regarded as large farms back then. In those days Street was comparing 30-acre farms to 250 acres and around here those who now have 250 acres are in jeopardy. We used to farm 190 acres, now we farm just over 1000 acres. It’s all a matter of scale and trying to get it right.

“He also discussed issues such as how big tractors should get and the impact they would have on the labour required on farms and on the soil itself; and that farming should be free of any subsidies.”

Finding the right balance and altering the farm accordingly to produce quality crops and livestock that meets consumer demand, and is economically viable, has been Geoff’s focus. Today his farming operation, with son Christopher, is a mix of arable, sheep and cattle.

“We own some land but most of it is tenanted. We grow winter wheat, winter and some spring barley, and oil seed rape. The winter wheats we have used in the recent past, including this year, are Scout and Alchemy.

“We try to keep up to date with varieties and to grow as much seed of our own. We’ve tried out two new ones in addition to those this harvest. I was quite pleased with Diego, but disappointed with Santiago. We are looking for crops that are free from disease so that we use the minimum amount of chemicals and come to a good bushel weight.”

Hornsea-based Steve Harrison works with Geoff and Christopher, and this year Steve’s son, Simon, also assisted during summer.

“We work as a team and make use of satellite technology through GPS. I’ve been impressed with the time it saves us on harvest.”

Geoff is a keen livestock farmer and has a passion for quality cattle and sheep. Today’s animal husbandry operation at Low Stonehills is centred on pedigree breeding. The cattle enterprise is devoted to Beef Shorthorns whilst the sheep are Suffolks and Texels. It hasn’t always been that way.

When I first knew Geoff he was a dairy farmer. He milked an Ayrshire herd that at its height was around 140, but in common with many in the UK he came out of milk. He enjoyed the cows and never wanted to leave dairying. It still rankles now even though he left the industry a decade ago.

“I miss dairy farming desperately. I miss the cows. You don’t miss having to get up early in the morning but you do miss the contact with them daily. I have that now with the Beef Shorthorns but it’s different with dairy cattle. It’s a very close relationship and if you have an eye for the right cows, which I think I had, you spend a lot of time watching where your next good one is going to come and deciding which bull to put on. But at the end of the day they weren’t making us any money.

“We replaced the dairy herd with the Beef Shorthorns and they’re going fairly well. We have 35 cows and they are easy to keep. When you’ve milked cows from 1969 to 2002 you don’t want hassle, just something that’s manageable and cheaper to run. That’s where the Beef Shorthorn fits in. It’s a maternal breed that has brought us some success.”

Showing cattle and sheep has long been a part of the Riby way of life and in 2009 Geoff’s bull Elliot Bodacious won at the Royal Highland Show and the Great Yorkshire Show. Geoff is a director of the Beef Shorthorn Cattle Society.

“Our native breeds have a significant reputation and to highlight just that we are currently selling semen internationally from Elliot Bodacious. He was originally an embryo out of an American cow and a Canadian bull.”

In February of this year Geoff sold a bull at Stirling for 7500 guineas, which went to the renowned Chapelton herd of Donald Biggar, near Dumfries.

Pedigree breeding is also the focus on the sheep enterprise with a flock of 110 Suffolks and a flock of 50 Texels. Last year the farm won the Suffolk Sheep Society’s Brook Trophy awarded for a flock of 100 ewes or more and earlier this summer the Ribys also had Reserve Male Champion Suffolk at the curtailed Great Yorkshire Show.

Christopher runs the Texel flock and has also completed another successful season. He had Reserve Male Champion at the National Texel Show & Sale and Female Champion at Lincolnshire Show.

Geoff sees the Suffolks returning to former glories as a breed. “We’ve had Suffolks for over 20 years. They had a slight downturn in popularity a handful of years ago when they became a little too rangy, but the breed put a real effort in to the carcase and they have regained the ground they lost.”

Geoff is heavily involved with the Suffolk Sheep Society, as council member for the area covering Yorkshire, Lancashire and Lincolnshire.

What causes Geoff most concern at present is wind farms. He’s not in favour of them. “I have strong feelings and it seems the new Minister for Agriculture feels the same. Firstly, I believe they are ineffective in the amount of power they produce for the cost involved and secondly, I think that the East Riding has more than its fair share of them.”

That’s one topic that Arthur George Street may not have covered in his books.