Farm of the Week: Small scale dairy works just fine

John Hird and daughter Anna with his dairy herd.
John Hird and daughter Anna with his dairy herd.
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When the Milk Marketing Board ended in 1994 it was feared that the game was up for small-scale dairy farmers located too far from a milk buyer. Surely they had little chance of survival?

Andrew Dare, who led the campaign for dairy farms of all size to stick together under a new co-operative called Milk Marque, failed to win the hearts and minds of enough of them to make it work and further efforts by a renamed Zenith and then Dairy Farmers of Britain were also to no avail, leading to the latter going bust in 2009 and leaving many marooned without a milk buyer.

The facts are that when the opportunity arose to source direct from farmers the dairy companies initially offered a better price for the milk as a sweetener to meet their needs. They cast a large net at first and effectively sieved through what they wanted to keep.

Understandably their business considerations saw them being more concerned with signing up those that could supply the quantity they required for their dairies; and where the dairy farmers they signed up were situated had a bearing on keeping down the cost of haulage. These became known in the trade as milk fields and if you were outside of them you stood little chance of being taken on or receiving the premium unless you were an anomaly of being a large-scale producer able to fill a single tanker every two days.

There were other reasons why Milk Marque and its offspring would never be successful but the general feeling was that the death of the MMB signalled the end of dairy farmers like John Hird with his small herd up in the hills at Crackpot Farm, Low Row in Swaledale.

Twenty years on, John is still here milking his 27 black and white dairy cows. And yes, most small-scale dairy farmers have indeed left the industry throughout the UK as have thousands more that were milking herds of anywhere between 20 to 300 cows. The fallout has been more dramatic than any other farming produce sector but John, who is carrying on dairy farming largely the way he always has, walks his cows up and down and across the road from field to byre every day in the hamlet of Crackpot up on the north-facing hills looking down on the Swale.

“When the milk tanker came that morning in June five years ago and told us Dairy Farmers of Britain had gone bust it was the first we knew about it. We did lose money but ironically while the receivers were looking after the business we received a better price than we’d had with DFB. There was a point when we were going to pack it in as what we produce isn’t a lot and at first nobody looked as though they were interested in collecting our milk but then Milk Link came in and said they would take it. Subsequently they went in with ARLA which is who we are with now.”

John recalls all the names of those who used to milk cows from Reeth to Keld of which there were once 15, now there are just three. At one time a tanker came right down the dale purely to collect the milk from his cows and another was coming to collect milk from the other two dairy farms. Little wonder that someone went bust! But he’s happy with where he’s at now and is also involved in the new ARLA AMBA cooperative scheme.

“We’re now getting 30.5p per litre. When Price Waterhouse Coopers (the receivers) took over we were down to 10p per litre. I still think you can make a profit and this is all I’ve ever wanted to do.

“If I had to pay someone to come and help that wouldn’t work and if we didn’t have farm payments then it would be difficult too, but I like it when I get up in a morning and milk them because after that I’ve made a bit of summat. I get a good feeling about that. I milk at six in the morning and five in the evening seven days a week.

“My cows are more Friesian than Holstein. They breed a better calf and last longer. This isn’t ideal country really for them. We’re too high up and don’t have a long enough grass growing season. The cows are only out five months of the year and they average around 5,000–6,000 litres but I don’t push them for more. I work on a low input/low output system where they graze grass in the summer, eat silage in the winter and have a bit of cake when I milk them.”

John had a Friesian bull but it didn’t get him the ratio of dairy heifer calves he was looking for so he now relies on AI for his dairy herd replacement stock. He also has a Belgian Blue bull and a Limousin bull.

“I keep all the heifer calves whether they are beef or Friesian and rear them. I sell all the bull calves at Leyburn when they are four to six-weeks-old. The beef heifer calves are then bulled, calve and then we sell them with calves at foot. I sell some stock to my cousin in Baldersdale.”

The farm runs to around 115 acres at Crackpot with a further 31 acres around Gunnerside and grazing rights at Ivelet Common. The sheep operation includes 150 pure Swaledale ewes and 170 Swaledales crossed to the Blue Faced Leicester tup to produce Mule lambs.

John’s grandfather George Hird purchased Crackpot Farm in 1959. John’s father Colin came to farm at Crackpot with his wife Susan when John was two.

John, his wife Christine and their daughters Georgia, 15, and Anna, 12, have lived nearby for a number of years but moved into Crackpot Farm last week, swapping homes with John’s mother and his brother Ashley who works as both a builder and mechanic. John’s only interests outside of the farm are popping down to the local pub, although in the same way as there are less dairy farmers around there’s also one less pub at the moment.

So what does the future hold for John at Crackpot where he has farmed for the past 40 years? He’s typically matter of fact.

“As long as they keep coming for it I’ll keep milking, but I’m not going to milk forever.”