Farm of the Week: Dairy innovators are one step ahead

If you look after your cows to a high welfare standard, they will look after you. That’s the philosophy of dairy farmer Roger Hildreth at Curlew Fields Farm in Hessay, where he and his son Tom milk a herd of 80 to 90 cows.

Roger Hildreth, 55, with his dairy herd at Curlew Fields Farm in Hessay.

As dairy farms go it’s a relatively small herd but Roger is first and foremost concerned with quality: “We’re going to keep more cows and increase the milking herd size in the future but numbers aren’t everything. It’s how you farm that’s the key. We will be at 120 or so within a couple of years through all our own homebred replacements. The young stock is already on the floor. We’ve had 33 born since last July and we’re rearing them to calve at two years.”

The Hildreths use AI for all their dairy replacements and Roger believes a rate of around 20 per cent, meaning that cows are replaced on average every five years, is about right to maintain quality of milk and quantity of production.

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“We use high type bulls with very good management traits. Our replacement rate has been as low as 15 per cent but when you get that low you tend to be milking some older and lower yielding cows. We’re back at the 20 per cent mark now and that’s where we want to be. Our cows average around 10,000 litres.”

Roger is delighted with the way in which he and Tom, 22, run the farm today, rather than where he was farming just over a decade ago in the village itself, at Laburnum Farm. He, his wife Judith, Tom and their other sons Daniel, 19, Matthew, 17, and daughter Georgina, 16, moved to the new greenfield site that has become Curlew Fields Farm, between York and Harrogate, in 2003.

“I can’t really express enough that our landlords have been fantastic. They wanted to develop Laburnum Farm into housing and I was pleased they did because I could see there was no future farming within the village. It only ran to around 100 acres and we couldn’t really move forward. We purchased this field off our landlords and it fitted in nicely with other land we owned or tenanted in the parish. We now farm around 180 acres and have everything pretty much where we want it.

“We have been very fortunate as this was always something my dad, Frank, wanted to do. I can honestly say that if we hadn’t made the move we would not have been farming now.”

The first year at the new farm proved challenging. Just at the time Roger needed it least he received a phone call from his milk buyer.

“We had moved from Milk Marque to a local family milk buyer in 1999 just after dad had passed away. Our milk price was down to 15p per litre and the figures just didn’t add up with a family to feed. The new buyer gave me an increase on what we had been getting and so we were instantly better off, but then one day in the middle of summer when this farm was just half-built I received a call saying they were going out of buying milk. All of a sudden I had a half-built farm and no milk buyer.”

Roger has been selling to Arla ever since and has became one of Asda’s dedicated suppliers. He is currently in the process of becoming an Arla Amba farmer owner. With a current milk price of 32.2ppl you might think, along with all of his other involvements with them, that everything in the garden has been rosy since his move. You’d be wrong.

“Dairy farming was in an awful situation in 2012. We were facing enormous price cuts and all dairy farmers got together to protest outside of places such as Arla, Morrisons and Wisemans.

“I went along to the first day of the Great Yorkshire Show that year. I wanted to tell the main people at Arla that this just wasn’t good enough and exactly what our situation was, but I also wanted to get to them before they were rubbed up the wrong way. I went with a fellow dairy farmer and we came out much happier that something was going to be done and it was.”

Clearly Arla were impressed by Roger’s astute approach as he was also named their Dairy Farmer of the Year that same year. Indeed, awards have come regularly to the father and son duo. They have won the Yorkshire County Milk Recording Herds title for efficiency for two consecutive years and Yorkshire Grassland Society’s award for best maize production.

“We’re firm believers in feed from forage and we take every care we can with maize and grass silage. There’s a good herd margin to be made if you get feed and feed costs right.”

The pair are always looking to run their herd more efficiently, profitably and to higher welfare standards, and were some of the first to be involved in the Asda Dairy Link programme which ran for seven years. The Hildreths never missed a meeting. “They were all about best practice in animal welfare and we have implemented over 40 changes on the farm as a result. Tom is now attending the Next Generation meetings for 21 to 30-year-olds where they are specifically looking at costs of production and increased efficiency.”

One of their latest additions to the farm is using sandbeds in the free stalls rather than straw. “I had the chance to go to the US with other Asda dairy farmers and while we were there I spoke with some of the leading names on sandbed cubicles for dairy cows. We implemented their ideas and already we have seen a dramatic improvement on mastitis resistance, cow comfort and overall cleanliness.”

Last week was a busy time at Curlew Fields Farm. Earlier in the week the family hosted the Holstein Society and last Sunday they took part in Open Farm Sunday.

“It was a great success. We had over 300 visitors and some great help from farming neighbours who came along and offered their specialist knowledge. I think the most popular element of the day wasn’t our cows but the sheep shearing demonstration. We also raised monies for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and Boroughbridge Young Farmers Club.”