Injection of young blood proves timely

The Robinson family
The Robinson family
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At just 19, the new manager of Cowside Farm should do some good to the statistics on average age in the industry. Neil Ryder met him and his family.

EVERYONE seems to be worried about the average age of farmers, so Jonathan Robinson can be counted a bit of good news.

Aged 18, and fresh from his A levels, he started this summer as manager of his family’s moorland farm near Settle. Even now he is just 19, after a birthday at the beginning of September.

In many ways it is a case of the family story coming full circle as his father, Alec Robinson, was brought up at Cowside Farm, also as the youngest of four brothers, and took it over after each of his elder brothers had been helped to start farming on their own account.

Nowadays, Alec and his wife, Mandy, are based at New Hall, Staveley, near Kendal, where they have 400 acres (161h) of gentler upland at about 400ft (122m) above sea level.

Cowside is higher, rising to 1,000ft (161ha) but also larger, with 750 acres (304h) plus 300 sheep ‘gates’ – meaning grazing rights ownerships, accumulated over the years – on Ingleborough and Clapham commons. Alec Robinson believes in giving his boys responsibility early. The eldest of Jonathan’s three brothers, 23-year-old Martin, is already running New Hall on a day-to-day basis.

The next eldest brother, Daniel, is a kitchen fitter, and the one behind him, Philip, is studying Rural Enterprise and Land Management at Harper Adams University College and hoping to have a career in sporting estate management.

The appointment of Jonathan at Cowside means Alec, 46, can concentrate on administration for both farms, which are run as one business.

Between them, they share about 160 pure Salers suckler cows plus in-calf heifers and some 140 store cattle sired by Salers or Charolais. The sheep enterprise has so far been based on 300 Swaledale ewes, belonging to Martin, and 500 home-bred North Country Mules, belonging to Alec, which are grazed across both holdings. But Jonathan is buying some stock of his own with the aim of producing Suffolk-on-Mule lambs “just for the satisfaction of selling my own”.

For the time being, he is driving from the family home at Kendal to Cowside. But after a bit of work on the farmhouse at the Settle end has been completed – in the next couple of weeks, he hopes – it will be his residence for most of the week.

He has spent the summer making a start on walling, fencing and gate repairs – a job which stretches ahead for as far as he can see – and preparing housing for some of the Salers, which he will look after for the winter. Even his rugby and cricket are on hold until he is on top of the job.

He said this week: “Most people going to university were looking for a year off after A levels, but I decided I wanted to finish and get straight into farming. I like the range of jobs and the challenge.

“I’ve tried other jobs, like waiting on tables and working behind a bar, and I do like talking to people. But I feel cramped up being inside and I prefer to make my own decisions about what I do when. It’s not so much a job as a lifestyle. I’ve done my trailer-driving test and I can keep taking courses as and when I need to. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything – although I have been a bit taken aback to discover how hard it is going to be to get a proper internet connection up here.”

Father Alec remains on hand to help and advise. He said: “Cowside is not an easy farm, both because of the terrain, but also because I built up the farm by buying pieces of land as and when they became available, making for a relatively fragmented unit.

“Against, that the whole farm is under the HLS environmental scheme and there are a number of SSSIs so the payments for these help provide a financial cushion for the farm business.

“As part of the agreements, we use our Salers cattle for conservation grazing at Cowside during the summer. Until now we have brought them all back to New Hall for winter housing but Jonathan can now take responsibility for some of them.

“One way or another, Cowside has always made a profit and Jonathan and all the boys grew up seeing how it was done and helping out, so it is not like he is being thrown in at the deep end without knowing how to swim.

“It is important the next generation should be able to make their own decisions.”

As on many farms in this part of the world, the present farm system was developed in the aftermath of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic. A previous suckler herd based on Belgian Blues and Limousins had had calving difficulties and Alec took the opportunity for a rethink.

He said: “First and foremost this is a commercial farming business and we have no ambitions for pedigree breeding, although there are pedigree cattle in our suckler herd

“I went on the internet to look for a suckler cow that would meet our needs and found some American Salers sites and, among other things, noted that the Salers had one of the widest pelvic widths of any breed, making for extremely easy calving.

“We noted that the Salers was an upland breed and ours are upland farms. Then we saw Salers at the Great Yorkshire Show and decided this was the breed that would suit our needs.

“We found they were easy to manage, which was also important for us, and went on to buy two complete herds.

“By sheer luck we happened to see Salers teamed with a Charolais bull and saw that this cross produced the type of calves we needed.

“We calve about two thirds of the cows in May and the rest in early June, before taking them up to Cowside. The timing works well for us in that the cows calve outside on good grass, which suits the breed, and it also means calving does not start until lambing is over.

“About 30 of our best Salers females are bred pure, to produce replacement heifers, and the remainder go to the Charolais.

“All the cattle are in-wintered, on slats or in cubicles, from about mid-November through to late April, depending on conditions. Winter feed is purely home grown silage plus minerals. Both farms produce silage and hay.

“Apart from any retained for breeding, all calves are over-wintered and then sold in spring at about 10 months. Last year our bull calves sold through Skipton to average £830.

“Our heifers mostly go through Kendal market and averaged £660. Apart from silage, the calves for sale have a little bought-in ration to help them reach the best condition for sale. We have used Dugdale’s feed for over 30 years.”