Farm of the Week: Alex is on right track with Shorthorns near Leyburn

Alex Wilkes from Long Close Farm near Leyburn with her dog Jem. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Alex Wilkes from Long Close Farm near Leyburn with her dog Jem. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
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Crossing the line usually means taking things too far but in Alex Wilkes’s case it’s simply a means of getting to her Dairy Shorthorn cows at Long Close Farm on the edge of Leyburn.

The Wensleydale Railway runs by the side of her buildings and the lane from the main road takes her over the other side of the track where she currently has 30-head of which seven are milking cows. Alex’s penchant for showing is the primary reason for them being there.

Alex Wilkes has had Dairy Shorthorns since 1989.

Alex Wilkes has had Dairy Shorthorns since 1989.

Next Saturday Alex will once again be leading the best of her Kidstones herd around the dairy ring at Wensleydale Show. Cows and showing Dairy Shorthorns have been her life since 1994 when she made her show debut at Leyburn.

Two years ago she achieved her best result to date when her cow Kidstones Lady Laura VIII was Supreme Dairy champion at Wensleydale, but breeding her own stock to show has certainly never been as simple as the cream always rising to the top.

“It was six years and twenty-one consecutive bull calves before one of mine gave birth to a heifer calf and that meant it was a lot of years before I could go to the Great Yorkshire Show with four cows and talk of them all being homebred. It was quite an achievement when I managed it, but the cows have made up for it since.

“I bought an in-calf heifer that turned out to be really good, that’s what got me going and if you’re showing one then you might as well be showing one or two more.

The cow that won Supreme at Wensleydale is the best show cow I’ve ever had.

“The cow that won Supreme at Wensleydale is the best show cow I’ve ever had. I calved her seven times and had ten calves out of her. My best placing at the Great Yorkshire was also with her when she was Dairy Shorthorn Heifer champion. I’ve never yet had a reserve or Supreme champion there.”

Having grown up in Shepley near Huddersfield, her parents both involved with textile mills, Alex moved to Hoylandswaine near Penistone when she married Matthew. They farmed Welsh pigs taken through to bacon and 300 Swaledale sheep on 36 acres next door to the Lord Nelson pub.

North Yorkshire beckoned and Alex and Matthew took to the hills at the top of Bishopdale on the south side of Wensleydale where they ran 600 Swaledale, Herdwick and Mule breeding ewes and a small suckler herd. When the couple split Alex shifted to her 16-acre Long Close Farm in 1998 taking the Shorthorn herd she was building up.

“It’s been just me and the cows ever since, and at the moment my dog Jem, who’s 10 months old and supposed to be a Parson’s terrier. My nephew Harry Davis comes and shows with me at Harrogate.

“You don’t show to make money, or at least most of us don’t, although it’s nice if you can break even and most of the time it is going to the smaller shows and picking up the prize money that helps pay to attend the bigger ones like the Great Yorkshire. I work on a much bigger dairy farm close by so that I can keep and show them.”

Alex works at the Simpsons’ Gildersbeck Farm at Melmerby just four miles away where they have a milking herd of around 500-plus.

“When I first started I was on with milking but my shoulders are well and truly shot. My role there now is to deal with the new calven cows and look after the calves side of the farm.

“I enjoy working for others and the Simpsons’ farm is just right for me. James (Simpson) says jokingly that ‘you come and go as you please and do what you want when you get here’ and he’s not far from the truth but I work hard to make sure everything is right and we get on well. The income enables me to run the cows the way I want.”

This year’s show season has proved a little trickier for Alex but she will once again be aiming to take two entries for each of the Dairy Shorthorn classes at Wensleydale where last year she was the only breed entrant, but this year there will be competition.

“I had a bit of a problem getting them in-calf last year so what should have calved by now are not due until October. I went without cows to Otley and so far this season I’ve only done Harrogate and Bingley but I always try to support my local show.

“I’ve recently bought a milk heifer from North Wales and hope to have her on show for the first time on Saturday. I’ll also aim to get to Stokesley and Nidderdale. I also get to the National Calf Show at Malvern.

“Dairy Shorthorns are generally very placid, easy to handle and great calvers. I’ve had them calve at thirteen lactations but presently I’ve nothing that has done more than four so it’s a youngish herd.”

Alex’s passion for Dairy Shorthorns was brought about when she moved to Bishopdale.

“We’d only been up there a month and when we got snowed in suddenly realised why everyone else had a house cow.

“When we got one I didn’t want ours to be a black and white and had originally thought of either Ayrshire or Dairy Shorthorn. It was some Shorthorns that came up for sale first in 1989 and I’ve stuck with them.”