Santa Claus may not exactly have come to town yet but after two years of miserable prices dairy farmers are starting to breathe a sigh of relief as the rise that started in autumn continues.
This has certainly been the case at Pasture House, the relatively new home of Scarah Bank Farm couple Andrew and Alison Walmsley just out of Ripley where they have 195 Holstein Friesian cows.
“It’s been soul destroying at times,” says Alison Walmsley.
“Andrew has always said that if we can’t make a living out of nearly 200 cows it’s a poor do but this past year has been frightening.
“When you have meetings with the bank and you know that the figure on your overdraft is constantly growing you fear that you’re going to be told to sell up, or worse still, be made bankrupt. Fortunately our bankers, Yorkshire Bank, have been very supportive and there now appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.”
Milk prices have taken an upturn during autumn and are continuing their climb from the perilous levels experienced earlier this year when some dairy farmers only received 15 pence per litre (ppl). Andrew and Alison’s lowest price was just below 19p, with their cost of production calculated at 23p. That 4p difference equates to an annual loss and if the same price and costs had applied all year, those losses would have added up to £68,000.
“It’s a lot nicer now that we’re at 25ppl,” says Andrew.
“In all my lifetime of dairy farming I’ve never known it quite so hard as these past two years and we seriously had to consider whether we should stay milking cows, but someone once said to me if my dad had had that thought and had gone out of dairy farming when prices were below the cost of production previously where would we have been today.
“We’ve had to be so careful over cutting our costs. We’ve tried to make savings and in some ways it’s helped because we’ve found out what we can do without, but there have been things we’ve done that have not worked.
“One of the best savings we made was cutting down the yeast input. Another has been that due to our good conception rate in the cows we have been able to cut down vet visits from fortnightly to three-weekly. We’ve learned a lot and our cows are better for it.”
Five years ago Andrew and Alison invested in a new shed at Pasture House across the road from Scarah Bank Farm farmhouse where Andrew’s mother Hilda lives. It wasn’t just a new shed, they also moved to robotic milking. They have three Lely Astronaut robotic milkers. The whole exercise cost around £750,000. They received a Yorkshire Forward grant towards it but most of the investment was theirs. They benefited from decent prices for a while but then the milk price crashed.
“Scarah Bank Farm has been in the Walmsley family for 58 years. My dad Geoff passed away 10 years ago and that’s when myself and my three brothers split the partnership. We all now farm independently within a five-mile radius but only two of us, myself and John are still milking.
“My other brothers William and Peter run haylage and pig businesses. Alison and I farm 240 acres which is all grass apart from 27 acres of wheat that I grow for straw and feed the wheat back to the cows.
“The robots and keeping our 165 milking cows all inside have both been successes. The cows took to them very easily and are now averaging 3.1 milkings per day. They’ve increased their herd average by 2,000 litres to 10,000 litres a year. In retrospect the wet summer of 2011 was a Godsend because we had to have the milkers inside, then we put in the robots and didn’t want to upset their routine once they’d got used to them so they’ve never been out since.
“We rear our own heifers and have 100-plus replacements on at any one time. They go out during the summer along with the dry cows.”
Robots have changed Andrew’s lifestyle. He’s free from milking times but that doesn’t mean everything in the dairy farmer’s garden is rosy.
“Farming today is as hard now as it ever has been. We work just as many hours, but the way we do it is a lot easier on the manual side. There’s not as much shovelling and machinery has taken over so the quality of life is better. We get to spend more time with the cows and they are healthier for it. We have made a point of bringing in Genus to keep an eye on herd fertility and ensure all our cows are AI’d with semen from the bulls that suit our operation best. We go for a good udder with four well-placed teats and I like fairly thickset Holstein Friesian cows not the big bony ones. We’re not pedigree. Our cows are here to make us a living. The bull calves are generally sold to private buyers.”
The couple’s cows are now on cow mattresses and lime and sawdust bedding with slatted flooring so that slurry goes underneath. Fertility and hygiene has improved and now the price is rising. Andrew is aware of the danger posed by dairy farmers seeking to make quick money and increasing their volume.
“I’m hoping that over production won’t happen. Time is a big healer and of course the price won’t carry on climbing and stop up forever but we can’t do with another two years that we’ve just had. I think we all need to learn by what has happened, we need to be a bit more canny and recoup. I’d sooner make a few less litres at 30p than a lot at 18p. Hopefully other dairy farmers will realise that too.”
Milk from Pasture House is sold locally to Payne’s Dairies.
“We’ve been with Charlie (Payne) for many years. You can pick up the phone and chat with him and he has always worked hard for us and our fellow dairy farmers.”
Andrew and Alison have two children, Lucy, 11, and Geoffrey, 10.
Away from the farm and Andrew is vice chairman of Ripley Agricultural Show and the main ring co-ordinator for Nidderdale Show.