Ask any farmer what affects them most and a mix of what is often felt to be overbearing red tape, the weather, poor prices for stock or grain and currently the no man’s land they inhabit in not knowing what will happen due to Brexit are bound to be up there.
Dairy and sheep farmer Nick Houseman isn’t griping about any of it, but has faced up like many others to a tough past six months and more due to one of those on that list.
Fortunately Nick, in common with his farming colleagues, has a firm grasp on the realities of farming and a positive attitude that has always stood him in good stead for what life throws his way.
Nick, his wife Julie and son John have a dairy herd of 150 Holstein Friesian cows and flocks of 220 Swaledale breeding ewes put to the Blue Faced Leicester tup and 60 Mule breeding ewes put to the Texel tup at their Prospect Farm base on Lindley Moor, near Otley, where they have 200 acres. The overall farmed acreage including owned and rented land runs to 540 acres with other land at Blubberhouses and Hardisty Hill.
It is the weather since last summer that has caused Nick greater consternation than anything else. It’s not just the problems that are caused over having to buy in feed, grass not growing as quickly as it should and not being able to turn out cows at the customary time, it’s a combined physical and psychological challenge for farmers especially as the past eight and a half months have been for Nick.
“It has been evil,” says Nick. “I’ve known it colder and wetter, but it has been relentless since August last year. The weather since then has been the worst I’ve known for such a prolonged period in 51 years of farming. We’ve had short stints of poor weather many times but never as it has been. Lambing time was particularly evil and the parlour was often freezing up as we were milking.
“Others will have experienced the same, so I’m not saying we are the only ones by any means and we’re not complaining as you just have to get on with it, but I hope we don’t have to experience another.
“We missed out on cuts of grass at Prospect Farm and Blubberhouses and that has meant we’ve had to supplement our feed with maize silage bought in from another farm in the county. Our cows are not turned out yet. They’d normally be out in the first week of May. Although we’ve had good weather this past week or so, which has been welcome we need the grass to grow so we can get our first cut before putting them out.”
The Housemans have faced up to challenging times in the past and new challenges sometimes appear out of left field as has their latest. The rerouting of the A59 due to bisect their land at Blubberhouses will force changes to the farm operation, although much like Brexit, John hasn’t yet been informed of its intended route either.
“There have been problems with the road in the past and people will remember the road being closed as a result of a landslip a few years ago. The council are now doing away with the road at Kexgill and plan to take the road one of nine possible routes. I know which I’d prefer them to take.”
Nick is the third generation to farm at Prospect following on from his granddad Jess and dad George. The Houseman name is extremely well known throughout Nidderdale and Wharfedale and George was Jess’s son-in-law that saw a Houseman marrying a Houseman when he married Nick’s mum, Mary.
Dairy farming has been the hub of the family’s existence throughout Nick being at the helm. The Holstein Friesians have a herd production average of around 9000 litres and Nick is introducing some Fleckveih breeding. Nick looks after the morning milking at 6am with Julie generally in charge at 4.30pm afternoon milking if she’s not otherwise engaged with her catering business.
The vagaries of the milk industry since deregulation from the Milk Marketing Board over 20 years ago have seen a rollercoaster ride for many and the Housemans continue to hold on to it.
“We were with Dairy Farmers of Britain when it went bust and that made a right mess of us for a short while, but a change of accountants helped us. We then moved to First Milk but that didn’t work out, so we joined Arla and now supply Morrisons through them. When the milk market went sour we were at around 18-19 pence per litre but it has pulled back since and we had 31ppl last back end. It’s currently at just over 27ppl. That 4ppl makes a lot of difference and allowed us to invest in putting in a new silage pit, putting up a new building, buying a tractor and a new bulk milk tank.”
Nick’s days of buying a trailer load of 40 ewes as replacements for his Swaledale flock is on the wane.
“John’s not a sheep man and I’m now 67. By the time the current crop has worked itself out I’ll be over 70 so we won’t have sheep in the way we have them now. I sell most of my stock whether lambs or calves or older sheep or cows at Wharfedale Farmers Auction Mart in Otley.”
Julie has run her catering business for 29 years and she will be working hard at Otley Show next Saturday where Nick is the show president.
“Julie is busy weekend after weekend with weddings and special events. I’ve been on the sheep committee at the show for many years.
“We’re the first show in the season and for exhibitors to get livestock in great condition by this time of year is something I’ve always believed is a tremendous achievement.”
Nick, Julie and John are also firm believers in the young farmers’ movement.
“Young Jacob Ryder, a local lad, has done really well in the society’s stockjudging classes that took place last week when four clubs were represented. We have all been involved with Farnley Estate YFC and I’ve never missed a young farmers’ club event in my life. It’s such a great thing for the future of farming whichever direction we are led.”