Farm of the Week: Show time for Keighley’s doorstep milk men

Raymond and William Mitchell at Grange Farm, Oakworth.  Pictures: Bruce Rollinson
Raymond and William Mitchell at Grange Farm, Oakworth. Pictures: Bruce Rollinson
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Dairy cows are making a welcome return to Keighley Show today but in common with many other dairy farms the black and whites disappeared from two of the show’s stalwarts at Grange Farm near Oakworth six years ago.

Milk continues to play an integral role in father and son Raymond and William Mitchell’s lives as it has done for decades ever since Raymond’s father Frank moved to the village back in 1937, through their doorstep delivery round.

William Mitchell and his suckler herd.

William Mitchell and his suckler herd.

“When my father started renting Cackleshaw Farm from the Duke of Devonshire it included a milk round and we bottled our own milk from 17 cows. We only had 30 acres and came up the hill in 1969 when I bought this farm, which now runs to 111 acres with 100 up here and 11 acres in Oakworth.

“We grew the herd to around 45 milking cows, carried on bottling, delivered to the village and sold wholesale.”

The family’s involvement with Keighley Show that takes place at Marley Fields has seen half a century of commitment from Raymond, his wife Rosamund, daughter Yvonne and William, who took on the mantle of show chairman six years ago.

Raymond recalls how the show came about.

“This is the 57th Keighley Show. It started when Haworth Show decided to pack up and move here. It was basically a young farmers show that Worth Valley Young Farmers organised but relocated to Keighley to bring other organisations together. I wasn’t a member of Haworth Show but used to help.

“When the new Keighley Show manager decided he didn’t want to do it again, myself and brothers Edgar and George Harker took it on as show managers. Edgar had the title of show manager but we did it together for 50 years up until six or seven years ago. It started life at Victoria Park before moving to Marley Fields in the early 80s.

“My wife was cattle secretary for 16 years and then Yvonne took over when she was 17 and did it for 32 years. She only gave up last year.”

William will be hoping that today’s weather is kind, as the show has been cancelled twice in the past decade.

“I had to cancel the show in one of those two years. It was my second year as chairman. It hurts emotionally and financially when that happens. Everyone looks forward to the show all year and then if it does have to be called off it is a real downer for everyone, costs a lot of money and gets rid of your funds.

“Fortunately Emma Patchett who was in charge of the show field had the foresight to change the layout of the show so that it makes life easier for everyone, such as the heavy horse wagons, if the weather is poor. Her new layout made a big difference.

“I’ve been involved with the show all my life. It’s part of me. It’s really great that we have dairy cattle back at the show as we’ve not had classes for them in recent years. Part of the reason for their comeback is down to our new cattle classes secretary Rebecca Stapleton whose father is Edward Fort, a very well respected dairy farmer and dairy cow showman.

“Coming out of dairy farming was a difficult decision in some ways because I enjoyed milking the cows but it was also a common sense decision as I don’t have any children, dad’s now in his 80s and I would have had to handle the milking and bottling all on my own at some point.

“If we’d kept going we would also have had to put in a pasteurising plant and for the amount it would have cost it wasn’t going to be worth us doing it. That, plus what was happening with Dairy Farmers of Britain, where I was area chairman at the time and was about to go bust were the clinchers for us.”

While William is pleased with the return of dairy cows to Keighley Show he is also more than happy with entries in all classes.

“The show has so much going for it and we have retained our agricultural roots. Our livestock classes have been steadily growing and this year we have 120 sheep entries and over 20 pedigree and commercial cattle as well as the dairy.

“We’ve also everything from alpacas to pigmy goats and our heavy horse competition is a qualifier for the national event in Peterborough.

“We’re also really fortunate to have Chris Herd as our show president this year. Chris is a butcher in Keighley and is putting a lot of effort into the show.

“Because of the show’s timing the horticulture section is particularly strong. It’s absolutely the right moment in the year for all produce from flowers to vegetables and it makes these classes some of the most competitive in Yorkshire. We’re also seeing significant growth in the poultry, rabbit and guinea pig sections and our terrier races have always been very popular.”

William switched from a dairy herd to a beef suckler herd and he now has 40 cows put to his own Limousin bull. He sells all of the calves whether bulls or heifers at around eight months and 350-400 kilos as stores at Skipton Mart.

“We have a bit of everything in the herd from Angus to Simmental, Limousin, Blonde, British Blue, Charolais and Salers. We calve in April and May. I hired a bull the first year but then bought my own.

“I can handle all of these cows on my own because they have been reared on a bucket from being calves, but suckler calves are a lot more flighty. I have kept some calves longer but it’s not as easy to fatten them up here.”

Despite the movement away from doorstep delivery that started in the 70s and 80s the Mitchells’ milk round is still holding its own.

“Ever since supermarkets started selling milk it had been on the slide but we’ve noticed a lot more younger families have started with us in more recent times, and with people not moving house as much we’ve also not lost as much too. It’s nearly all semi-skimmed these days and we get our milk from Keith Downs in Bingley.”