Continued investment in the British Friesian breed has enabled one North Yorkshire family to grow its farming business.
While the Howarth family has tried most dairy breeds, it has found nothing to beat the British Friesian, which remains at the heart of an expanding enterprise.
Sam Howarth farms with his wife, Wendy, son Jack, and daughters Sally and Rosie near Pickering, North Yorkshire, running 550 British Friesian cows and 900 followers, currently across two holdings.
Originally from Halifax, where his parents had a smallholding, Mr Howarth took a job milking cows near Pickering after studying at Myerscough College, but when milk quotas came, he was made redundant and went to Australia to work.
But with the country in the midst of a drought, there were no farming jobs and he spent two years working as a taxi driver in Sydney.
He says: “I became the highest paid taxi driver in Sydney as I was prepared to work all hours, seven days a week, whereas most of the Australians did not want to work full-time.”
He returned home for a holiday in 1988 and did not go back, buying a milk round and marrying Wendy, whom he first met two weeks before going to Australia.
They started processing the milk from her family’s dairy farm in Wilton, where they still live, for the milk round, as well as continuing to help run the farm.
After selling the milk round in the late 1990s, they bought their own arable farm five miles away with the aim of converting it to a dairy and the 80 cows from Wilton were moved there in 2003.
In 2006, the decision was taken to go organic and a contract secured with Dairy Farmers of Britain.
Mr Howarth says: “Soon afterwards, they went bust, which put us back £50,000 and then the recession started. We would have come out of the organic scheme, but would have had to pay back the conversion grants so we carried on, increased numbers and I started to get my head around the organic principles.
“Gradually, the organic market share increased and the price improved and demand has continued to grow. Our milk now goes to Arla on an OMSCo milk swap to Muller in Gloucester and we are paid on fat and protein, so that is what we focus on breeding for, along with maintaining the robustness and longevity of the breed.”
Foundation breeding stock came from leading herds, including the Black Isle herd. Mr Howarth says:
“We did try crossing with Holsteins, but they did not suit our system and we did not have the facilities to get the best out of them.
“As we expanded further, we tried other breeds – Jerseys, Ayrshires and Brown Swiss, but they did not last.
“Sally now has a few Holsteins, but otherwise, for the last 15 years we have had nothing but pure registered British Friesians.
“They are a robust, easy care cow which gives a reasonable yield."
Cows are expected to last six or seven lactations and are fed the minimum of concentrate in the parlour and self-feed grass silage from the clamp, which has made huge savings in time and fuel costs.
Heifers calve at two years old and sexed semen is used on heifers and some cows.
The Howarths operate a simple system, aiming for low inputs and high margins, block calving in spring and autumn.
Mr Howarth says: “We run a traditional British system.
“There is nothing new about block calving and paddock grazing, things have just gone full circle.
“Years ago, mixed family farms in this area would finish harvest and then start calving in autumn.”
About 70 per cent of cows are served to Friesian bulls and the lower end to the Aberdeen-Angus, mostly by AI, but two Angus sweeper bulls and one Friesian stock bull are kept. Calves are reared in hutches, initially in groups of six, then moved to bigger groups as they get older.
All male calves are castrated, grazed and finished at two years old.
The Angus go to Dovecote Park and the black and whites to Dawn Meats.
Mr Howarth says: “We get a good premium for the Angus, but not as good for the Friesians, but they do produce a good carcase and they will all finish off grass. The beef cattle are the 13th milk cheque.”
As cow numbers increased, all the land was put down to grass to provide enough forage, but as more land has been acquired, there has been the opportunity to grow some cereals and, for the last two years, 81ha (200 acres) of spring barley has been grown which is crimped and fed to youngstock and finishing cattle.
About 4ha (10 acres) of kale is grown for outwintering dry cows and bulling heifers.
Mr Howarth says: “We did grow fodder beet, but stopped growing it because of problems with docks. In grass we control weeds with a vigorous and thick sward and topping.
“We are looking to grow more brassica crops in the future to contain costs, as it is easier on labour and straw which is one of our biggest costs, although all the muck goes back on to the land and is the main source of potash and phosphate and we can grow 10-12 tonnes of dry matter to the hectare.
“A mixed farming system works because the muck is returned to growing crops.
“We have grown more grass since we became organic than we did before, which is down to better management, more cows and more muck, which has improved the structure of the soil.
“Normally, we take three cuts of silage, but for the last two years, we have been experimenting with four cuts to improve quality.”
The Howarths operate a paddock system with cows going on to fresh grass after every milking.
Each paddock has two gates and is accessible from the main track.
Mr Howarth says: “The furthest paddock is 1.7 miles from the parlour, so they do a lot of walking, but we have put down concrete sleepers and some artificial grass to improve the track.”
The aim is to get cows out by March 1, but hopefully it may be a little sooner this year if the good weather continues.
The main grazing platform is late heading perennial rye-grass with white clover, some of which has been down for more than 10 years. Most of the silage ground is perennial rye-grass with red clover, which is reseeded every three or four years.
Mr Howarth says: “We are trying to incorporate spring barley into the rotation by following the red clover with two crops of spring barley to make use of the nitrogen fixed by the clover and then putting it back to red clover.
“Most of the land is quite heavy, meaning it does not dry out too much in summer although it did last year and the cows were dried off early, sacrificing milk production to forage stocks for winter.”
As with many dairy farms, Mr Howarth says finding staff is an issue compounded by it not being a dairy area.
He says: “Most of the staff just work two or three days on a regular rota, but they are long days and we find it easier to get women to milk than men, with most young people just wanting to sit on a tractor.”
Mr Howarth says: “If family farms are to be successful they have to expand for economy of scale which is what we have tried to do, ploughing everything back into the business, which has enabled Jack and Sally to work here full-time and Rosie part-time.
he expansion is continuing with the addition of another 136ha (340 acres) at Whenby, 22 miles away. The plan is to put a parlour on the new site and move the spring calvers there with the aim of running about 700 cows in total.
Mr Howarth says: “Currently we are keeping all replacements but we have sold heifers in the past. We also sell about six pedigree bulls a year, either at Carlisle or privately.
Mr Howarth was chairman of the British Friesian Breeders Club until last year and is now president elect.
He says: “There is increasing interest in the breed and a huge demand for semen. With herds getting bigger and increasing staffing problems, there is a growing trend for robust, easy care cows and many people are crossing them on to Holstein cows.
“The biggest problem the breed is facing is that the bloodlines are getting narrower and we are constantly trying to find an outcross, sometimes using semen which is up to 40 years old.
“The AI companies are keen to promote genomic bulls, but genomics are not accurate for Friesians as there is not a big enough base population.
Nowadays, the Howarths usually just show at the National British Friesian show at Dairy Expo at
Carlisle and the All Breeds All Britain calf show at Peterborough, although when the children were younger they competed at a lot of the local agricultural shows.
Mr Howarth says: “Friesian breeders are spread all around the country and unfortunately, TB is stopping a lot from the south west doing much showing, but they do get good entries at Dairy Expo where we are well looked after for the national show.
“We will be taking three or four there as it is a good shop window for us, particularly as we sell bulls at Carlisle.”