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Harper family gear up for their first UK Dairy Expo

Farming mid-way between the Lake District and Solway Firth, Matthew and Ruth Harper will be exhibiting at the UK Dairy Expo for the first time this year.


The Harper family, who milk 175 mainly Holstein cows at West House Farm, usually attend the UK Dairy Expo as spectators, but this year are gearing up to show at the event for the first time.


Matthew and Ruth, who farm with Matthew’s parents Susan and Michael, believe shows are a great way to advertise stock and socialise with other breeders.


Ruth, who was brought up on her parents, Allan and Christine Watson’s farm in Cockermouth, has shown cattle since she was young.


Exhibiting at Cockermouth, Loweswater and the Cumberland County Show, the family also competed at the Holstein Friesian Show in Kendall, which later became the Border and Lakeland Club Calf Show, where their calves qualified for the All Britain All Breeds calf show.


Matthew, who married Ruth in June last year, also enjoys the show scene.


“Showing allows you to gain respect from fellow breeders and dairy farmers, even if you don’t win. It is also a good form of advertising if you have stock to sell,” says Ruth.


In 2014 the couple had success at Cockermouth Show securing the champion of champions with their second calver, Miltonmains Jasper Augusta.


Augusta gained Matthew his first All Britain nomination in 2011 as a Senior heifer after it was placed third at the All Breeds All Britain calf show and second at the Northern Dairy Expo.  


This summer they also exhibited at the Border and Lakeland Club calf show, where they won the best exhibitor-bred pairs.


Their show team at the UK Dairy Expo will consist of two Brown Swiss cows and Holstein heifer Lillyhall Seaver Bonita.


The Brown Swiss are a recent addition to West House Farm, with Matthew and Ruth becoming interested in the breed after seeing them on a recent trip to Switzerland.


They run alongside the Holstein herd, which consists of Matthew’s Lambroda and Ruth’s Lillyhall prefixes, the latter established by Ruth’s parents.


Matthew was keen to see how the Brown Swiss compared with the current herd and if they suited the system at West House Farm.


Grazing and forage are key drivers for Matthew and father Michael’s business, partly due to the limited acreage and expansion opportunities.


“The farm, which rears its own replacements, is currently at maximum output in terms of stocking rate,” says Matthew.


“Due to land restrictions, surplus heifers cannot be kept on, meaning we only rear the heifers we need, retaining offspring off only the best cows.”


To expand the herd further Matthew and Michael would have to house all-year-round and bring in feed, something they are not considering at the moment.


The farm is well laid out for grazing, situated in a ring fence, with 3,800kg of the 9,328kg milk produced per cow per year coming from forage.


“Brown Swiss are known for thriving off grass, being notoriously hardy and good at walking on cow tracks. Importantly we wanted to see if they required less buffer feeding during the summer months, particularly on a wet day,” explains Matthew.


“I hope to see them hold more body condition on grazed grass and make the most of silage during the winter.”


With herd expansion limited, the Harpers are looking at different ways to maximise farm profit.

With herd expansion limited, the Harpers are looking at different ways to maximise farm profit.

One of the couple’s embryo calves secured top price red and white heifer at the black and white sale in December last year

One of the couple’s embryo calves secured top price red and white heifer at the black and white sale in December last year


The Brown Swiss duo originate from Dumfries-based Jonny Lochhead and Lancashire-based John West’s Brown Swiss Genetics UK partnership.


Bought at Beeston Castle auction in October 2014, Matthew and Ruth picked out the maiden heifer, Inspired Proud Tequila and in-calf heifer, Farrick Pays Eclipse.


With a heifer calf from Eclipse and the possibility of an another purchase at Mr Lochhead’s youngstock sale in April, the Harpers certainly see a future for the breed in their system.


Another exciting enterprise at West House Farm is the embryo work, considered by Matthew and Ruth as more of a hobby.


Although milk production is the bread and butter income for the business, the couple have already seen success in the sale ring from their embryo calves.


At the 2014 black and white sale in Carlisle in December they sold the top price red and white heifer for 7,000gns. The October 2013-born embryo calf, Lillyhall Mahogany Rox Red, was sold to Ali Cook, Dumfries. Mr Cook is taking his new heifer to the UK Dairy Expo next week and will be exhibiting alongside the Harper’s show team.


Ruth says: “The sale was a fantastic start to married life after Matthew and I tied the knot in June. We are delighted Ali will be showing the heifer at the Expo and wish him the best of luck.”


west house farm

West House Farm

  • 115 hectares (285 acres) of owned and rented land, mostly down to grass, with wholecrop grown for the milking cows
  • Staff includes Michael, Matthew and relief milker Alan Hardy, with Susan rearing all the calves and overseeing paperwork
  • Ruth, who previously worked at Carlisle mart as a pedigree clerk before moving to Cockermouth mart as office manager, also helps out on the farm
  • Milk is sold to Meadow Foods
  • Herd average is 9,328kg per cow per lactation at 4.25 per cent butterfat and 3.28 per cent protein
  • Somatic cell count is 131 and bactoscan is 13
  • Cows are fed a total mixed ration which includes silage, wholecrop and a customised blend
  • The milking herd is run in one group and topped up to yield in the ATL 16:16 parlour through a newly installed auto-ID system
  • Mattress cubicles are bedded with sawdust
  • Top third of the herd is bred to the Holstein bull, using Type classification to aid breeding decisions. Locomotion, udder support and fertility index are closely looked at when selecting bulls
  • Current bulls in use are Cashmoney, Cashcoin and Bookem
  • The rest of the cows are AI’d with the British Blue, with cross-bred calves commanding good trade at market. A Simmental stock bull is used for sweeping up

Diversification at West House Farm

To generate extra income for the family business, the Harpers have converted two empty calf sheds on the farm into five star luxury holiday cottages.


Managed by Susan, the farm is ideally placed to attract tourists, being halfway between the Lake District and Solway Firth.


Attracting visitors from all over the world, Susan believes the internet is definitely the best form of advertising.


She says: “We have a host of different people staying in the cottages. Recently some Indian farmers came to stay and thoroughly enjoyed looking at the automation on the farm, especially the parlour and calf feeding machine.”


Susan is also kept busy with visits from local primary schools. The farm is in a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme and takes part in the educational access programme. Last year the Harper’s entertained 25 school visits.


“During their day at the farm children are taught the story of milk in the specially built classroom and get a tour around the farm. They even get to milk ‘Mary the Cow’ – a big hit with both pupils and teachers,” says Susan.


“Even though we are in quite a rural area, it is surprising how little the children understand about farming and where their food comes from. Almost all of the children love their visit and are keen to learn about milk production, so the visits are very rewarding.”


As well as the holiday cottage and school visits, the Harper’s are also investing in renewable energy. Planning permission for a 500kW, 77-metre (253ft) tall wind turbine has been granted, due to be up and running this summer.


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