Chris Berry talks with Sean Myers in Rosedale.
Rosedale is without question one of the North York Moors’ most beautiful, historic and popular dales. The remnants of the iron ore industry with the likes of Chimney Bank and Rosedale East; the chocolate box village of Rosedale Abbey; and the winding stream of River Seven have long captured the hearts of visitors.
Ayrshire cows have also been as much a part of the landscape for the past 50 years since Alan Myers and his father, Sydney switched from Northern Dairy Shorthorns. Today, Low Thorgill Farm, which you find by turning off towards Thorgill half way down Chimney Bank, opposite the 16th century White Horse Farm Inn, is the home of Alan’s son, Sean, his wife, Steph and sons, Mark (12) and John (5).
‘Dad bought this farm after having tenanted Hill Farm on the other side of the river,’ says Sean. ‘The livestock was all flitted across the river rather than coming around by road. He just took a fence down and pushed them through. This was very run down. It had no electricity, no running water and just stone barns. He developed it into a dairy unit and we’ve carried on developing it.’
While the Myers’ Rosedale Ayrshires have been well known in showing circles and Alan was a prominent dairy showman, their farming enterprise includes both sheep and dairy. The farm business also includes a further farm at Hutton le Hole taken on in 2001.
‘We own 190 acres and rent 135,’ says Sean. ‘The owned acreage is all here at Low Thorgill along with another 35 rented in Rosedale. It’s a three-way partnership between my parents and I. The farm at Hutton le Hole, Wheat Ends, is tenanted and is where my parents, Alan and Joan, have lived since Steph and I were married in 2001 when we came here. We also have grazing rights for just short of 500 ewes on Spaunton Common.’
Sean currently milks 80 cows and with followers and calves the herd runs to around 130-150 at any one time. Calving is all year round with beef calves all leaving the farm by 12 weeks old sold to two rearing units.
‘We’ve stuck with Ayrshires because they are the best type of dairy cow to handle the upland dairy farming system we have here. They can handle wet, stormy days on the hills and do well on our low management, easy care system. They graze in the hills all summer and from mid-August they get buffer fed silage and concentrate. They’re inside from mid to late October dependent on weather and we feed a supplementary protein blend at the feed barrier according to yield.
‘We don’t push them. Our herd average doesn’t move much. It’s around 6200 litres but over the last three years we have managed to increase the butterfat and protein levels as ARLA is now paying on that. This year was the earliest turnout and earliest first cut silage we’ve ever had, due to the mild spring. The cows were out on April 25, instead of generally mid-May, and we had our first cut on the last day of May. Contractor Richard Strickland picks it up and brings it in for us.
‘In the past 10 years we have invested considerably in the dairy operation doubling cow numbers, although the previous two years prior to this have been a real struggle with the milk price and we couldn’t have sustained it much longer. We had to severely tighten our belts and stopped spending on anything but necessities. Fortunately the sheep were reasonably buoyant last autumn and through the winter. In the past the sheep have been a disaster and the cows have helped. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to have had nothing but the cows for those two years.’
Ever since the demise of the Milk Marketing Board in 1995, Sean and his dad have been with the same milk buyer, albeit under a different guise from time to time.
‘Our milk goes to ARLA. When the MMB finished we went to Northern Foods Milk Partnership and then to Express Dairies when they acquired Northern. We didn’t change contracts when Express was in turn bought by ARLA and now the business is farmer-owned. We are one of only five signatories that have never changed to another company. My dad called a meeting here at Low Thorgill, when the MMB was folding, and got all the dairy farmers around the area, nine at the time, and the competing dairy companies together to tell us why we should go with each of them. It was an unofficial producer group and made sure that we didn’t have four tankers from four different companies coming into the valley. Times have changed and now we’re the only milk producer left and we’re still not that big.’
One of the quirks of living in what is a tourist hotspot means that Sean has to milk in accordance with peak demands for electricity.
‘I milk from six in the morning and six at night. If I try to milk while people are using their power showers in the morning I don’t have much electricity and I can’t milk between four and six in the afternoon as that’s the peak demand for people using their electricity in making their teas, but as my dad has always said ‘It’s not what time you get up in a morning that counts – it’s what you get done between getting up and going back to bed that makes the difference.’
Sean had followed in his father’s footsteps showing his Ayrshires, but has moved away from it recently.
‘We did well at shows years ago and I was quite keen but the past two or three years of struggling through hasn’t given me the motivation to gallop about. There’s always that chance that by attending a show you may also risk TB turning up in the herd too, so health status for what is a closed herd apart from the odd bull bought in and the downturn have been the major reasons. It also didn’t help though that judges were largely on a totally different system to us and seemed to want a cow that looked more like a Holstein. We have to keep a cow that weighs no more than 500-600 kilos that can function on steep hillsides. They’re not generally after those. All cows here have been born and bred on the farm as well as an occasional homebred bull. We have an 18-month old bull off one of our better cows who has had a group of heifers and we’re just waiting for his first calves.’
Steph, who grew up in Rosedale, has been secretary for the Ayrshire Cattle Society’s Northern region for the past 11 years. She’s heavily involved with three shows at Rosedale, Ryedale and Danby looking after the fur and feather classes. Steph is also involved with school dinners at Rosedale Abbey school.
While the dairy sector is proportionately more significant then the sheep at Low Thorgill and Wheat Ends the breeding ewes are still a major part of the farm operation.
‘We have a small flock of around 30 pure Texels for pure Texel breeding, but our main enterprise is Swaledales. We have around 490 that saw the Swaledale tup this autumn and another 50 or so that saw the Texel tup. The Texels lamb in late February and early March. The Swaledales start April 15. The majority are on the moor between here and Hutton le Hole.’
Breeding quality Swaledale tups is Alan’s domain.
‘They’re more my dad’s kind of thing. We take our tups to the Swaledale Sheep Breeders’ Association’s E District sale. We’re a closed flock and just buy in tups. Dad trails about to the other district sales and will buy anything that he feels fits our standard and budget. We sell stock at Ruswarp and the annual Fadmoor Sale. We bring the ewes in for tupping and lambing.’
The Myers’ are in an HLS agreement on the moor on a roughly mile wide strip for five miles with 11 other graziers. Sean’s brother, Rob farms in Bransdale. Rob’s son, Dan has just started working with Sean as an apprentice.
‘We’ve been very active in apprenticeships and we were quite involved with the North York Moors Apprenticeship Scheme. Dan’s with us now, which is good news as in the past few years with the downturn our paid labour had to be cut down.’
Whether Sean and Steph’s sons will take over in years to come, like Sean has from Alan, is yet to be seen – but Mark may be motoring on!
‘Mark’s into motorbike trials,’ says Sean. ‘And he’s doing very well. We have a neighbour who has taken him under his wing and reckons he has what it takes to go professional. We’ll see!’