Life to get a little easier for farmer after 40 years of tending cattle

Date: Friday 10th November 2017
David Dent with one of his Dairy Shorthorns
David Dent with one of his Dairy Shorthorns

A FARMER in the Upper Eden Valley is looking forward to “taking it easier” this winter after spending several hours each day milking his long-established herd of Dairy Shorthorn cattle over a period of more than four decades.

David Dent with some of his Dairy Shorthorn stock.
David Dent with some of his Dairy Shorthorn stock.
Two of David Dent’s six-week-old Dairy Shorthorns.
Two of David Dent’s six-week-old Dairy Shorthorns.

David Dent, of G. A. and D. W. Dent, Winton House Farm, Winton, near Kirkby Stephen, is in the process of selling the milking portion of his Winbrook herd, which is well known for the high quality of the animals within it and their success at numerous shows.

Two successful sales of milking animals from the herd have already been held this year at Penrith mart, with the third and final one set to take place on 14th November at the same venue. These have generated considerable interest among farmers eager to incorporate the hardiness, relatively compact size, longevity and overall ease of management of Dairy Shorthorns into their own milking herds, most of which are made up of more “modern” black and white cattle.

“The sales have gone well so far, with the top price being 2,800 guineas,” said David. “Prices were much better than they would have before the milk price started to rise, which was one reason I held off going out of milk production until now.”

He explained that he took the decision to cease commercial production for several reasons, one being that the herd, with about 65 milkers, was small by modern standards, making it uneconomic to invest large sums in any new equipment which might be required, such as milking machinery and buildings.

In particular, Winton House is an old farm, and its cattle sheds lack the space required by modern Dairy Shorthorn cows, which are bigger than were their predecessors when the Dent family first moved there from Wharton Hall, a few miles away in the Mallerstang Valley, in the spring of 1961.

It is a relatively small farm by modern standards, running to 115 acres, and the scarcity and cost of land to buy or rent makes expansion of the herd problematical.

However, David says he will welcome the chance to spend more time in bed each morning, rather than having to get up at around 5-30pm each day to check the in-calf cows and heifers and then start the first milking session of the day, with another following at around 4pm.

“The morning milking finishes at around 8-30am, then it’s time to feed yourself before starting with stocking the silage, feeding the youngest calves, clearing out the calf sheds, spreading slurry and everything else that needs to be done,” he said.

During the winter, all the herd’s 140 cattle are kept indoors, and the coldest mornings can be particularly hard work. Water sometimes freezes in the pipes in the old farm buildings at Winton House and it can take up to half a day to thaw them out.

“It has to be done, because each cow needs about 40 litres of water a day,” said David, adding that power cuts caused by heavy rain or snow also occur, causing equipment like the scrapers which clean the sheds to stop working.

He recalls that winter morning starts were even earlier, and often colder, when he first started full-time work on the farm in 1974, at the age of 16, helping his parents, George and Ella. In those days, his mother ran a milk round in the local area, including in the Mallerstang Valley and up to the cafe on Stainmore, and one of his main jobs was to help with this, starting at around 5-30am.

“It could be really tricky in winter,” he said. “We used to have to use the tractor and a transport box on some mornings, and sometimes we had to wait for the snow plough to get up on to Stainmore.”

As well as delivering milk — which was bottled on the farm — David also had to take feed up to sheep the family at that time kept on the nearby hills before starting work back at Winton House at around 10am.

However, the family gave up the milk round in 1990, and did not restock with sheep following the foot and mouth cull of 2001.

Looking ahead, David will still have around 100 cattle through the winter, plus 25 he is taking in for a neighbour, with the heifers produced on the farm kept for breeding or until ready for sale to dairy farmers, and the bullocks reared for beef. Sexed semen will be used on the best of the pedigree heifers to produce female calves rather than the less valuable males.

Additionally, David’s wife, Julie, plans to create holiday accommodation in the buildings presently taken up with bulk milk storage tanks, and David is also helping one of his two daughters, Sally, and her partner with their sheep venture.

Nevertheless, he is looking forward to the festive season with particular anticipation this year, adding: “It will be the first Christmas dinner we’ve had that doesn’t revolve around milking our cattle.”