Ravenstonedale Kirkby Stephen Cumbria

A Nicheworks interview with David Brownrigg - Farmer

Interviewed May 2000

The Brownriggs carry 120 Charolais beef cattle and 1,000 sheep on their two farms just outside Newbiggin. The work is divided between David, his father and his uncle - no hired men.

Now at the end of May, spring calving is nearly over, with just ten out of 60 left to calve. These remaining ten have been turned out onto the fell where their only source of food is the grass - if they carry on being fed a rich diet their calves will grow too big and may cause problems come calving. Unless there are problems, calving takes place outside to try and avoid scours, an ecoli type disease which can kill young calves within hours.

This year's spring heffers will be kept out on the fells until the back end, when they are brought into buildings to fatten up over the winter months. When they are about 18-24 months old they are sent to the abbattoirs.

The bulls stop on their mothers until they are about 8 months old and then they are separated and live as a small group of about 30 inside until they are about 12-18 months old, weighing perhaps 500-600 kilos a piece. Much of the Brownrigg's stock is bought by ASDA and a wagon had been that morning to take a group to York for slaughtering. Leaving the farm at about 9am, the process would probably have been completed by about 12 noon, the bulls' journey kept to the absolute minimum. When the wagon arrives, each bull has to be held in the cattle crush, have his tags checked against his passport (which includes details such as size number, dam number, date of birth), inspected all over, cleaned off and loaded carefully onto the wagon.

Having always been on the wary side when crossing a field of cows I was not comfortable about going into the shed with 30 grown bulls, even though David assured me that they were as soft as ****. 'Give them half an hour and they'll come up and lick you,' he reassured me!

They are left entire and live as a peaceful group. They are mucked out once a day, which takes about half an hour, fed and checked. Their diet consists mainly of waste bread (past sell-by date bread discarded by supermarkets and then processed and distributed to wholesalers). This product is becoming increasingly popular (particularly in these leaner times), not only because of its low price, but also because it serves as an excellent base with which to mix sugar beet and silage. As the bulls approach optimum weight the silage and sugar beet content is reduced.

It is important for the bulls to be kept indoors once they reach a certain age - not only does this avoid the meat becoming tough, but it would also create havoc to have 30 or so potentially active bulls loose on the fells! Not only this, but from a practical point of view it is preferable to bring the bulls indoors before the winter body hair starts to grow - hairy cows get dirtier and become much harder to keep clean. Dirty cows are more prone to disease and when it comes to selling time every cow has to be spotless before it reaches the abbattoir.

The Brownriggs run about 1,000 ewes, which is the maximum they could carry on inside ground in the winter, because being boulder clay and peat the land becomes pretty wet, unlike in limestone areas. About 500 Swaledale ewes live on the fells and wander for miles over Green Bell, grazing. All livestock is checked daily, sheep can fall and lie stranded on their backs in a dip, suffering a long, lingering death if not found. The gimmer mule lambs are taken to Lazonby or Kirkby Stephen in the back end and are bought for breeding. Last year a good gimmer mule fetched just 31 pounds, the year before nearer 70 pounds. Farmers have had to face a loss in earnings of over 50%. The knock-on effect is devastating: farm machinery is not being replaced, just repaired over and over again, fewer and fewer hands are being employed to work on farms, jobs are disappearing in every area of agriculture, and fewer and fewer young men and women are choosing to come into farming.

For farmers like the Brownriggs, raising livestock for meat, one of the major issues at the moment is the way in which supermarkets are being allowed to rake in the profits. 'Farmers markets would work well for our beef,' says David, 'it is home born, home grown, nearly home butchered, but it is a question of time. It takes all our time, the three of us, to work the farm, without the added worry of preparing cattle for butchering, packaging the meat and manning a stall. Also, in an area like this, there is a limit to the amount of meat that people want to buy - the money made from a stall would not cover the extra cost of a hired man'.

Caring for their livestock demands great patience and a genuine respect for the beasts, but the work does not end there: stone walls have to be maintained and, unless you are in the ESA or Countryside Stewardship Scheme and receiving grants, the work has to be paid for, so the Brownriggs tend to do this work themselves as a way of economising; machinery has to be serviced; buildings require attention after winter storms; muck and slurry have to be dealt with

With cattle being kept inside for the winter and some of the summer there is a vast amount of muck and slurry to dispose of - a natural fertiliser. A job not relished by farmer nor appreciated by passers by muck spreading and slurry spraying is an avoidable part of our countryside, particularly on fine, dry days, winter or summer. David admitted that the main reason for choosing a crisp, frosty day in winter was because the ground would be firmer, avoiding the tractor sinking.

The muck from the sheds is piled high and regularly loaded into a rotar spreader or big bed spreader, where it is chewed up, ready to be towed out behind a tractor to the fields and dispersed. The liquid waste collected in the sheds drains into a slurry pit, from where it is pumped into a slurry tower. From here it is piped into the vacuum tanker, towed out to the fields and is blown out. Up to 220,000 gallons can be sprayed onto the silage fields at any one time, depending on how full the slurry tower has become.

Returning to the farm from the fells we passed a very large mound of muck - 'That's an awful sight,' moaned David, 'That's all for me to shift in the next few days.'