The Lancashire twins who followed their dream of becoming farmers
PUBLISHED: 11:21 02 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:22 02 August 2018
A Lancashire couple sold up their home and their business so their sons could become farmers
On Throstle Nest Farm, Holstein cows are out on pasture under a bright mid-day sun. The Pennine Way leads through the jade green hills of this farm where dairy cows are busy relaxing in order to produce their best milk.
It may seem like a perfectly normal bucolic scene but there is an important difference. In an age when many farmers are quitting and few youngsters are prepared to take their place, Lancashire twins Robert and David Staveley, without an agricultural bone in their bodies, were determined to farm from being small boys.
Their father, Michael, was a pharmacist in Padiham, but the Staveley boys had different aspirations. ‘When you’re born into a farming area, you want to know what’s going on, and maybe become part of it,’ says David. ‘As kids, we knew who passed by our house by the sound of the tractors.’
The boys started working on farms in their home village of Pendleton and got to drive the tractors themselves, and after secondary school went to Newcastle University to study agriculture. ‘We always just wanted to farm. We left university and straight away bought cows,’ says Robert.
Their parents not only gave them their blessing but made the ultimate sacrifice – they sold up their business and house in the Ribble Valley so their sons could all move into their first farm, near Kendal in 1994. Their mum, Val, says: ‘It was a leap in the dark and some people thought we were brave; others might have thought we were crackers. Perhaps some people were also a little envious.
‘They were always so keen – when they were youngsters, Pendleton had nine farms and the boys were always helping out and learning what to do. I never saw them unless they were going past on a tractor. When the time came, we insisted they went to university to have a piece of paper to prove they knew what they were talking about.
‘Now, I’m very proud of them. It hasn’t been about having a silver spoon – they have worked extremely hard to be successful.’
The Staveleys, now 45, bought 30 Holstein in their first year, 15 the next, and then started breeding their own dairy herd.
They soon needed a bigger farm and in 2000 they ended up purchasing the very farm where they had bought their first cows. ‘We needed more land as we were fast outgrowing our starter farm, but we also wanted to move closer to home,’ says David.
Farms in the Ribble Valley were too pricey so the family settled just over the border near Eshton in the Yorkshire Dales – a good compromise. Today, their dairy herd consists of roughly 160 animals, and is closed. No new cows are brought in and no bulls. All breeding happens through artificial insemination and calving takes place throughout the year to ensure a continuous milk supply.
Their herd is pedigree and each cow’s genetic make-up entered into a database. A potentially matching bull’s profile is put through the computer to see how it lines up with the Staveleys’ cows to ensure healthy genetic diversity.
When Foot and Mouth disease hit in 2001, the Staveleys kept their fingers crossed while listening to the culling shots ringing thorough the valley, as all their neighbouring farms were affected. ‘Losing animals was hard enough for farmers but losing years of breeding was heart-breaking. We were very lucky,’ reflects David, who is married.
The two brothers have different roles. ‘With only the two of us, there’s no time for long discussions,’ they agree. They did talk about a recently implemented change, however – switching from milking parlours to milking robots. ‘The cows are more relaxed than ever before,’ says Robert. ‘We now have to drag them out onto pasture even on a sunny day.’
In the past, milking meant three hours in the parlour twice a day. Now the cows walk into the robot enclosures on their own, sometimes more than twice a day and, instead of a farmer manually attaching the cluster of the sucking mechanism, the robot attaches itself to a cow’s teats.
An atmosphere of calm reigns in the Staveley’s barn. Holsteins lie in a row, relaxed. ‘It’s what you like to see, your cows lying down, making milk,’ says Robert. One of the animals comes to greet them at the door. Asked if they have favourites, David laughs. ‘Yes, and it’s to do with character more than milk production, like this nosy cow.’
Holsteins are the best milk producing dairy cows in the UK, with a pedigree beast averaging over eight and a half thousand litres per lactation period. The higher the cow’s food quality, the better the milk.
The fact that Throstle Nest Farm has supplied Sainsbury’s with their milk for seven years is advertised at the entrance. A delivery driver recently asked to take a photo of their cows to show his kid where his breakfast milk came from. ‘I wish people would understand there’s a story with each product they buy and how much work goes into milk production,’ says Robert. ‘There is a detachment from food sourcing. Consumers want the cheapest, but behind good milk are years of hard work,’ says David.
‘It’s satisfying watching your herd and seeing your breeding come together,’ says Robert, hands on hips, standing with his brother as they watch a herd of Holsteins munching away in a distance. Last word to mum: ‘It was a little lonely at first, moving to place where I knew no one. But would I do it all over again? Yes!’