John's Wise Purchase Helped Transform UK Dairy Farming
April 03, 2012
After seven years of saving as much money as he and wife Betty possibly could, the couple were ready to take on their first smallholding.
This opportunity of land came in the form of a small Northumberland County Council plot at East Heddon.
A scheme, launched by the post war Labour Government, meant that Britain's future farmers could contribute £500 towards a £2,000 plot whereby the county council would finance the rest.
"Betty and I actually managed to save £1,170," said John. "However, we ended up with the worst place the council had out of their 117 holdings.
"It was very badly equipped but it served its purpose.
"By the time I left we had 18 dairy cows after just two years of being there.
"I had to convert an old stable block into a shed to house the cows because there wasn't enough room."
The ambitious couple then moved to Field House at Dalton in 1960, where they managed to expand their dairy herd to 140 cows over just eight years.
In 1968 John took his biggest career move and took on the tenancy of a 330 acre holding at Stocksfield Hall.
Already desperately fond of his black and white army of Friesian cows, John – who is now 88 – did not falter in his decision to invest money in livestock as opposed to machinery.
"There was a lot of arable land already at Stocksfield," he said. "But dairy herds were getting bigger all the time and I thought it wisest to put up a cubicle shed for more cows rather than buy new machinery to work the land."
By the early 1970s John realised that he was losing milk having followed a more fashionable line of breeding and so wanted to get something to stretch the cows out.
He had been to Canada previously and admired the strength and power of the native Holstein.
"I liked the dairy characteristics of Canadian cattle," said John. "The Holstein was a better converter of food into milk than the Friesian and I wanted cows that would give a lot of milk."
With Betty firmly at his side, John flew out to Canada in search of a bull.
There he discovered Telstar – the bull he went on to co-own with Cumbrian dairy farmer Tom Carrick.
The bull was barely a year old and was part of the first importation of Holstein cattle into the British Isles from Canada.
The price was a record in Britain at the time, but the pair were confident that their purchase would repay the cash invested in him.
Telstar stood at stud and his semen was distributed to farmers right across the UK.
After the success of his first Canadian bull, John and Tom returned to Canada for a second.
This time they imported a further bull from the Roybrook line of Holstein cattle and this was to prove the Tyne Valley dairy farmer's most influential purchase to date.
When the bull stood at stud his semen was sold worldwide to countries as far afield as New Zealand, Australia and North America.
He was renowned for producing cows with some of the highest milk indexes in the British Isles and during the 1980s the bull was twice awarded the National Holstein Breeders' Club trophy for his unrivalled progeny.
Such was the fame of his second bull, that John would regularly have visitors from all over the world, sometimes three times a week, to tour the farm and see his cattle.
"I think they came for Betty's cooking as opposed to the cows," he laughed. "They always got well fed!"
The bull's young stock would regularly be on display at the Royal Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh and John would often be asked to judge Holstein cattle both far and wide.
In 1981 the couple bought New House Farm, at Kiln Pit Hill, to rear dairy youngstock before it became a farm for beef suckler cows and sheep.
When John and Betty decided to retire and sell their 220-strong herd of black and white cattle, the herd was the largest in the county and often topping the highest milk yields.
When the dispersal sale took place in July 1991, hundreds of pedigree and commercial dairy farmers travelled the length and breadth of the country to see them sold and make a purchase.
The renowned Birkscott herd, belonging to John and Betty Gray, was one of the most highly respected and highest yielding herds of Holstein Friesian cattle in the country and had been so for many years.
More than 20 years after leaving the industry, John pays tribute to a certain someone over anybody else.
"I'm absolutely nothing without Betty," he declared. "She was the one who was by my side and kept me right the whole way through.
"A lot of farmers said I couldn't do it at the beginning – I was a nobody – but Betty always believed in me.
"If it wasn't for her none of this would have been possible."
- Source: Ruth Lognonne, News & Star
Back to Archive