When people hear the name Tom Ripley you might think of the Dairy Shorthorn breeder who sold up in the late nineteen eighties to emigrate and farm in Canada not the man who nearly twenty five years later has returned to his roots to start breeding his beloved Shorthorn cows again.
My parents were tenants on the Hauxwell estate, in Wensleydale, hence the prefix. They milked British Friesians, but dad was much more interested in sheep, and bred Teeswaters for 70 years. I have been keen on cattle all my life, and knew all their names from two years of age – probably because we were kept safe in the meal bin as mum did most of the milking. My grandfathers both milked Shorthorns, and that probably sparked my interest, but when I was growing up, Shorthorns were a dirty word. At age 16, I represented the North Riding of Yorkshire to judge Guernsey’s and Shorthorns at the London Dairy Show - quite a thing for a boy who had never been further than Harrogate. In the ring with the Shorthorns, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so it wasn’t really a choice, but a fact. There was huge opposition from my parents; mum even wanted me to see a shrink! But they relented, and bought me a heifer from Forcett for my 20th birthday.
What was farming in Canada like?
We took over the farm in Canada on August 1st 1989. It was a big culture shock, but I soon realised things are done differently there for very good reasons. We were in the very beautiful province of Prince Edward Island (PEI), milking 60 cows year-round in a tie-stall barn (Byre to Northerners). An old fashioned approach but very cosy when it’s cold outside and very easy work – big bales of silage in front, straw in the vast mow above, concentrate delivered to each stall via computer-controlled auger, manure removed by motorized chain in the gutter.
To compare farming in the UK with Canada and Northern USA is difficult. There is a quota system in Canada that works very well for those in the system, with a guaranteed price for all your milk, but impossible for new entrants as quota costs about £20,000 per cow. There is a much smaller community of Shorthorn breeders over a vast area, and I usually had a minimum 1,000-mile journey to show, buy or sell. Winters guarantee spells of deep freeze, except the west coast, and some years in PEI the snow can accumulate over ten feet - you run out of places to blow the stuff! Summers usually have lots of dry heat, and once it goes over 25 degrees, the grass stops growing, so hay or haylage is needed. Cows do not do well in prolonged heat and they are tormented by biting insects in swarms beyond anything you can imagine in the UK. The frost brings welcome relief and all livestock will bask quite contentedly in minus thirty degrees, as long as there’s plenty to eat.
What is your present system?
We constructed all new buildings (more madness) and are milking 25 cows by pipeline in a parlour. They are housed in cubicles with rubber mats and straw. Big bales are put out in a central feed bunk, and concentrates are fed in the parlour. Dry cows and young stock are in an open-fronted shed divided into pens, with a scrape passage in front, and straw bedding at back. We buy most of our feed from our neighbors’.
Why did you decide to start milking Shorthorns again?
Is there a cure for obsession? After my divorce and split assets, I could not afford quota, so thought I was finished with cows. I was about to return to the UK but was lured to help run a friend’s sheep farm in Ontario. I met my partner, Tony there, and we got our own farm and bred North Country Cheviots. Astonishing to those who know I’m NOT the Good Shepherd! I was invited to judge the Canadian National Milking Shorthorn Show, and being there made me realise I still was not done with them. I had been homesick long enough, Tony was willing, so we came back. Having experience and capital, I naively thought someone would rent us a farm, but they see the grey hair, and say ‘next, please’. So here we are on this tiny palace milking our few cows, and as happy as could be! It is wonderful to be part of the Shorthorn world again, and not just looking in through the window.
What embryos did you take to Canada? Did you bring any embryos back to the UK?
We took twelve heifers and a bull calf to Canada, which made the move very well. They were destroyed three years later after one British cow died of BSE in Alberta, and all British imports were compulsorily slaughtered. We were allowed to keep the progeny, and all had had a one calf. It was hard, but nothing like the heartbreak of foot-and-mouth or TB in the UK.
I brought nothing back, as there are so many wonderful cattle here. And many of the best of North American bulls have been used here like Kingsdale Peri’s Champ, Kingsdale Libby’s Rebel and Meriville Peerless. The first two I have no experience of but their records are excellent – much better than their breeding would suggest. I did however use Peerless and two of his sons, though they are not perfect, they bred the best all round cows – we had style, fat and protein and the most persistent milkers I have ever known.
At the moment I am lucky enough to have borrowed a bull from the Ritson’s, Ireby Plutocrat, a lovely fellow but I am also in need of a pure bull as soon as possible. Any offers?
Where did the cows go when you sold up in Canada?
My cows went in five double-decker loads 1,500 miles to auction at Guelph, Ontario. I flew in next day with my daughter Sally, and gosh, they looked a sorry sight. A few days’ rest, good food and a makeover restored their beauty, and they were dispersed all over North America from Alberta to Texas and back to PEI. I was miserable to lose them, but lucky they made very good prices just two weeks before one single BSE case closed Canada’s borders, and trade plummeted.
What type of cow are you looking for?
Correct and hard-working. Long-lived, so you always have something to sell, and light roan or red with white socks, if you can manage.
How do cattle genetics in North America vary compared to the UK?
Genetics are very similar, but results vary with the conditions and management – just like here.
What is your take on the current state of Shorthorns?
To quote George Odlum (breeder of Manningford British Friesians) “If all breeders agreed, progress would cease.” Take note - all those impatient of your fellows’ breeding policies – there is strength in diversity!
Name: Tom Ripley (Ripley & Ramesar)
Prefix: Hauxwell Dairy Shorthorns
Location: Hunwick, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham.
No. of Cows: 27 now, increasing to 30, plus followers when we’re up to speed.
Acres: 20 Acres, plus whatever we can rent. We buy in haylage.
Favourite Cow: Mericrest Kewpie is the best Dairy Shorthorn I’ve ever seen, and is how I wish all mine had turned out. The late Kenneth Hoffman of Illinois, my most respected breeder, bred Mericrest Kewpie. He sold me Meriville Prince Edward Ex94 the best bull I have ever used.
Favourite Cow Family: Dainty Princess then Lily Fair yet there are so many others to admire.