The Hildreths of Curlew Fields Farm talk to Sarah Liddle about how they work together as a team.

For the Hildreth family, winning The Northern Farmer Dairy Farm of the Year award was the culmination of several years of hard work and development at Curlew Fields Farm, near York.

At the core of the business is the dairy enterprise that currently runs to 120 pedigree Holstein Friesian cows, which yield 11,300kg of milk sold at 4.6 per cent fat and 3.55 per cent protein, principally to Arla.

Attention is focused on efficient milk production, with the herd milked twice a day. Last year, 4,667kg of the production average was from forage and the annual rolling feed cost per litre of milk was 10.08ppl.

Son Tom explains that the farm's high production levels are down to a number of happy accidents. However, delving a little deeper reveals that a united philosophy of always putting the cow first enables the unit to thrive.

Tom runs the dairy herd now on a day-to-day basis alongside his father, Roger, although it is very much a family affair. Roger explains that due to his own father’s ill health, he has managed the farm from the age of 17 with his wife Judith’s backing and assistance over many years.

However, he is now happy for the next generation to take some control. Relocating from the village of Hessay to the greenfield site between the village and the A59 road into York with four young children in the early 2000s enabled the herd size to grow substantially.

Tom's brother, Matthew, has just returned from travelling in New Zealand and as an agricultural electrician will be part-time on the farm, as well as running his own business, and his other brother, Daniel, is a key relief milker, alongside his mole-catching business.

Sister Nina has, after a few years employment in retail and hospitality, come back to establish Curlew Field Dairies on the farm in partnership with Tom as a standalone direct sales based initiative, which is currently going from strength to strength.


Nina and Tom have created a unique brand at Curlew Fields

Nina and Tom have created a unique brand at Curlew Fields


With the farm running on 94 per cent family labour, the Hildreths appreciate they now have scope for life outside the farm and as well as flexibility.

Milked twice a day, the all-year-round calving herd has a bias to autumn calving and is turned out to grass from April through to late September/October, depending on the weather, although there is always buffer feeding.

Over recent years, the dry cow ration has been altered to ensure freshening cows enter the herd ready to produce high volumes of milk in early lactation and maintain flat lactations from then on.

Herd cell counts average about 100, which is down to the move from straw yards to sand bedding around ten years ago for the milking herd and now ensures that bedding of yards is done before it is really necessary. The policy will soon be to use no antibiotics at drying off – managing cows by giving them a longer rest and dry period before calving if they have had an issue in the previous lactation.

Forage production and the overall farms sustainability is also a focus – the most recent addition has been solar PV panels, which are supplying 70kW of energy to the farm, allowing on-farm sufficiency, as well as supply into the National Grid since installation this winter.

With the weather determining if three of four cuts of silage are conserved for winter rations and buffer feeding, the Hildreths are also looking to keep the ground greener – 50 acres of maize is grown within the rotation of crops, while 16 acres this winter has been planted with a two-pass system grass seed following the maize. This will provide a first-cut silage, as well as taking on farm slurry and will after cutting be replanted with maize. The farm now does very limited ploughing, adopting a more sustainable min-till approach to cropping.


A shipping container was initially converted into a bespoke home for the new venture

A shipping container was initially converted into a bespoke home for the new venture


Since 2015, the farm was an early adopter via an AHDB initiative to genomically test every female in the herd. Now only 50 pregnancies are made annually to sexed Holstein semen, with the Heatime collars aiding heat detection, resulting in 64 per cent conception rate to first service. From the pool of heifers born, the heifers genomic results are scrutinised by Roger and Genus and the surplus are sold at 14 to 16 weeks of age, the remainder are reared as replacements.

Belgian Blue semen is used on a remainder with a Saler stock bull used on poor breeders due to the calving ease but also for the good temperament. Crossbred calves are sold from the farm at a couple of weeks of age privately to two customers.

For the last decade or so, the farm has always been willing to open its doors and engage with the public and community – keen to educate and explain farming practice through events such as Arla’s Open Farm Sunday.

The establishment of Curlew Fields Dairies by Nina and Tom was perhaps a natural progression considering the farm's location near York just off a main road. While Tom is involved in paperwork and logistics, Nina runs the business, which was named after the curlew’s nest found when Roger was pacing out the greenfield site.

During the winter of 2021-22, the family made their shipping container purchase into a bespoke processing and sales area, pasteurising milk bought from the farm business from day one with direct sales from the on-farm vending machine commencing a year ago, while ice cream was launched shortly after.

Purchasing secondhand equipment, including a coffee machine, has seen a café follow, with the majority of the nearly 1,000 litres of milk processed by Nina each week being sold direct to the final customer – ensuring zero plastic, zero waste and virtually zero food miles.

Nina has embraced the concept of the cows ‘selling’ the product – people can come and see them and then enjoy the product. Social media provides the platform for information dissemination with a weekly posting of the ice cream flavours Nina makes – so far this has extended to 70 flavours and about 40 milk shake flavours.

Having established the café, milk vending machines and ice cream outlet, the Hildreths acknowledge that there is no blueprint to success but have been astounded by the growth of the new ventures. Footfall remained high during the festive season with people looking for alternative sweet treats, and even the first week of January, which was cold and frosty, saw people coming through the gates.

With such open-mindedness across the generations on this award-winning dairy farm, there is no doubt that both dairy cows and direct sales at Curlew Fields Farm is here to stay, grow and survive.