Robert Thornhill

Robert Thornhill

Bakewell, Derbyshire

Dairy (grass-based)

DAIRY, DERBYSHIRE: Rob is the third generation of his family to farm their 320-acre (130 hectare) farm in the Peak District National Park. His grandfather started it as a poultry farm, then his father added a dairy unit in 1952. In 1978 Rob's father decided to concentrate just on dairy.

Rob joined his dad on the farm in 1990, having studied agriculture at college and done dairy farming placements in France, New Zealand and elsewhere in the UK. He decided to cross the farm's pedigree Holstein cows with New Zealand Jerseys, to produce a high-quality milk that was high in fat and protein and could therefore command a good price. He sells it in bulk to Arla, a farmer-owned cooperative.

Another advantage of the crossbred cows is that they are highly fertile, so can be calved in one go in early spring, which makes the best use of the farm's grass.

Rob now has a herd of 280 cows. They are reared on pasture all year round except between end of November and late February when the ground is too wet, so the cattle are kept indoors and fed silage that's contract-grown on a neighbouring farm.

The pasture's nutritional content is boosted by sowing it with herbal leys (clovers, herbs and grasses), which means fewer chemical fertilisers are needed. The cows are grazed rotationally to preserve the structure of the soil and enhance biodiversity.

Rob also supports wildlife in other ways, such as erecting owl and kestrel boxes, and planting native-species trees. He's also established a hay meadow which is a blaze of colour in summer and is home to endangered birds such as lapwings and curlews.

In 2013, Rob won a Nuffield fellowship which took him to France, Netherlands, USA, Canada, New Zealand, and UK in search of ideas to improve the sustainability of pasture-based dairying, with a focus on reducing artificial inputs.

Contrary to what's often conveyed in the press, Rob believes cattle are actually beneficial to the climate (see Talking Point below). "Cows are highly sustainable as they can survive purely on grass, without fossil fuels, and convert that into nutrient rich milk and meat, while at the same time preserving the land's rich biodiversity," says Rob.

Contact Robert

Rob is a bit of an action man. He likes skiing, sailing, motorcycling, target shooting and ammunition loading. He's also a 2013 Nuffield Farming Scholar. The title of his published study is: 'Forages and grazing techniques for sustainable pasture-based dairying and livestock farming'.