A NEW £2.4m state-of-the-art dairy unit was officially opened at Newton Rigg College today (Friday).

It also marked the return of a herd of cows to the college, 13 years after much of the region was devastated by foot and mouth disease.

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Right Rev James Newcome, blessed the 158-strong herd of Holsteins.

"The agricultural industry is one of the life-bloods of Cumbria's economy and has been through some difficult times in recent years," he said.

The unit, the first of its kind in the UK, comprises two buildings - one to house cows and the other a top of the range milking parlour.

Opening the unit, Lord Curry, a familiar figure in the farming industry, added: "The importance of this for the farming community across the country cannot be underestimated. The new dairy provides a first class facility for students, and for Britain's farmers generally. 

"It also provides a real vote of confidence in the industry and is all the more poignant as it marks the return of the College's herd since it was lost to FMD in 2001."

York-based Askham Bryan College took over the running of Newton Rigg in August 2011 with the promise to put agriculture back at its heart.

"Today, we have delivered that promise," said Liz Philips, chief executive.

"The number of student studying agriculture with us has doubled in the last three years which speaks volumes for the high regard in which we are held."

The new dairy buildings are each 72 metres by 36 metres, one of which has 164 cubicles for milking cows.