FLEXIBILITY AND the courage to seize new opportunities are nothing new to the Bowditch family, but could be key to their businesses’ success post-CAP reform.
James Bowditch, 27, manages three farming companies at North Bowood, Bridport, Dorset, and says each faces great uncertainty over the coming years. His family have farmed at Bowood since 1900, when his great grandfather took on the tenancy. In 1904 he bought the farm, and the subsequent four generations have built up the estate to its current form.
The three farms – North Bowood, Cooper Dean Estate and Laverstock – are all family owned, but James manages them with his father, Robert, and cousin, Ed Bowditch. In total the farms extend to 810ha (2000 acres) and comprise three dairy units of 160, 140 and 130 cows with 170 replacement heifers. There are also 250 ewes, 400 store cattle, 210ha (520 acres) of combinable crops, 20ha (50 acres) of potatoes, which are contracted out, and 61ha (150 acres) of forage maize.
On top of this Robert runs a commercial pheasant shoot and manages some property lettings. His wife, Tish, runs bed-and-breakfast from the family home at Parnham. Robert oversees the decision making on the farms, but has stepped back from the day-to-day management.
“It works quite well because each of the farms is accountable in its own right,” says James.
Since returning from Reading University in 1999, where he attained a BSc in Agricultural Economics, James has streamlined the farm considerably. “We have increased the farm size by a third and halved the labour,” he says. Laverstock Farm, which was being managed by Velcourt, was taken back in hand, and 100ha (250 acres) is now rented from neighbouring landowners.
“In the days of IACS, we wanted to utilise our IACS acreages and move youngstock off IACS land.” James increased the potato area and now bases the rotation around a two-year grass ley followed by a first wheat and either barley, maize or potatoes. At the same time a quarter of the farm was entered into the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
The estate now employs three dairymen, two tractor drivers and one student, as well as James and Ed, all of whom work across the three farms.
The most recent change was to increase the dairy herds by 20 cows each and convert the old silage barn at North Bowood into winter housing. This has made the changeover to feeding a total mixed ration to two of the herds considerably easier, although James has further plans in the pipeline.
He is very pleased with the silage quality this year, which he mixes with crimped wheat, whole-crop, maize and a bought-in blend for the TMR. “This is the first year we have ever spread all the grass and it has paid off. We haven”t had bad bit of silage.”
The herds calve all year round to make the most of Milk Link”s “A” quota price of 18.7p/litre. All are benchmarked with Kingshay, and North Bowood recorded a margin over purchased feed of 14.93p/litre in October, with an annual yield of 8100 litres a cow, at 4.34% butterfat and 3.61% protein.
James’ ultimate goal is to grow as much of his own feed as possible. He is already self-sufficient in straw, which is an expensive commodity in the south-west, growing 20ha (50 acres) of winter barley. He also grows 61ha (150 acres) of maize, 142ha (350 acres) of cutting leys, and 121ha (300 acres) of winter wheat. This year he crimped 250t of that for the cattle, and sold the rest as feed and milling wheat to the Crop Marketing Group.
James aims to get 9.9t/ha (4t/acre) from his winter wheat after decoupling of support payments. “If you can’t grow wheat at £60/t and 4t/acre than you shouldn”t be doing it. We soil test everything that is going to wheat, potatoes and maize. It costs £10 a field, but it reduces our fertiliser bills considerably.”
The beef cattle are a by-product of the dairy herd, half of which are put to black-and-white bulls and the other half to Hereford and Continental bulls. The resulting beef calves are reared on a grass and barley system to 18-20 months old before being sold on.
The family is among the oldest to have been farming Dorset sheep. “The sheep live on steep hills in the summer and fatten on the young leys during the winter, with no other inputs.” The ewes lamb in October and March, and the finished lambs are sold to the local abattoir, SJ Norman & Son, with the latest batch averaging 245p/kg and killing out at 20kg.
James hopes that CAP reform will bring market forces into agriculture, even if that means giving up unprofitable enterprises. “All the farms are Laurence Gould-budgeted and we have spent a lot of time costing ahead for the single farm payment.
“It is going to force farmers to look at different things to do. At the moment it’s very hard to see which way it’s going to crumble – all we can do is keep our options open and keep our flexibility to seize on any opportunity.”