It’s three years since FW first visited Bowditch Family Farms. Now, in our final report, Olivia Cooper looks back at how the business has changed

The past three years have not been easy for dairy farmers, but James Bowditch believes his strategic business planning means he is well placed for a profitable future.

At a time when many were slashing reinvestment to survive, he insisted on driving the herds forward, streamlining unnecessary costs while improving the units to meet the challenges of the future.

“We’ve had to spend a lot of money to keep the units up and together – we still need to invest more at Knowle Farm to get the feeding area under cover, but then we just need to concentrate on doing the job right.”

Goal

Mr Bowditch’s over-riding goal has been to get more from his forage to reduce purchased feed costs. And he has done exactly that, through careful soil management and crop planning. “Milk yields in the herds fed on a total mixed ration have stabilised at 7800 litres, but we’ve reduced straights use by 20% – maintaining costs at previous levels,” he says.

With the removal of set-aside, Mr Bowditch has increased his wheat area, and plans to make better use of rented land to produce maize and grass silage in closer proximity to the dairy units.

This year he is double-cropping that land, direct drilling quick-growing grasses after wheat to produce a silage crop in late April, before ploughing and sowing a maize break crop. “This system will enable me to stagger my silage-making, so I can pick the right time to cut the crop and manage the silage pits more easily.”

The move to direct drilling with newer, more fuel-efficient tractors has enabled Mr Bowditch to slash the farms’ fuel consumption by 30% over three years.

Scrutiny

Income and expenditure have been under constant scrutiny, and last year he took the difficult decision to switch his milk buyer from Milk Link to Arla.

His milk price improved instantly, and he switched away from feeding for milk constituents to feeding simply for yield. Gross margins have risen from £748 a cow in December 2004 to £1400 a cow now.

Over the same time milk prices have risen from 17.98p/litre to 27.5p/litre – a difference of £18,000 a month. However, two-thirds of that improvement is required to cover higher input costs, says Mr Bowditch. “And we’ve had all the landlords banging on for more rent. Dairy farmers have had the bitter pill for years and we need some time to catch up now.”

Looking forward, he wants to improve the quality of his dairy herds by breeding more replacement heifers, reducing the number of beef crosses and putting the black-and-white bull calves into the bull beef system for Blade Farming.

“We’re getting much better at our bull beef. This year we crimped the barley instead of rolling it and are getting much higher feed intakes – as well as spreading the workload over harvest. But until a viable contract is agreed the future of bull beef is in the balance.”

Restructure

James also wants to restructure the farms as his father Robert plans for retirement, and organise them so that everyone takes more responsibility for their area of interest. “The dairies are the core businesses, that’s where our efforts have to be focused,” he says.

“We’ve got to use our labour as effectively and efficiently as possible and have incentives for hard work and results. Each enterprise has to be responsible for its cost and performance structure.”

Ultimately, he would love to consolidate the units into one big dairy, but reckons the council would not allow the redundant buildings to be redeveloped to free up the necessary capital.

“Our planning department has held so many farmers back from modernising their enterprises – they don’t seem to want a farming industry down here. But I will continue to work to hand down the farm in a better state than it is now, and to find a work-life balance for the future.”