Autumn store cattle from Bowditch Family Farms were among those through the ring at Yeovil market recently – and James Bowditch had some particular customers in mind.

A quick call from Premier Livestock auctioneers Lester Williams and John Harvey meant Mr Bowditch could make sure his cattle were in the ring when specialist finishers, on contract for Waitrose, were at Yeovil looking to buy.

“They were specifically after Angus, Hereford and Charolais, with named sires and assurance.

We knew the lorries were coming and we wanted our cattle on them – simple as that.

“We’ve kept the Friesian steers back to finish ourselves at 24 months old. We’re only selling what we know finishers want – a beef farmer on a contract wants the best and by getting the timing right we’re adding value to our best.”

And it worked.

The best 12-month-old Angus steers went on at 395 a head – about 25 a head better than Mr Bowditch’s estimate.

A couple of 12-month-old Belgian Blues sold to 342, some 17-month-old Charolais steers made 380 and Herefords ranged from 380 to 400.

As the farms’ three dairy herds move onto their winter rations, Mr Bowditch has harvested some maize headlands as a recent dry spell took the last of the season’s grass.

But in the meantime, Bowditch Farms has played host to a management workshop organised by The Dairy Group.

With the focus on reducing unit costs, 10 Milk Link members gathered to evaluate each other’s businesses.

Among Bowditch Farms’ strengths were the farms’ highly skilled and competent staff – two of the dairymen have been with the farms for 16 years – but weaknesses were seen in ageing buildings.

Figures from The Dairy Group “Spotlight” farms with 300-620 cows show they achieved an attractive milk price of 21.1p/litre, but faced total costs of 20.75p/litre.

The same study showed units with 220-300 milkers achieved a better margin over costs – but still less than 0.5p/litre.

So does he aim to expand his herds? “Do you mean would I invest the magic 1m in a new unit?

One thing that came out of the workshop was just how astronomical costs go with a huge dairy.

Large new units are not viable for us in the current climate.”

Mr Bowditch has welcomed Milk Link’s recent announcement to its members that it would no longer need capital contributions at current levels, and has discussed it with the co-operative’s board in Bristol.

“In reality, it won’t make much difference to our books until April.

But, in the meantime, we are striving to keep our milk quality up.”

Latest results from Milk Link showed the dairy at North Bowood Farm was producing milk at 4.4% butterfat and 3.3% protein.

Bactoscan showed 18 and cell count 148.

Mr Bowditch’s membership of a local buying group, Beaminster Farmers, has helped him avoid some of the nasty surprises this season has brought.

“We made a good saving through the buying group on blends for the dairy rations.

We use about 250t of 30% protein blended sugar beet pulp, hi-pro soya and rapemeal in the winter rations, and we’ve managed to save nearly 20/t on last years deal.”

Similarly, soaring fertiliser prices earlier this year didn’t hit Bowditch Farms too hard.

“We bought half of our requirement in early July, at about 20/t dearer than last year.

But the lorry driver said it was leaving the depot at 160/t – I’m glad we weren’t anywhere near that high.”

The minimum tillage drill he had been thinking of buying has now arrived, and will help the farms to move up to 24m tramlines.

“It’s with that in mind I am costing out a twin-line sprayer for liquid fertiliser.

That way, we use fertiliser as we need it. Yes, it’s likely the price of liquid fertiliser will probably rise – but it’s not a lot of money sat in the shed waiting to be used.

“That’s what the single farm payment means – cash flow is the be-all and end-all.”

There is still no sign of two of the farms’ maps returning, holding up the 30/ha Entry Level Stewardship Scheme payments.

“Apparently, our IACS 22 forms have not yet been processed.

The NFU has recommended farmers push on with it even if the maps aren’t right.

We might yet have to re-do some, but at least we’ve got the application in.”

On a more personal note, Mr Bowditch and his fiance Emma have set a date to be married – and booked the church right in the middle of next August’s wheat harvest. Luckily, he doesn’t know many arable farmers.

ian.ashbridge@rbi.co.uk