• The Lee Family, Dowrich Farm, near Crediton, Devon
  • Management Matters, 1998

Much has happened since Farmers Weekly last visited Dowrich Farm in 1998, as part of our long-running Management Matters series. Yet much has stayed the same.

The Lee family still own and run the 600 acres of undulating clay and loam, just to the north of Crediton in the Devonshire countryside. And the farming system is still based on the three main enterprises – dairy, outdoor pigs and potatoes.

But changes have been implemented too, none more significant than the switch from conventional to organic production.

“We went into conversion in 2000, gaining full organic status in May 2002,” says Anthony Lee, the eldest of the three brothers based at Dowrich. “The organic sector was expanding at the time and it suited our farming system.

“We were never a high-flying dairy herd, with relatively low stocking rates and low yields based on grass,” Anthony recalls. “There were also grants to help us through the conversion, and the promise of higher prices.”

Cow performance is still pretty similar to where it was ten years ago, with the black-and-whites giving about 5800 litres a year of 4.3% butterfat, 3.4% protein milk. But the price is certainly better at about 33p/litre, thanks to a healthy organic premium from Milk Link.

Lee family

The other major change has been the recent investment in a new, self-contained parlour, dairy and cattle shed. “Our total investment has come to over half a million,” says Anthony. “But we really had no choice as the old unit had got to the point of no return.”

A new slurry system has also been installed, though this would have been necessary anyway, as Dowrich will soon be in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone and obliged to meet new slurry standards.

All this investment has raised the farm’s borrowings substantially – and just at a time when the organic sector has been hit by the general economic downturn.

Anthony is mindful of the recent cut in organic milk price announced by Dairy Crest, and is hoping that Milk Link will not have to follow suit.

The same concerns arise on the pig side of the business. Far fewer sows are kept than was once the case – just 70 remain, though they too are organic. The pig enterprise occupies the same area as it ever did, but the difference now is that all the progeny are finished outside too – weather permitting.

This is partly due to the fact that the old pig houses were demolished to make way for the new cattle shed, though, in theory, outdoor-reared pigs should be getting a higher price.

“But the organic pigmeat sector has been hit harder than the milk sector and, with organic pig feed costing £370/t, it’s hard to show a profit at the moment.”

Despite these challenges, Anthony says going organic is the best thing he has done in the past ten years, from a job satisfaction point of view, as well as economically and environmentally.

“It’s a really hard time just now, especially as we have increased borrowings. But we have no plans to convert back again, though we may have to adjust the balance of our enterprises to reflect the market conditions during these difficult times. One consolation is that, at least there are not many more livestock farmers coming into the sector at the moment.”

Then

  • 235ha (580 acres) family-run farm in mid-Devon
  • Conventional dairy, pig and potato production
  • 220 Holstein Friesian cows, averaging 5800 litres/year
  • 20×20 herringbone parlour with outdoor collection yard
  • 220 outdoor sows with all pigs finished indoors

Now

  • 243ha (600 acres) family-run farm, having rented a bit more land
  • Organic dairy, pig and potato production
  • 220 Holstein Friesian cows, with a bit more cross-breeding
  • 28×28 parlour, with integrated collecting, lying and feeding area
  • 70 outdoor sows, with all pigs finished outdoors