All three finalists in the young farmer category demonstrate tangible success, achievement through passion, technical skill, real determination and hard work. Philip Case reports on a talented trio.

Julie Harvey

Narracombe Farm, Devon

Julie Harvey

A focus on getting the right genetics to suit the farm and herd needs is central to Julie Harvey’s tireless work at Narracombe Farm.

Her passion for cattle started on her 11th birthday, when she was given a little black Dexter heifer called Delilah.

Now, 16 years later, she is running a herd of nearly 600 cattle with her partner Ed Williams at the farm in Islington, Devon, with land ranging from improved pasture to common moorland grazing in the shadow of Hay Tor.

“I love cattle. I’ve always had a passion for breeding,” says Julie, who grew up on her parents’ mixed farm. “I started breeding Dexters. It has just escalated in the past five years.”

Julie’s role has changed significantly on the 174ha farm over the past five years, from being employed initially to improve and run the suckler herd, to partner in the business.

Farm facts

  • 174ha in total, of which 28ha is owned, the rest on FBT or annual rent
  • Nearly 600 head, including 100 suckler cows, four bulls and 220 followers, contract-reared veal
  • Organic on main holding for six years

Better genetics

Her attention to detail through years of showing and caring for cattle has fuelled her passion for improving the genetics of her herd.

But although she has a passion for show-winning animals, which is demonstrated by the dozens of rosettes on the walls of her farmhouse, Julie is not just choosing cows with the highest genetic merit.

She is selecting the right genetics for her objective – rearing a grass-based commercial beef herd.

Improving the genetic capability of calves in her organic suckler herd of South Devon cattle has been key to moving the herd forward.

The introduction of artificial insemination to the herd has allowed use of the very best bulls at a relatively low cost.

Conception rates at first service are excellent at about 75%, as a result of the hours Julie spends observing the cows to get the timings correct for insemination. Careful selection of breeding bulls has also improved herd genetics.

Julie introduced a Red Angus bull to cross with the South Devon to give a slightly smaller, polled maternal line with better feet and added hybrid vigour, without losing the milking and mothering ability of the South Devon cows.

“This cross will provide an easy-fleshing, growthy bullock for fattening,” she says.

“I also want to keep the uniformity of colour, which is why I chose Red Angus over black. The offspring for fattening are also eligible for the Angus finishing schemes, which attract an added premium.”

This spring, she calved the entire spring herd outside thanks to the good weather. Birthweights ranged from 34-46kg.

Forward planning

Meanwhile, Julie is forward planning with the purchase of a pedigree Aberdeen Angus bull, named Diesel, who was put into stud in Scotland late last year.

Semen being collected from the bull on stud will be targeted at the Brazilian market, as well as being used across cattle in the UK, where Julie plans to record progeny performance. The bull will also be used to sire the finishing animals on the farm.

Being an active member of the Aberdeen Angus, British Blonde and Dexter cattle societies helps her to keep in touch with the 
genetics, showing and judging 
of these breeds.

The current farming structure at Narracombe Farm covers six enterprises to spread risk and produce better cashflow for the business.

Two years ago, Julie secured a contract with Sainsbury’s to rear and finish black-and-white calves to produce veal for UK consumers.

The meat is marketed as high-welfare veal under the RSPCA Freedom Foods Accreditation Scheme and sold in Sainsbury’s supermarkets.

Despite using 40-50t of straw a batch at about £85/t for fibre and bedding, this “niche” enterprise is returning a profit of up to £14,000 a year.

Now the farm wants to upgrade the old cattle shed used to house the calves and invest in an airy, purpose-built shed to safeguard the future of the veal operation.

Further plans include using profits from the veal enterprise to purchase 53 heifers to rear on an 18ha block of non-organic land, finishing cattle through Blade for the pub chain Mitchells and Butlers, and selling finished cattle to the Well Hung Meat Company.

Julie is rightly proud of her cattle, but says being profitable is one her best achievements. In the financial year 2012-13, turnover was £314,404, returning a healthy profit of £47,140.

“Our farm is profitable and looks set to increase the level of profit on this year’s accounts, which is fantastic,” Julie says.

She is also keen to spread the message about farming to the wider public, with the farm hosting its first Open Farm Sunday event this year, attracting more than 300 visitors.

Jamie Stokes

Tythe Farm, Cambridgeshire

Jamie Stokes

Blackgrass is one of the biggest challenges many growers face on their farm and Jamie Stokes is making a determined bid to beat it at Tythe Farm.

Until recently, chemicals were the main control strategy for tackling blackgrass on the family-owned 900ha arable farm in Warboys, Cambridgeshire.

But the reduction of effectiveness of Atlantis and related products has become an increasing problem on the farm, says Jamie, who is thinking creatively to stay ahead of blackgrass.

Tythe Farm is a very profitable business. Turnover is currently in excess of £1m/year, with an operating profit of £540,000. It consistently performs in the top 10% when benchmarked against other farms in the Cambridge University Farm Survey.

Farm facts

  • 900ha arable farm
  • Combinable crops, predominantly wheat, barley and oilseed rape are grown
  • Two full-time and two part-time staff

Long-term view

However, Jamie, 27, who works as farm manager under his father and uncle, believes the farm is taking a short-term view to production and he’s wants to shift the emphasis from being reactive to proactive, looking at long-term aims.

“Arable farming in the east of England used to be easy. You could put wheat and rape in the ground, throw chemicals at it and you’d make lots of money,” says Jamie, a University of Reading agricultural sciences graduate.

“My dad did that for 20-30 years and it worked perfectly well and the farm was very profitable.

“But since Atlantis stopped working and blackgrass started coming through, and all the other problems started with poor soil structure, it became a lot less easy to focus on year one.

“There was not so much worrying about what’s going to happen in 10 years’ time. But how are we going to manage the soils if we keep depleting them and moving on at that sort of rate?”

Jamie is trying to overcome technical challenges by introducing a new arable rotation to tackle blackgrass, drive profitability and increase efficiency.

He has split the farm into three blocks, growing a basic rotation of wheat, winter barley and oilseed rape. Wheat and oilseed rape offer maximum profitability in the rotation, while barley is competitive against blackgrass.

Within this rotation, he is introducing grass leys, double break crops, fallows and spring cropping to provide different cultural weed control options to winter crops.

The new rotation sacrifices profits in year one, to leave the farm in a better condition in years five and six, with the “ultimate goal” of having the farm blackgrass free in six years.

Black mustard

As part of the blackgrass control strategy, black mustard has been grown on one of the worst blackgrass-infested fields, where the winter cereal crop has been taken out, or as part of a fallow.

This has given an estimated 98-99% blackgrass control, says Jamie. “The field went from being unfarmable to one of the cleanest fields on the farm.”

On top of the different rotation, the new strategy includes increased sprayer capacity to improve the timeliness of applications, wider boom width to reduce tramlines and a move from a three-pass to a one-pass cultivation, with GPS control of all inputs linked to field mapping to improve targeting.

Jamie has also reduced cultivation time to increase stale seed-bed time, and bought a new drill to increase drilling capacity to enable the farm to drill later and still complete on schedule. Timing of operations is key on the farm’s heavy clay loam and being able to cover the ground in the short windows of opportunity is the difference between success and failure.

Following the launch of the strategy, last year Jamie ran his own trial and open day on the farm, in conjunction with ProCam and Base UK, looking into reintroducing cover crops and green manures into a profitable arable rotation.

During the past two years, Jamie has been working part-time for the Royal Agricultural Society (RASE) as a technical expert for arable cropping.

This culminated in him presenting a series of day-long seminars to groups of farmers, under the “Enrich your Soils” series of events that was designed, written and presented by him and RASE chief executive David Gardner.

His next project will target food banks to show children and struggling families in urban areas how to grow food on a small scale in their homes.

Marc Jones

Trefnant Hall Farm, Powys, Wales

Marc Jones

A radical restructuring of the flock to a Lleyn sheep enterprise and collaborative heifer rearing unit has transformed this Welsh hill farm.

Sheep farmer Marc Jones experienced first hand how lamb production systems have brought New Zealand farmers success during a study tour.

Marc, 30, saw how New Zealand farmers have evolved after the removal of subsidies and made massive changes to farming techniques to increase their productivity.

The Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) scholarship to New Zealand in 2009 was a seminal moment in his farming career.

He learned that maintaining a grass- and forage-based outdoor lambing system could reduce costs and labour. Lambing later to allow ewes to forage outside on good-quality pasture removed the need for housing and concentrates.

Marc returned home and told his father David, with whom he farms in partnership at Trefnant Hall Farm, near Welshpool, that they should replicate these practices.

His dad took some convincing, but finally agreed to Marc’s desire to overhaul the farm’s sheep production system, converting the inside-lambing, intensive 1,200 Welsh Mule sheep enterprise to a low-maintenance outdoor system.

Farm facts

  • 200ha (180ha usable)
  • 300 outwintered dairy heifers
  • 1,150 sheep, mostly Lleyn ewes

Conversion

Marc started the conversion cautiously by purchasing 150 Lleyn ewes from a sale in Ruthin. Lleyns, a breed of sheep that works well in a low-input system, were chosen because they are an “easy-lambing and maternal breed”. Now he’s managing more than 1,000 Lleyns.

The new system involves the uses of swedes, a high-energy and low-protein crop. Swedes are direct drilled into sprayed-off old pasture in early July for the sheep to graze from Christmas until early March.

Forage crops are direct drilled into the desiccated sward using an Aitchison drill to lock in carbon and prevent soil erosion, which works well on the farm’s steep, free-draining ground over rock.

In early March, sheep are moved on to spring grass for three weeks to settle ahead of lambing in early April. The ewes receive no additional feed prior to lambing.

With grass and swedes being some of the cheapest crops to grow, the system has allowed costs to be cut from £25 a ewe for wintering to £4.75. For the remainder of the year, sheep are rotationally grazed, with grass measurements taken weekly and mob grazing used to keep constant fresh growth ahead of the stock. Lambs are allowed creep access to best pasture for the best pickings as each block is opened up.

In terms of lambing percentages, Lleyn ewes typically scan at 170-180%, which returns “high output, for low costs”, says Marc, who also works part-time at Adas as a farm business consultant.

Most of the lamb is sold deadweight through Dunbia to Sainsbury’s as part of Wales’ Young Farmers Club’ Lamb Initiative, which pays a premium for hitting spec of 10p/kg plus £1 a lamb.

Cattle business

Marc has also restructured the cattle business by selling the herd of 120 Limousin sucker cows and providing a heifer rearing service.

Three hundred heifers are kept throughout the year and outwintered during the winter in a contract with the Sansaw Estate in Shrewsbury, which has set up a milking platform for 1,200 New Zealand cross-bred cows.

Marc describes the heifer enterprise as the “cornerstone of the business”, as it provides a guaranteed income of £1.05 a heifer a day.

The change of enterprises from the Welsh Mule sheep system and the suckler cow enterprise has transformed the farm’s finances. In 2012-13, profitability before depreciation reached £131,280 – more than double the current single farm payment of £58,000.

Marc has succeeded in creating a farm business that can be profitable and sustainable without the single farm payment.

But Marc, who chaired the Wales YFC rural affairs committee in 2012-13, isn’t resting on his laurels. A succession plan is in place for him to take over from his father and he’s already making decisions with one eye on the future.

He recently purchased a Massey Ferguson 5480 tractor. And next year, he plans to bring in another 50 dairy heifers and 200 ewes to boost turnover by £15,000-20,000.

In the long term, he’s looking to build up working capital to mitigate about £25,000 being knocked off the single farm payment. His driving principle is to make the farm’s profitability secure as subsidy is withdrawn.

He plans to use capital to improve tracks and water infrastructure and to expand capacity for the outdoor sheep and heifer systems – and he’s giving dairying some serious thought.

“In four of five years, there’s a chance of going dairying”, he says. “If the infrastructure is right, it’s a lot easier to make that decision.”

There is also a clear focus on protecting the margins and profitability of both his and other farmers’ businesses.


Sponsor’s message

Tesco logo “Agriculture will always need a pool of young, innovative business people if we are to continue to deliver dynamic, responsive food production – and with finalists like these, the future of the industry is in safe hands.”

Graham Wilkinson

Agriculture manager

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