Our three finalists for Dairy Farmer of the Year are running highly profitable businesses and are shining examples of how all farms can be successful, no matter what type of system they are running.
See also: Find out more about the Farmers Weekly Awards
Brookhouse Farm, Middlewich, Cheshire
Tenant dairy farmer Adrian Smith is proof you don’t need to run an extensive grazing system to keep costs low.
By making forage of exceptional quality and reducing waste at every opportunity, he is achieving an impressive 5,260 litres from forage alone, which is helping him to keep feed costs down at 4.5p/litre.
He believes having to buy his sisters’ share of the business after his father died kept his mind focused purely on profitability.
“I had to be right at the top of the game. I think it made me a better farmer.”
The way he runs the 8,557-litre herd is extremely simple, but profitable.
- Yields 8,557 litres a cow a year, 4.2% butterfat, 3.21% protein, somatic cell count 165
- Milking 202 Holstein Friesians twice a day
- Supplying Muller Wiseman on a Tesco contract
In the summer cows are grazed and receive a buffer feed of maize silage at milking. They are fed to yield in the parlour, with the high yielders receiving a maximum of 8kg a head a day.
In the winter, the feeding regime is kept equally simple. Silage and maize is mixed with a front-end loader and high-protein molasses is added.
“Cows are fed once a day. It is just like my father did it, only refined. It is very easily replicated.”
It is no surprise Adrian has won a string of accolades for his silage.
Last year his first-cut silage analysed at 43% dry matter (DM) with a metabolisable energy (ME) of 11.7. As if that isn’t impressive enough, his big-bale silage at third cut had an ME of 11.5 and 15.4% protein, with an intake value of 125%. This is being achieved despite the fact a ceiling of only 256kg/ha of nitrogen is used each year.
“We invest in animal welfare and youth, but we are targeting milk from forage.”
One of Adrian’s pet hates is waste. He believes it is a big drain on profits and for this reason he works tirelessly to ensure cows are not wasting forages.
The judges liked
- Encouragement of the younger generation
- Excellent forage management/cutting waste to drive down costs
- Ability to cope against price volatility
He completes palatability checks by mixing different cuts in buckets and offering it to the cows. He says this, alongside fortnightly grass sampling and silage testing, gives him a handle on what fields need reseeding.
Adrian is making the most of small parcels of off-lying land that are inaccessible to cows by zero grazing pasture in the shoulders of the season.
And rather than topping off rejection sites after grazing, he allows leftover grass to bulk up a little before making it into round bales for dry cows.
His forage management is methodical and each bale is numbered and lettered according to the year and field so it can be directed to the right cow groups.
Many farmers would be put off from expanding in the tenant-rich county of Cheshire, with land earning rents of £200/acre, but that hasn’t held Adrian back.
Since inheriting the 57ha tenancy from his father, he has grown the business to 154ha by seizing every available opportunity. This has seen cow numbers more than double from 80 to 210.
Good breeding has been fundamental in achieving this growth.
They use heat detection collars to spot cows bulling and DIY AI is used across the whole year-round-calving herd. Sexed semen is used on heifers, which calve at two years old, and all cows are served to high-merit Holstein/Friesian bulls.
“We are aiming for 60t of milk in seven lactations – we are .08 away from that at the moment,” explains Adrian, whose replacement rate is just 14%.
Animal welfare and health is paramount for the closed herd. Neighbouring stock has been double fenced to help control the threat of TB and they vaccinate for BVD, IBR and Lepto and take bulk milk samples for Johne’s disease.
Adrian’s people management is truly inspirational.
Having previously given respite care to foster children with his wife Alison, Adrian is determined to give disadvantaged children a good start in life. Working with the local community, he offers teenagers on-farm apprenticeships.
The fact his herdsman Liam Roberts, now 22, has been with him since aged 14 is testament to his management capabilities.
Since joining the Smith family on day release from school with no qualifications, Liam has progressed to herd manager in a short space of time.
“He has turned his life round completely. He bought his own house at the age of 21. He is a massive success story and I’m very proud of him.”
Adrian remains optimistic about the future of the dairy industry and is confident he can ride out the current storm.
“You have to be able to adapt and change to what the market wants, but if you have a good model, you have to build on it.”
In three years’ time, aged 60, he would like to retire and a succession plan is already in place to pass the reins to his son Jason after he returns from a short study tour across the globe.
Peter and Di Wastenage
Wastenage Farms, Budleigh Salterton, Devon
In a short period of time, and through a difficult recession, Peter and Di Wastenage have built up a thriving dairy business.
After he returned home from Seale Hayne College in the early nineties, Peter, his parents and sister put a business plan together to give everyone a share in the business.
“We addressed succession from the start rather than the end, so we knew exactly what we wanted to achieve from the business and we didn’t have to compromise along the way,” explains Peter, who still farms in partnership with his mum and sister at their home farm.
Soon after this Peter and his wife Di started supplying vegetables to Riverford Organic. By growing crops on tenanted and rented land and hiring cows on a contract farming agreement, they were able to build up enough capital to buy their first farm. This paved the way for Wastenage Farms.
Today the business comprises 645ha and 1,090 cows across four units.
- Has a total of 645ha
- Runs four herds totaling 1,090 cows
- Breedsown replacements
- Achieves 3,520 litres from forage
- Member of the South Hams Dairy Co-op
The aim is to maximise profit on every litre of milk produced and clearly defined targets and real-time account monitoring each month help them meet these goals.
“We expected each unit to pay for itself. And if we can borrow money at 4-5% [interest] we would look for a minimum 10% return on investment,” explains Peter, who budgets £1,000 a cow for each new build.
Simplicity is at the heart of their system and this low-cost philosophy has been rolled out across the business, with a New-Zealand style, extended grazing system replicated on each unit.
In the spring and summer, cows are rotationally grazed across a grazing platform and in the winter dry cows are outwintered on deferred grazing, while milkers receive fodder beet and baled silage.
Breeding and youngstock management
To overcome TB restrictions all youngstock is home-reared at each unit. Replacements rates are low at 15%, with cows lasting seven lactations on average.
They use tail paint to visually detect heats and use AI across all the herds. The average empty rate is just 8% after 10 weeks and they have trebled their cull cow value by rebreeding cows in the autumn and selling them dry.
To keep costs low when it comes to heifer management the aim is “less than one” from birth to calving at two years.
The Wastenages target a mortality rate of less than 1%, vet and medicine costs pre-weaning must be kept below £1 a head and rearing costs must also be kept below £1 a head a day up to calving at two years.
This is something they are able to achieve by turning calves out to grass at 14 days, where they are fed five to six litres of whole milk using a 50-teat feeder in groups of 36.
“People try to make calf rearing far too complicated. We don’t vaccinate for pneumonia and this year we only lost one calf to the disease,” explains Peter.
The judges liked
- Strong business acumen and growth
- Clear targets to achieve high profitability
- Creative thinking to lower production costs
Health and grassland management
Although they came out of organic production a number of years ago the Wastenages haven’t lost sight of the benefits of this system.
“Organic production allowed us to be proactive rather than reactive,” says Peter.
Targeting antibiotics use for cows with high somatic cell counts is helping to keep vet and medicine costs at 0.5p/litre.
Alongside this, grass growth is recorded using plate meters and the grazing covers are tracked using farm software, which enables them to allocate grass appropriately while targeting nitrogen more efficiently.
Behind every successful business is a great team and Peter and Di work hard to attract good employees.
“It is no good if your business earns a massive profit if you have a hideous lifestyle and can’t keep staff,” says Di.
The couple says they don’t believe in incentivising staff to do a good job. Instead they say it is important to pay good wages and provide staff with an excellent work-life balance.
They recognise the value of trying to encourage younger people outside of the industry to take up a career in farming, too.
They are in talks with Duchy College and the Clinton Devon Estate to develop a management training programme.
And when it comes to showcasing their farms, they have an open-door policy, hosting in excess of 500 visitors every year, from schoolchildren and local discussion groups to professionals.
Peter and Di have ambitious plans for the future, with a fifth farm already under way.
The aim is to continue to keep their cost of production low so they can remain fit for the future in any milk price climate.
But balance remains fundamental. “One of the driving principles behind our business is to ensure it is not only financially sustainable, but socially and environmentally sustainable too,” adds Peter.
East Logan Farm, Castle Douglas, Kirkcudbrightshire
While smaller family dairy farms in Dumfriesshire are getting out of milk or getting bigger, Brian, his wife Sheila and son Michael are consolidating their business.
They are doing this by generating an extra 6p/litre income, selling surplus heifers to a growing customer base.
To rapidly progress the genetic merit of the herd, they are flushing their best cows and heifers.
The Yates are using 80% genomic sires and 20% proven to AI the herd. If cows fail to conceive after a second service they are run with a pedigree Holstein stock bull.
- Cows are milked three times a day through a 20/40 swingover parlour
- Milking 275 cows, plus 320 followers
- Owns 146ha and rents 16ha
- Supplies milk to Arla
- Generates an additional 6p/litre from heifer sales
Heat detection collars alongside good visual checks are helping to achieve a commendable 65% in-calf rate 100 days post calving and only 7% of the herd is empty after 200 days.
High health status is paramount. The herd is BVD free and they vaccinate for IBR, lepto and monitor for Johne’s.
Showing has become a key marketing tool for their stock and the Yates are fast building up a reputable name, having won a number of accolades on the circuit.
Milk remains an integral part of their business and for the year ending March 2015 cows averaged impressive yields of 10,891kg at 3.75% butterfat and 3.16% protein, with 99,000 cells/ml.
“The goal is to produce quality milk and we want functional cows that last. It is a commercially run system and cows are there to produce milk and make money,” explains Brian.
“We are trying to achieve 50,000kg of milk across five lactations. We currently have 42 cows with more than 50t within the herd and eight cows giving more than 100t,” says Michael.
This clear focus on production has been fuelled by the use of a Keenan Pace system, which allows the team to monitor TMR intakes and feed efficiency. Herd feed efficiency stands at 1.63 litres/kg of feed compared with the Scottish average of 1.34 litres.
Cows are housed year round in cubicles bedded with foam mattresses and sawdust and a big investment has been made into state-of-the-art housing facilities over the past decade, with cow health and welfare at the top of the agenda.
Curtains on the side of the shed are controlled by temperature thermostats to improve ventilation and passageways are automatically scraped.
Lameness rates are extremely low. Brian says this is down to herdsman Trevor Hough’s “feet paranoia”.
The judges liked
- A dairy you would be proud to showcase to the public
- A fantastic example of a thriving family dairy
- High-merit cows and passionate about breeding
Cows are run through a footbath after each milking, which refills automatically after 120 cows to keep the water clean.
“Everything gets lifted at 100 days and all feet get done at drying off. If Trevor sees something lame he will lift the foot straight away,” explains Brian.
Investments have also been made to help reduce overheads.
Building an underground slurry storage system and aerator to prevent nitrogen from being lost has helped them save more than £10,000/year on artificial fertiliser.
They have also invested in a 150kW biomass boiler that is used to heat the water in the parlour, which generates £24,000/year through Renewable Heat Incentive payments. It is fed using bought-in woodchip costing £100/t, but Brian hopes to cut costs and his carbon footprint by chipping wood from his own woodland.
He is also looking into erecting a 75kW wind turbine to reduce electricity costs.
Brian has already put a succession plan in place that makes Michael and his daughter Anna shareholders in the business.
But having doubled the size of the herd since he took over the farm from his father and modernised the unit, he says the goal for the future is to improve efficiencies rather than grow any further.
“We would rather consolidate, improve the genetics of the herd and have a niche market for selling genetics at premier sales.”
Dairy Farmer of the Year is sponsored by Keenan.
“These three outstanding finalists remove any doubts about profitable dairy farming in Britain. They ooze confidence and belief in their industry and their respective systems. They represent the very best each production system has to offer.”
Michael Keogh, marketing manager, Ireland and UK