When the judging panel met this year’s Dairy Farmer of the Year finalists at the start of June, innovation, drive, passion and a love of cows defined each of them. And those qualities still shine through despite the fallout from recent milk price cuts. Gemma Mackenzie reports on the farmers whose excellence and diversity epitomises the spirit of the British dairy industry

Neil and Michael Christensen
Steanbow Farms, Somerset

Rock stars and celebrities may be regular visitors to Steanbow Farms, which hosts camping for more than 200,000 people at the famous Glastonbury Festival, but it’s the comfort of the cows that’s top priority for brothers Neil and Michael Christensen.

The pair has taken control of the 607ha farm, which was bought in 1992 under a three-generation tenancy agreement by their father Finn. Since then, the family have invested heavily in the unit with a view to produce large quantities of milk from healthy, happy cows.

And the farm’s herd of 500 high-yielding Holsteins are certainly that, living in a cow comfort-driven, all-year-round housing system, which complements the other enterprises on the farm – broiler chickens and arable.

However, Neil says life hasn’t always been this “sweet” and eight years ago the brothers weren’t happy with the farm business – it was running at a loss and cow health and comfort wasn’t quite up to scratch. He says treating cows was a fire-fighting exercise but now everything is about health planning and preventing health problems before they occur.

And by changing to a different vet who visits regularly, working more closely with their nutritionist and getting staff management right, the business has turned around and is no longer reliant on income from the festival for its survival.

In fact, in the past five years business turnover has increased by 148% and the dairy enterprise has gone from running at a loss to a 2.8p/litre profit before drawings.

And operating on such a large scale requires good staff management. As a result, there is a strong focus on training and development for the 20 staff employed at the farm; staff are structured around each enterprise and offered a generous salary package, including housing and company vehicles to get around the farm.

In addition, a company handbook has been developed, there is a full team meeting every three months, and all staff are encouraged to take part in outside training courses wherever possible. And this, according to Michael, means everybody working on the farm is aware of the direction the business is moving in.

With cows housed all year round, close attention is paid to lameness and mastitis prevention; cows are foot-bathed every two days and foot-trimmed routinely three times a year.

While somatic cell counts are kept down through a stringent milking parlour routine of pre- and post-spraying and a paper towel wipe; the cows are milked across two parlours three times a day. In addition, all cows are bedded up with fresh sand three times a week, and once every fortnight with ash.

To ensure cows are getting the best-quality feed, all silage is dry matter tested using an on-farm dryer – the cows are on a TMR ration of two-thirds maize silage and one-third grass silage. And the concentrate part of the ration includes soda wheat, protein blend, molasses and a bespoke mineral mix devised each year.

When it comes to fertility, every cow is individually mated according to her strengths and weaknesses – everything is served twice to dairy and then British Blue thereafter. And a good youngstock management system is in place to ensure all heifers calf down at two years old.

Environmental impact is also a major factor in the direction of the business, and the family have invested heavily in slurry storage to meet NVZ regulations. And as part of an ELS scheme, more than 700 trees have been planted. In addition, a field-mounted solar PV array is being installed and heat exchangers have been put into the poultry houses.

Outside of the farm, Neil is Dairy Crest Direct director and a forum representative on the Sainsbury’s steering group, while Michael is involved with the Maize Growers Association. Both brothers are members of various farm discussion groups.

A word from our sponsors

marks-and-spencer-logoDairyCo is delighted to be able to sponsor this award once again. This is a great opportunity for dairy farmers to show they are proud of what they do and get the recognition they deserve for investing in their future and the future of dairy farming.”

Hugh Black, DairyCo

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Meet the other 2012 finalists

Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details on how to books tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash