The Farmers Weekly Awards celebrate the very best of British farming by recognising and rewarding innovation, hard work and passion for agriculture.
A desire to embrace innovative approaches to agriculture while remaining true to traditional farming values marked out our three finalists from a strong field of entries. Johann Tasker reports.
See also: Keep up with the latest from the 2016 Farmers Weekly Awards
Hopes Ash Farms, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire
A mix of enterprises – including cider apples and year-round turkey production – has transformed Hopes Ash Farm over the past four decades.
“We’re a true Herefordshire mixed farm – but it hasn’t happened by accident,” says farmer Robert Davies.
“It has been a planned strategy since the 1970s and early 1980s when we were a specialised dairy farm.”
A 100-cow dairy herd, milked through two Lely robots, remains an integral part of the business. But other enterprises are also fundamental to the farm – including cereals, beef, sheep, 30,000 turkey stags and 600t of apples grown annually.
The judges liked
Fully integrated mix of farm enterprises
Good engagement with general public
Environment is strong aspect of business
The business is a family partnership between Robert, his parents and wife Rachel.
While Robert manages all the enterprises on the farm, Rachel runs the farm office and deals with all aspects of record-keeping, accounts and other paperwork.
A strong believer in the co-operative model, Robert is an Arla member, with milk production specially tailored to best suit the Arla contract.
“Their brands help give us confidence,” he says.
“A premium over own-label dairy products will, I believe, secure long-term profitability.”
Arla pay on butterfat, so the farm has bred and fed to improve butterfat content to more than 4% and protein to almost 3.5%.
“Combined with top-band hygiene, SCC140 and bactoscan 18, we are maximising our price in a challenging market.”
Using robots means Robert is also able to take advantage of a flexible collection bonus – moving towards a more level production profile which will further improve milk price and help keep the robots “busy” all year.
All cattle are home-bred, with beef cattle taken through to slaughter. There are three main outlets.
The very best prime Simmental-cross cattle are sold directly to the public through a beef-in-a-box scheme when at least 24-months old and hung on the bone for 21 days.
100 dairy cows and followers plus beef
165 ewes and 10,000 turkey stags
70ha cereals and 600t of cider apples
The second outlet for beef is also for quality Simmental-cross clean cattle which are marketed through Ross-on-Wye livestock market.
“We are regular vendors and sell to the same buyers week in, week out, so consistent quality is very important.
“We are reducing the age and finishing weights that we market as a result of changes to market demands.
“We are aiming for 500-600kg at 18 months – finishing younger will allow us to increase our stocking rate and throughput, which should improve the bottom line.”
Once-bred beef are also sold through Ross market.
Finally, all Friesian steers are finished at 12-24 months and sold dead to Foyles who have a local abattoir – allowing the farm to deliver cattle to the slaughterhouse itself.
Animal welfare and cost management are both a key focus. “Poor welfare means poor profit,” says Robert.
“We have recently invested in mattresses for all the cubicles, reducing hock damage to zero, and we’ve installed an area of rubber matting for the cows to walk on.”
Turkey stags are produced on contract to Faccenda Foods all year.
This is operated as a managed margin system which doesn’t guarantee a positive margin but does make returning a profit achievable in contrast to the challenges facing the dairy and beef sectors, says Robert.
“The poultry market has started to demand lighter birds.
“We have installed automatic weighers in both houses – weighing so many birds daily gives us a very accurate average weight and helps us manage growth by adjusting the feed ration using our newly installed blending plant.”
Improvements have also been made on the poultry site. “We replaced bell drinkers and header tanks with direct-fed nipple drinkers.
This has improved water hygiene for the birds and made terminal hygiene much easier too.”
Cider apples are produced under contract to Magners, which owns the Shepton Mallet cider mill, producing several premium brands including Blackthorn and Gaymers.
“It is an acreage contract so maximising yield is desirable and we liaise directory with the factory,” says Robert.
Having just completed its second entry-level environmental stewardship scheme, the farm has now embarked on a mid-tier countryside stewardship agreement.
“We always strive to farm responsibly – particularly protecting our water course which is a tributary of the river Wye.”
It doesn’t stop there. An active member of the Harewood End Agricultural Society, Robert enters the field competitions every year.
“It brings different judges to the farm and their comments are invariably useful and interesting,” he says.
Plans for the future include ensuring that the farm remains a viable business ready to hand on to the next generation.
“We have been consistently profitable, which has allowed steady expansion and capital expenditure – something that has never been more relevant.
“Over the next five years, we intend to continue to expand – particularly with stock numbers and rental property.
“I don’t see a dramatic improvement in the milk price as very likely, so I will focus on continued improvements in technical performance.”
James, Irene and Gillian Fowlie
James H Fowlie, Strichen, Fraserburgh
A strong entrepreneurial ethos has seen the Fowlie family build a strong business encompassing a range of agricultural enterprises from their base in north-east Scotland.
Jim Fowlie began his farming career at just 19-years-old. Married to Irene for 43 years, the couple’s enthusiasm for farming has never waned – and now daughter Gillian is also carving a name for herself as a specialist producer too.
Adding value is key to farm enterprises – turning commodities such as beef, sheep and eggs into high-quality sought-after products that are able to command a premium and more resilient to market shocks and volatility.
The judges liked
Striving for excellence across all areas
Continuing to seek out opportunities
Adding value to optimise margins
“Our aim has always been to produce quality products sustainably to suit our specific markets while taking care of the environment,” explains Jim.
This includes Aberdeen Angus beef reared on a grass-based system all summer, with silage and home-produced cereals in winter.
Breeding cows are out-wintered and calved on otherwise marginal sandy land near the Aberdeenshire coast.
Some 220 Aberdeen Angus cross cows are sired by Aberdeen Angus bulls and then calve outdoors in the spring.
Aberdeen Angus bulls with good performance figures are purchased increasingly from local breeders, helping to ensure maximum biosecurity, while supporting local livestock producers.
Calves are finished at 18 months.
In terms of finishing cattle, 1,500 are purchased throughout the year – although mainly in spring to use grass – and provide a constant supply to a major retailer.
“Cattle management is based on proactive prevention of disease, rather than cure, because sub-clinical disease hampers production,” says Jim.
“Maximising performance and animal welfare is the route to profitability.”
Irene is responsible for the sheep enterprise.
The Essie flock was established 34 years ago.
The aim is to produce high estimated breeding value performance-recorded Suffolk shearling rams for commercial and pedigree flocks.
900ha beef unit finishing 1,500 cattle
120 pedigree Suffolk ewes plus followers
6,000 hens in organic egg unit
272ha of arable and renewable energy
This has been done through the careful selection of growth, conformation, size and maternal traits in a closely monitored breeding programme.
The closed flock now comprises 120 ewes and their followers, with 95% of all lambs born in the top 1% of performance-recorded Suffolks.
“Our belief is that ‘naturally grown’ sheep on a grass-based system – combined with superior genetics – produces the quality product that today’s market requires,” explains Irene, who resigned a full-time teaching post three years ago to concentrate on the enterprise.
To fit in with other enterprises on the farm, the ewes lamb in late January and are turned out during the day when the lambs are two weeks old.
Standard performance-recording is carried out on average at eight and 20 weeks.
Such is the attention to detail that for four years, 15 rams have been taken annually for CT scanning to Scotland’s Rural Campus in Edinburgh – a 350-mile round trip.
After weighing and ultra-scanning, lambs are turned out to grass for the remainder of the year.
They are out-wintered on grass only, with ram lambs fed home-grown oats and beet pulp only when the winter is harsh.
Irene says: “I am passionate in my belief that allowing the shearlings and the gimmers to mature in this way helps them to achieve their mature weight, size and strength naturally before going on perform consistently for years.”
Daughter Gillian is in charge of the organic egg laying enterprise. Point of lay pullets are sourced from a specialise organic grower, eggs produced to Freedom Foods standards are collected and packed every morning before being sent to a local packer for distribution.
Achievements have included overall winner of the 2014 Golden Egg Award – the first time it was awarded for organic producers.
Gillian is now exploring the option of developing the enterprise further by replacing existing buildings with new sheds that have twice the capacity.
Diversifications include using the single payment to invest in renewable energy, starting with a small wind turbine.
The 20kW turbines provide power for the highly automated electrical system at the egg-laying unit.
A bigger project saw the family join up with a neighbour to secure planning project for four turbines, which were built in 2014, with a larger 500kW on the home farm.
Embracing different income streams helps spread risk. “Reduced income for all commodities is certainly a challenge in the current year,” says Jim.
“But we continue to be optimistic about the future and we are working on developments in all areas of our business.”
Stuart and Edward Hammond
JW Hammond & Sons, Upper Dollwynhir, Powys
Dedication and determination have seen brothers Stuart and Edward Hammond secure a future for their family business following the untimely death of their father last year.
Based a stone’s throw from Llandrindod Wells, the family partnership of JW Hammond & Sons comprises beef, sheep and poultry production, with some arable land and green energy – plus a children’s play centre which attracts some 27,500 visitors annually.
Still young in farming terms – Stuart is 33 and Edward 28 – recent years have seen the brothers change their business practice and expand into new enterprises, including poultry, to ensure the farm remains sustainable, productive and profitable for all involved.
The goal has been to put the business on a sure footing, says Edward.
“This was against a background of our father Michael being seriously ill with several degenerative conditions, which resulted in his early death in May 2015,” he explains.
The judges liked
Unafraid of meeting difficult challenges head on
Strong mix of complementary enterprises
Clear focus on long-term sustainability
Hammond Poultry was started when Edward returned home from Harper Adams in 2010. Starting with a single shed measuring 1,963sq m, a second building was added in 2014 with construction on a third starting this summer.
Some 80,000 broilers are produced on contract for Cargill.
All birds are grown to Red Tractor standards and are subject to independent audits to ensure they meet supermarket standards for welfare and biosecurity.
Hammond Energy was formed in 2015.
This business provides heat for the play centre and supplies the poultry enterprise with dry wood fuel.
Doing so cuts costs – as does using waste from a local saw mill to reduce road miles.
Over the past two years, the brothers have also started to move the ewe flock over to New Zealand Romneys to reduce costs – particularly feed and labour.
An intensive beef-finishing system has been introduced, enabling more cattle to be finished.
Batches of ewes are mated to Abermax rams to supply Waitrose and last year achieved a hit rate of about 91%.
Others are mated to NZ Wairere UK rams to produce replacements and eventually provide ewe lambs for sale.
All ewes are now wintered out on roots and lambed outdoors, with no additional supplementation.
A Prattley drafting crate was purchased last year with the aim of adding EID data recording to better monitor performance.
396ha of grazing and arable
80,000 broilers for Cargill, adding a third shed this year
1,650 breeding ewes plus 280 ewe lambs
90 suckler cows and 250-300 finishing cattle
The beef-finishing enterprise now takes in reared calves at 120kg with the aim to finish them on farm for 12 months and kill a carcass of 300kg.
A batch of 36 animals are now received every two months, EID tagged to monitor liveweight gain and fully vaccinated for pneumonia.
On the arable side, the cereal acreage has increased to 50ha.
Contractors are used for all cereal work, manure spreading and forage harvesting – again to cut costs, while allowing the brothers to focus more attention on the livestock enterprises.
The brothers belong to the Cargills producer group. Stuart is a member of the Wye Valley Grassland Society and the Sainsbury’s/Dunbia beef steering group.
“It’s about sharing ideas and learning from each other,” he says.
The play centre – called Quackers – boasts a four-lane astro slide with the biggest drop-slide in mid-Wales. Popular with young and old, it also has a tube slide, roller racers, a rope bridge, ball pool and softball cannons.
Managed by the brothers’ mother Sharon, the play centre employs 26 staff. A five-star hygiene-rated Cowshed Café serves a selection of home-cooked meals and snacks. Upstairs, there are two themed party rooms, and a larger room for parties, meetings or small conferences.
But perhaps the main change to the running of the business over recent years has been the use of David Thomas from Andersons farm business consultants.
“Profit has increased considerably over the past three years,” says Stuart.
“We now conduct a business review every January, producing gross margins for ever enterprise and producing a cashflow analysis.
“We hold regular meetings with David – as well as our bank manager and accountant in attendance to discuss current performance and future plans.”
But it isn’t all about chasing money. Environmental responsibilities are also taken seriously.
“We are signed up to the Glastir Advanced scheme, maintaining buffer strips on water course edges, fencing hedges and planting new hedgerows.”
Future plans include becoming more efficient by using more grass for the sheep and increasing the lambing percentage through genetics.
“Reducing support payments will be a huge challenge for us but also a huge opportunity to drive change,” says Stuart.
“Every finalist has proved that careful planning and implementation can breed tremendous success – showing that the future of British farming is in safe hands”
Agricultural product manager