LONG ROAD TO GET
Competition for the NFUs
most promising new entrant
award was keener than ever
last year. Mike Stones and
Stephen Howe met the
winners and the runners up
SUE and Andy Guy share a passion for cows – 49 pedigree Holsteins to be precise. Listen to them introduce their stock, the star performers and the could-do-betters, and their enthusiasm becomes infectious, even standing in a cold collecting yard lashed by January rain.
Back in the farm office coddling a cup of coffee – with extra milk, naturally – it soon becomes clear why the couple scooped the coveted NFUs most promising new entrant award. Partners in business and marriage, they share a gritty determination to turn their dream into reality; to operate a high-hygiene, high-welfare dairy herd for profit.
Winning a 10-year tenancy of Kites Farm, Wickwar, a 24ha (60-acre) Glos County Council starter unit, was an important milestone. Both in their mid-30s, they have travelled a long road to reach this point in their careers. Meeting at Harper Adams Agricultural College, Shropshire, they knew that farming was their aim. Sue studied an HND in agriculture while Andy opted for an HND in agricultural engineering. After college, the challenge was to gain the experience that would allow them to farm in their own right.
Coming from a Notting-hamshire dairy farm, Sue already knew a thing or two about cows. The couple returned to the farm after college, Sue to work in partnership with her father and Andy to find work as an agricultural engineer.
* Farm not big enough
Sue takes up their story: "The home dairy farm is not big enough to support two families. So we took the difficult decision to look for a farm tenancy after gaining more experience."
For Sue, experience came in the shape of a temporary contract as a herdsman on a 400-cow Notts dairy unit followed by a move to Dorset to manage a 200-cow herd which was underperforming. "During our management the herd made dramatic improvements in yield, fertility, hygiene and margins," she says.
Meanwhile Andy left his job in agricultural engineering to start a small contracting and relief milking service in Jan 1994. "We were determined to go out and get the experience we needed to strengthen our hand when applying for council farms," he says. More persuasive power came in the form of attending courses in DIY AI and advanced foot trimming.
They also joined the NFU, Tenant Farmers Association, Kingshay Farming Trust and an RABDF young dairy managers course to master the farm policy changes that would influence their own farming business one day. That day came four years after beginning the quest for a tenancy. The couple had viewed 15 farms, tendered for seven and had been interviewed for five.
"We put a lot of work into every tender – up to 80 hours," recalls Sue. "Half the time was devoted to preparing detailed budgets, the rest went on researching local milk markets and the farm and surrounding area."
Learning from previous mistakes was a key factor in winning the tenancy of Kites Farm. "We always asked for reasons whenever we failed to win a tenancy. Presentational skills was one area that needed rapid improvement. And we learned to anticipate questions put by the selection committee."
So what advice would Sue and Andy give to anyone following in their footsteps? There is a long pause. Hard-won experience is not something that trips off the tongue lightly.
Andy is first to answer: "Be certain you know you want the farm and identify weaknesses in your application and show you have done something to remedy them." Sue tries to suppress a smile as she replies: "Choose someone you can work well with and prepare a full set of evidence to support your application. And make sure you give a good presentation."
* Tough but satisfying
Kites Farm is testimony to their ability to put that advice into practice. The couple say it is tough but satisfying work, which is just as well because their last holiday was their honeymoon in 1991.
Their main enterprise is milk production, with one cow yielding more than 11,000 litres. They also rear pedigree heifer replacements.
From the outset, the couple have attributed key significance to hygiene in and around the parlour. To reduce culling rate they sought high health status cows, most of which were heifers or second calvers and all had low cell counts. To avoid the introduction of disease, all the cows were sourced from one herd.
Simplicity is the aim behind feeding. "We designed the feeding system to be operated by one person," says Andy, who has a part-time job as a recruitment officer for The Milk Group. Sue, too, has a part-time job so feeding needs to be a one-pair-of-hands chore.
* Low butterfat
A roughly-mixed forage diet is delivered in ring-feeders and mobile feeders, with concentrates fed to yield through an out-of-parlour feeder. No concentrates are offered in their 5-10 herringbone parlour.
Rationing is intended to produce low butterfat milk to make the best use of leased milk quota. Milk protein target is 3.3%.
Grass is used to help maintain and increase yield from forage. But the farms heavy clay soils are not suited to New Zealand style extended grazing. Nevertheless, NZ grazing expert Paul Birds views on paddock grazing and bark tracks, to improve access to grass, have proved their worth at Kites Farm. The rolling stocking rate is 2.54 livestock units a hectare (1.03/acre).
It is a dairying policy which is paying off. Averaged milk yields crept up from 6500 litres a lactation last April to 7114 litres in October. Similarly, annual rolling yield from forage has risen from 2000 to nearly 2800 litres. Feed conversion rate is 0.28kg/litre and the Bactoscan last November was 11. Cell count was 55.
Hygiene is of paramount importance. A key concern in designing management routines was to minimise infection and stress. "Cows suspected of carrying mastitis are milked last. California Milk Tests and NMR milk records are used to monitor recovery and aid early detection," says Sue.
No flashy computer adorns their office. All records are kept on a card filing system. Every cow has a card containing the health and the performance information the couple need to make breeding decisions.
Sue does most of the milking, rationing and DIY AI. Andy looks after the foot trimming and machinery maintenance. All financial planning and policy decisions are made jointly. And it pays to be open-minded, stress the Guys. "We have adopted some unconventional practices such as milking five times in two days," says Andy. "That cuts milk haulage costs by over 60% and takes advantage of lower priced electricity."
Although Kites Farm is managed intensively, the couple have devised an environmentally-friendly hedgerow management plan aimed at both improving wildlife habitats and maintaining stockproof hedges.
Theirs is a simple business philosophy. "We aim to produce top- quality milk and achieve full bonus payments under a high-welfare regime," says Sue.
And it is to The Milk Group that the Guys sell their milk.
In their submission to the competition judging panel they wrote: "Membership of The Milk Group is important because we believe in the principle of farmer co-operation. We feel the future lies in taking control of the selling process rather than allowing others to simply buy our milk."
Their aim is to build the herd up, in numbers and top-quality genetics, by breeding their own replacements, before moving to a larger unit within two or three years.
And with the award now to their credit perhaps there might even be a holiday on the horizon.
Winner not in doubt
The judges had no doubt in selecting the Guys as the clear winner of the most promising new entrant award. In the words of one judge: "It was Sue and Andys enthusiasm, grit and determination to succeed at a time when the farming industry is experiencing very difficult times that won them the award.
"They set a great example for anyone wanting to get into dairying backed by comparatively modest resources. They prove that new entrants can start with a simple manual recording system and do not need lots of shiny new tackle to be successful."
SUE AND ANDYS TIPS
• Be certain that you want the farm.
• Identify weaknesses in your application and remedy or minimise them.
• Choose a partner you can work well with.
• Thoroughly prepare evidence to support your application.
• Ensure you give a good presentation.
Brave decision for runner-up
SHOULD he stay or should he go? Deciding whether or not to leave the family farm was the most difficult decision Colin Ewbank has ever faced.
Nine years later, he knows he made the right choice to leave.
Not only have he and wife Rachel secured a farm tenancy, their determination and sheer professionalism have won them the runner-up prize in the NFUs most promising new entrant award.
Colins reaction to the accolade is characteristically frank. " I was very chuffed to be short listed. Its a reward for all our hard work."
Hard work it was indeed. Colin won the tenancy of the 75ha (185 acre) Tarn Hill Farm, near Penrith, Cumbria, against stiff competition in April 1997. The dairy farm, part of Lord Lonsdales Lowther Estate, is let on a long-term business tenancy.
* Numbers build
Cow numbers have just reached 103 pedigree holsteins with youngstock numbers gradually building up. The herds average yield is 8211 litres per lactation. All milk is sold to The Cheese Company in Lockerbie.
Taking in 400 wintering sheep also helps the cash flow.
Before farming in his own right, Colin studied at Harper Adams Agricultural College and left with an honours degree in agriculture. Practical experience, in the form of an apprenticeship with CWS Agriculture, complemented his academic training.
Soon after taking on the farm, Colin started a full programme of improvements designed to enable him to run the farm as a one-man unit. Automatic scrapers to remove slurry have saved both time and money. Cow mattresses allow bedding of cubicles to be completed in 10 minutes. A small amount of fresh sawdust is used to freshen up the beds every day.
* Powerful benefits
Milk meters in the parlour bring powerful benefits, says Colin. "Immediate milk recording gives me far greater control of feeding the herd and allows me to identity problem cows through recording high cell counts and low yielders."
In the first two seasons after taking the tenancy, Colin grew 14ha (35 acres) of spring barley to help clean the land before re-seeding. He plans to re-seed and lime the whole farm within five years. "I decided on this radical re-seeding programme as the leys I inherited from the previous tenants were well past their best and were not of suitable quality for dairying," he explains.
It was just this attention to detail and determination to improve Tarn Hill Farm that netted the Ewbanks their prize in the NFU awards. Yet another reason to justify Colins brave decision to leave the family farm nearly 10 years ago.
NFU Most Promising New Entrant awards: Highly Commended
* Andrew and Victoria Daniels, Mill Farm, Diss, Norfolk, keep 170 outdoor sows and sell 7kg weaners that are FAB and Freedom Food assured. They do all the farm work themselves. and Andrew is also a part-time consultant. Since setting up the farm in 1997, they have increased the herd and changed the genotypes. Emphasis is placed on monitoring and attention to detail. They aim to produce large numbers of healthy marketable piglets and are proud to have established a farm business in their 20s.
* Anthony Halliday farms at Dalefoot Farm, Mallstang, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria.
Anthony bought his hill farm, with 700 Swaledale ewes and followers and 25 suckler cows, in 1995. He and his wife operate a contracting business with work varying from shepherding to landscape gardening. As farm incomes have dropped, they have done more contract work. Anthony has always aimed to buy his own farm.
* Richard Hollingberry, God-minster, Bruton, Somerset, bought a run-down 485-acre estate with 140 dairy cows in 1993. He now has 565 acres, 210 cows plus followers, beef and cereals farmed organically. He has also introduced woodland management and employs 11 full-time staff. Innovations include building new dairy buildings; creating a farm based water supply; computerising the farm administration; undertaking conservation work. The highlight has been converting the farm to organic status.
* Robert Lasseter is a pig producer at Corton Farm, Friar Waddon, Weymouth, Dorset. He bought 300 outdoor breeding sows in July 1994 with a market for 7kg weaners. The farm now has 500 outdoor sows with a market for 30kg weaners. Robert works to ensure his staff are well-trained and allows them to take responsibility. This enables him to work in consulting.
Awards sponsored by Tesco *