Changes for the best
Restructuring – radical
and otherwise – has been
the name of the game at
Freefolk Farms, our new
arable and dairy farm in the
south. Robert Harris
finds out more
JAMES Crosbie Dawson is only just getting settled into the new farmhouse at Northington Farm.
He, his wife Jackie and two sons moved in just before Christmas, after the builders finally finished renovating and extending what had been a pair of farm workers cottages.
The original 17th Century farmhouse, which stands away from the main farm buildings, had been his home all his life. But, having borrowed a very large sum several years ago to buy the two tenanted farms he was running, when horn and corn were doing rather nicely, the subsequent crash in farmings fortunes meant some radical action was needed to turn the business around.
"I suppose I am fortunate to live in an area where people are prepared to pay good prices for good property," says Mr Crosbie Dawson, adding that the sale helped reduce the overdraft to a much more manageable level. "But I must admit, my wife had to drag me out of the house when we finally moved – it has been quite a wrench."
Although Mr Crosbie Dawson inherited the tenancy when he took over the running of the business in 1990, he started down the owner-occupier route in 1994, when he bought the 162ha (400-acre) mainly arable Southfields Farm.
Two years later, he acquired Northington Farm, a 365ha (900-acre) dairy and arable unit near Overton, Hants, where the family had been based since 1950, when his father took on the tenancy.
Since then, he has taken on other parcels of land, mainly on farm business tenancies, where he grows most of the grass silage on non-IACS land as well as arable crops and Environmentally Sensitive Area-classified water meadows for the sheep.
The farming business now covers about 728ha (1800 acres). The 160-cow Freefolk herd of pedigree Holsteins, averaging 7800 litres a cow per year, grazes about 34ha (85 acres) on a set-stocking system.
Arable – a mix of winter wheat, winter and spring malting barley, oilseed rape and maize for silage – takes up a further 505ha (1250 acres). Permanent grass is grazed by the 500-ewe mule flock.
The dairy herd – pedigree for 30 years – starts calving in the autumn and carries on until late winter. Cows are loose-housed. "We have always had plenty of straw, and it is a pretty low-maintenance system. And we have not had to keep rebuilding cubicles as cows get bigger, which has been a problem on some farms."
Mr Crosbie Dawson has been supplying Portsmouth-based Southern Co-operative Dairies for several years, but gave a years notice at the end of December. "The dairy has been paying well (currently 19p/standard litre), but it cant go on. The contract means we are paid a guaranteed price until September, but after that they are only going to pay 16p/litre. I would struggle to break even at that. It is time for a change."
He has signed up with the Milk Group and is following its potential merger with Zenith with interest. "I believe it is a good idea. Individual dairy farmers struggle to fight their own corner. I may not get a better price in the short-term, but we have to co-operate. We need experts to market our milk, and eventually we will have to own our own modern processing plants."
On the arable front, winter wheat is the main crop, taking 202ha (500 acres). Consort, Savannah and Deben are being grown this year. Mr Crosbie Dawson sold 1000t in January for November movement to Glencore Grain at an average of £67/t as he became increasingly nervous about the state of the market.
Although that was well below the £75/t pencilled in the budget, for the moment at least it looks like a good move. Most malting barley is being grown on contract with the same merchant. The 55ha (135 acres) of Pearl will fetch £10/t over feed, and 61ha (150 acres) of Prestige spring barley £17/t over feed. A further 30ha (75 acres) of Optic will be sold on the open market. The 40ha (100 acres) of Gerald oats was sold for harvest movement at £55/t.
In a further move to cut costs, Mr Crosbie Dawson sidelined the ploughs last autumn after buying a 4m Horsch demonstration drill.
"I was always convinced that ploughing was the way to go," he says. "But the drill did a really impressive job." Tractor driver Adrian Lawrence is also pretty handy around the workshop, and built the kit to complement the new no-plough system.
"He dragged two Powerflow cultivators out of the hedge that had been there since my fathers time, and chopped them up and welded them together to make one primary cultivator. He also refurbished a vintage MF Flexitine cultivator and put duckfoot tines on it."
The drill cost £18,000, after trading in the existing drill, and he bought the ex-demonstration New Holland TM150 tractor for a net price of £22,000. "But the job is much quicker. One full-time man has retired, and I have not replaced him, and another part-timer is used to help out at peak periods."
Farming is, and will remain at, the heart of the family business. Although Mr Crosbie Dawson may let an existing grain store site for offices when he refurbishes another building as an on-floor store, more extreme forms of diversification are out, even though he lives in a well-populated area (Basingstoke is just 8 miles away).
"I was talking to my solicitor the other day. He said two farmers in the area had just gone into liquidation, but it was big diversification projects that dragged them down. We have enough to do without taking our eye off the ball," he says. "The government must be told that diversification is not the answer to most farmers problems." *
Final maize seed-bed preparations get under way at Freefolk Farms. James Crosbie Dawson (right) and Adrian Lawrence check progress. Maize will be planted using the farms new 4m Horsch drill, bought last autumn.
• Freefolk Farms, based at Overton, Hants, a 720ha (1800-acre) arable and dairy unit, run as a limited company with James Crosbie Dawson and his wife, Jackie, as directors.
• Land is grade 3 medium loam over chalk with flints, with areas of clay cap.
• Arable area of 500ha (1250 acres). Crops include winter wheat, winter and spring barley for malting, oilseed rape.
• I60-cow pedigree Holstein herd averaging 7800 litres a cow.
• Calving September to January. Total dairy forage area of 75ha (185 acres).
• Five full time staff including Mr Crosbie Dawson, plus part-time secretary.