20 November 1998

HUNGRY FOR SUCCESS

Enterprise, enthusiasm and

foresight are essential

ingredients for any dairy

enterprise. Peter Grimshaw

reports on a Wilts couple

who add a sound financial

base and hard work to

back-up the formula

OPTIMISM in the dairy industry may be extremely rare, but its plentiful enough at Mile Elm Farm, Calne, Wilts. The 100-cow herds performance is improving at a cracking pace and serious money is being invested in long-term improvements.

Asked to explain their success so far, Jane Lewis doesnt hesitate: "This is what we know best, and were hungry."

With age on their side – she and husband Guy are both still in their early 30s – they can afford to take a longer term view than many in the progressively ageing dairy industry.

Mr Lewis explains that building a business for the long-term is the driving force behind their herd management, and the reason for some tough but crucial decisions.

He joined the business when they married 10 years ago, after meeting on an NFYFC exchange. He brought with him the quota from his home farm in Wales, where he would have been the fourth generation. But there were only 40 cows – not enough to sustain two families.

"He was milking his parents cows there and I was milking my parents cows here," explains Mrs Lewis. "Neither set of parents wanted to carry on milking."

The original idea was to build the herd while milking on a high proportion of leased quota, and then to buy quota. But they were at the mercy of leasing rates from year to year.

However, they employed that

Enterprise, enthusiasm and

foresight are essential

ingredients for any dairy

enterprise. Peter Grimshaw

reports on a Wilts couple

who add a sound financial

base and hard work to

back-up the formula

OPTIMISM in the dairy industry may be extremely rare, but its plentiful enough at Mile Elm Farm, Calne, Wilts. The 100-cow herds performance is improving at a cracking pace and serious money is being invested in long-term improvements.

Asked to explain their success so far, Jane Lewis doesnt hesitate: "This is what we know best, and were hungry."

With age on their side – she and husband Guy are both still in their early 30s – they can afford to take a longer term view than many in the progressively ageing dairy industry.

Mr Lewis explains that building a business for the long-term is the driving force behind their herd management, and the reason for some tough but crucial decisions.

He joined the business when they married 10 years ago, after meeting on an NFYFC exchange. He brought with him the quota from his home farm in Wales, where he would have been the fourth generation. But there were only 40 cows – not enough to sustain two families.

"He was milking his parents cows there and I was milking my parents cows here," explains Mrs Lewis. "Neither set of parents wanted to carry on milking."

The original idea was to build the herd while milking on a high proportion of leased quota, and then to buy quota. But they were at the mercy of leasing rates from year to year.

However, they employed that time to gain experience and become more efficient. "But we had to break the cycle," says Mr Lewis.

Last year, with the support of his parents, he was able to secure long-term funding. "Without that, wed be going backwards."

"We were very lucky," agrees Mrs Lewis. "We had already been given a lot of opportunity, and really had an awful lot of help from our parents."

Mile Elm is a tenancy and their landlords, Whetham Estates – another family concern – have also been supportive.

Shared investment

The couple had to get their landlord on board to share investment in a state-of-the-art milking parlour. It was intended to replace the tiny, dark and definitely low-tech six abreast unit that imposed an absolute limit on herd expansion. In winter, milking took up to eight hours a day.

"We went to the landlords saying that we were prepared to invest in their farm by buying nearly 200,000 litres of quota, and we hoped theyd be willing to make a similar investment in the farm."

Whetham Estates funded the basic construction of a new parlour while the tenants invested £65,000 in installing milking equipment and other dairy fixtures.

For Mr and Mrs Lewis, investment in quota and parlour was made possible by radically restructuring and extending existing farm loans, mainly from five to 20 year terms – hence the long-term view of prospects for milk production.

It enabled them to buy 190,000 litres of clean quota in June 1997 at 42-43p. Although Mr Lewis says this is being written off over an optimistic 20 years, he likens it to a business development loan. It will allow them to earn a cash surplus sufficient to repay the loans between now and when the EU quota is abandoned, he believes.

"It was a really big decision because it affected the whole core, direction and commitment of the business. Were committed now for 20 years," he says.

Mrs Lewis credits her husband with adopting and adapting the best of the farm management system that she had gradually introduced since leaving Lackham College. Management ideas that worked were learned by trial and error. "Sometimes, it has been purely accidental," she admits. "Other ideas have been borrowed."

They now rate their ability to get milk from forage as a real strength. "I realised that we had to utilise what forage we had, using as little cake as we could get away with," says Mr Lewis.

They have devised a system of grazing lanes, comprising 1.2ha (3 acre) strips across the field width, separated by alternate permanent fences and electric horse tapes. This allows the use of a single gateway and water tank, with no wasted trackways. Stubble turnips are rotated round the lanes before reseeding.

A special straight concentrate mix has been fed for six years, handled from a bin using a simple, home-made discharge hopper that spreads it on top of the silage.

Breeding policy is to avoid extreme Canadian Holstein type, going for animals capable of handling high forage intake. Semex and Genus bulls are used, avoiding too-frequent switching from one to another, and thus developing a consistency that is easier to evaluate and manage.

"We dont want very high yielding animals that need three tonnes of cake shovelling into them to yield their potential. We go for good feet and potential longevity," says Mr Lewis.

"Im not bothered with 7000 litre heifer lactations, as long as they start with 5500 or 6000 litres and then go on for six, seven or eight lactations."

Bulls are chosen to give 800-1000kg of milk with 40-50 combined kg of fat and protein. "Nothing complicated," remarks Mr Lewis.

Mile Elms milk goes to Milk Marque. "Were going with Milk Marque because, being young, were thinking 15 years hence."

At current prices, they estimate that they can survive for a time, but not long, provided that they can maintain output. Hopes are for a shrinking gap between the Milk Marque and big dairies direct prices, as the current milk year goes on.

"I regard myself as being fairly loyal, but it will be strained if Milk Marque cant at least stabilise the price between now and next year," says Mr Lewis.

"Were basically run-of-the-mill dairy farmers, trying to expand. Youve got to be mad or brave to invest in dairying at present. Maybe weve a slight tendency to both." &#42

Jane and Guy Lewis and the new dairy unit that represents a long-term, shared investment by themselves and their landlords.

Business end of the feed hopper built by Guy Lewis to deliver straights onto silage. A double-acting ram works the shutter.

Family partnership and tenants of Whetham Estates

Farm size: 97ha (240 acres).

Herd size: 112 cows.

Yield/cow to March 1998-08-12: 7029 litres.

Yield from grazed forage/cow: 1105 litres.

Butterfat %: 4.193.

Protein %: 3.258.

Concentrates/cow: 1.089t.

Yield from forage and grazing/cow: 4774 litres.

Total feed cost/litre: 2.38p.

Margin over purchased feed/cow: £1293.