11 June 1999

Tough to say goodbye cows

Setting up a new enterprise

is a brave move when it

means an end to a monthly

milk cheque. Jessica Buss

finds out how one Somerset

producer is coping

JUST over a year since starting a deer enterprise, one Somerset milk producer is almost ready to quit milking cows.

Despite not having any deer ready for sale, Peter and Cathy Hurman will sell the remaining cows from their Washers Farm, Fitzhead, Taunton, in the next few weeks. This will mean giving up the security of a monthly milk cheque.

Cow numbers have reduced from 110 last spring to just 60 with the sale of 50 cows in February.

This was not as quickly as Mr Hurman planned when he decided to quit milking cows in the winter of 1997/98 and started the deer enterprise. Deer numbers have now increased from 24 to 73 with 49 hinds bought last November.

The deer herd size will gradually increase to 200, mainly through breeding stock. This will be cheaper than buying in stock. Hinds cost about £250 each and should last 12 seasons, says Mr Hurman.

"It takes time to get into a new enterprise and to create an income from it, so we carried on milking. But by the end of June we will stop milking as most cows will be dry or culls, so they will be sold. It was difficult to sell the 50 cows. When you do the job yourself, you get attached to them. They were good friends and real characters. But I have no doubt that we are doing the right thing."

Staying in milk would have required investment in buildings and an increase in cow numbers. But Mr Hurman wanted to do less, and have fewer ties to the farm, after 30 years of milking.

He believes there is a good market for venison. Tesco is now buying British venison, which makes the deer industry positive about its future, he believes. It is also a healthy meat, he says.

Milking continued while Mr Hurman was waiting to obtain planning permission on the old traditional dairy buildings. Now that has been approved, he is keen to move the cows out to prepare the buildings for sale.

He had also planned to sell his milk quota, but now favours leasing it out to provide some income until the deer enterprise is up and running fully.

In the short-term, he may continue to rear dairy youngstock on the 71ha (176-acre) farm or rent out land. But with deer only taking up 20ha (50 acres), so far, and half the farm in future, he is looking for another profitable enterprise.

Other possibilities include daffodils and asparagus. Spring barley has been sown on 14ha (35 acres) of IACS eligible land this year. In addition, deer have a low labour requirement, taking little time each day, so Mr Hurman is considering part-time work elsewhere – taxi driving or gardening. "This will save taking money out of the business, when income is low."

The Hurmans also plan to buy a cottage for holiday letting. This will be away from the farm so that they can also use it for their own holidays.

Paid labour is also being reduced. The herdsman is developing his own contracting business this summer. Therefore, Mr Hurman has had to do more milkings.

Once cows are gone, the Hurmans can focus on deer management and put what they learnt on a training course last autumn into practice.

The first task is to finish six home-bred stag calves, from 20 calves born on the farm last year, and 16 purchased stag calves. Hind calves will join the herd, together with another 14 purchases.

"We bought in some calves because with just six we would not make a mark on the map. At least with 22 we can market them and its as easy to run 50 calves as 20." Calves were weaned recently and should finish between August and September at 15-18 months old.

Low labour makes deer healthy prospect

DEER provided with well managed grass and high quality silage should do well without any concentrate.

After last winters experience, Peter Hurman believes that farming deer on high quality land will allow him to avoid concentrate feeding even for finishing calves.

"Deer do not need top quality forage. And I can use the grazing management learnt with cows and adapt it for deer, by keeping grass shorter."

Last winter deer remained outside. "No concentrate was fed because the hinds did not need it and calves ate good quality round bale silage and grew well." He hopes calves will grow even better next year when fed clamp silage.

Mr Hurman also plans to build simple pole barns which hinds and calves can shelter and lie in, reducing poaching damage to swards in winter.

Despite realising that inputs can be lower than he initially expected, Mr Hurman has decided against going organic. This is mainly because deer are susceptible to worms. The high cost of fencing makes using a clean grazing policy difficult.

"Fencing is a major task and it must be 6ft high. It is one of the most expensive outlays in deer farming. We have also had to buy a second-hand handling system," says Mr Hurman.

But other inputs are low. Only a little fertiliser is used, and deer are healthy animals. The herd has not suffered any cases of lameness or mastitis to date and no antibiotics have been used. &#42