4 December 1998

Staff shake-up means challenging times ahead

Its all change at Whelan

Farms, with just two of the

full-time staff set to start

the New Year in their old

jobs. Suzie Horne reports

BOTH dairy staff are leaving Whelan to move to new farms; Nick Lancaster has been promoted to a nearby Sentry unit as herdsperson, and herdsman Neil Ammon is leaving Sentry for another dairy post after more than seven years on the farm.

Poor financial and physical results this year culminated in a £25,000 loss on the sheep unit. Farm manager, Robert Kilby, has decided he can no longer justify a full-time shepherd post, so Hugh Churcher has left.

"With the depression in the sheep sector and the likelihood of it continuing, our plan to reduce the flock – and the likelihood of a further reduction next year – meant we had to make a difficult decision, and one that we arrived at reluctantly," says Mr Kilby. "Our gross margin last year on the sheep was £53 a ewe. This year it was £25, and with fixed costs in excess of £40 a ewe, we had no alternative."

Five full-time staff including Mr Kilby will cover the arable, dairy and sheep enterprises. Mr Kilbys past experience in sheep will mean he will now spend more time than usual at the unit, particularly at lambing and other busy periods. At other times the sheep enterprise will be covered by existing staff until a clearer picture of the flocks future emerges. Mr Kilby has been interviewing replacement dairy staff, and has taken on a local man on a months trial to start as assistant herdsman in mid-December. This week he has appointed a new herdsman, Andrew Ward, who will be starting in the New Year.

"A lot of people would question the effect of so many changes on the farm, but I look on it as a fresh start, albeit at a challenging time. We will review how things are working in the spring," he says.

Trainee manager Charles Asher moved on as planned in October to a Sentry farm in Surrey, and has been replaced by Nathan Kilby (Roberts nephew) who comes to Whelan from another Sentry farm in Dorset.

The farms last 600 lambs sold as stores managed to hit the highs and lows of the trade. Sold in two lots, the first 300 made £28 a head and the second 300 less than half that figure, at £12 a head.

The flock is now almost fully covered, and tupping was over relatively quickly. But ewes are not in quite the condition Mr Kilby would have liked, mainly due to the effects of the poor weather this autumn. They will be housed in the first week of January as usual.

Cows are still milking well, but the neospora abortion problem is beginning to show through in total milk production. The disease mainly hit cows that would have calved in November and December.

Crops are variable in appearance, says Mr Kilby. Some early drilled wheats look well, but others are patchy. No spraying has been done at all because of poor ground conditions or fears of crop stress. Frosts allowed half the remaining 80ha (200 acres) of wheat to go in at the start of November but hopes are fading for the rest. If Mr Kilby is unable to drill variety Claire as planned, linseed will be substituted, bringing the farms total linseed area to 73ha (180 acres).

The pea area will also increase slightly. Mr Kilby favours the crop as an alternative break to linseed because it helps to spread harvest. "I do not want all linseed because if we get a late harvest it will interfere too much with drilling. We have to take the view with linseed that we must get it in early and get it off early if we can."

Linola was finally combined in early November. It took just six hours to cut 16ha (40 acres), and there was hardly any seed in the tank at the end of the operation. Not surprisingly, Mr Kilby has little to say about the crop. &#42


&#8226 A 649ha (1604-acre) arable, dairy and sheep holding owned by John Whelan and farmed by Sentry Farming.

&#8226 Chalky soil with some clay over chalk in Kent.

&#8226 356ha (880 acres) mixed combinable crops, including non-rotational set-aside.

&#8226 Dairy herd currently stands at 195 cows averaging just over 6500 litres.

&#8226 1300 ewes lambing mid-March, mainly Mules, some Scotch half-breds.

&#8226 Five full-time staff.