Passion, enthusiasm and resourcefulness are attributes shared by all of our farm manager finalists. Suzie Horne reports on the three men for whom attention to detail forms the basis of their drive to improve the business they manage.
Bowhill Estate, Scottish Borders
Efficiency improvements and market-focused changes to sheep, cattle and arable enterprises have been at the heart of Sion William’s policies on the Bowhill Estate, where he manages the 3,786ha mixed farming business.
In the five years since his appointment, the estate’s farm business has been reviewed and restructured and a new cattle complex constructed. Sheep breeding has also come under intense scrutiny, in pursuit of maximising output and minimising costs for each enterprise.
Sion came to Bowhill as assistant manager on 2,023ha in 2004. Less than two years later, he was promoted to manager and the business has expanded.
He seeks to minimise risk at the same time as achieving a 10% return on capital for the Buccleuch Group. Cashflow and budgets are monitored monthly while profit and loss is calculated quarterly.
- 440 suckler cows in three herds
- 4,500 ewes in six flocks
- 3,786ha, predominantly heather moorland and rough grazing, 973ha permanent pasture, temporary grass and cropping
While production risks remain, improvements in stock health under Sion’s management have reduced this aspect of risk. The 440 cows are now accredited and all should be clear of Johne’s by the autumn.
A cleaner grazing system has reduced worming from every three weeks to twice yearly for the breeding flock and three times a year for store and fat lambs.
Further innovations under Sion’s tenure include the introduction of spring barley, oats and kale to provide more home-grown feed, giving improved lamb finishing results. EID records weights, movements and veterinary treatments across all cattle and sheep.
Alongside these measures, the business has become more market focused with extensive trial work comparing New Zealand and UK genetics. This identified a £28 a ewe difference in net margin between four breeds of ewes and led to hill cross breed improvements through Aberdale and Aberfield genetics.
The business is a member of Sainsbury’s lamb development group and sells all finished lambs to the retailer, mainly on contract through Dunbia. The shepherds get feedback on individual lambs from the abattoir with each flock’s performance closely monitored against specification.
All enterprises are separately costed and benchmarked with QMS while the overall business is benchmarked through a Scottish Enterprise development group. Membership of a discussion group also helps with ideas and comparisons.
The sheep enterprise is profitable before subsidy, with net margin on store lambs at £12.42 a head – almost triple the SAC average. Net margins for the hill flocks are pushing into the top-third bracket.
An innovative approach to store cattle sales includes the establishment of a private sealed bid auction with cattle weighed and sorted into lots on farm. This gave some control over prices and saved on haulage and commission.
Health and safety has taken increasing prominence in the past few years, not only for farm staff but also for contractors and the public. Staff are closely involved in drawing up risk assessments and in reviewing systems, and Sion is aiming for British Standard ISO 18001 Health and Safety System accreditation.
The 11 full-time staff members are expected to take responsibility for their enterprise paperwork and are given full access to figures for both physical and financial performance of their enterprise and for the whole farm.
Environmental schemes at Bowhill involve heather moorland management for black grouse as well as hedgerows, water margins, open grazed grasslands, wild bird covers and wet grasslands for waders.
Carbon footprint is monitored, and low-energy lighting and a 50kW solar system has been introduced. More own-grown feed and rainwater collection systems have improved efficiency and reduced the farm’s environmental impact.
Many school visits are hosted through the Royal Highland Educational Trust, alongside visits by Greenmount College students and organisations including the Aberdeen Angus Society, grassland societies and the 13th Shorthorn World Conference.
Renewable energy is likely to make a bigger contribution to the business in future, says Sion. Refining the sheep breeding will continue alongside the further adoption of new technology.
Daylesford Organic Farms, Gloucestershire
Richard Smith is in the unusual position of having his best and largest customer right next door, which brings both advantages and challenges.
As senior farms manager he has implemented many changes since joining the diverse Daylesford business in 2005, on 708ha of owned land and 202ha of rented ground.
His passion for matching breed and type to their environment is demonstrated by his change of direction for the farm’s livestock systems since joining the business.
This includes moving the dairy herd from Holstein to British Friesian, now yielding almost 7,000 litres/cow. The herd’s lameness score of zero is testament to the team’s attention to detail, as is the cell count of 150,000.
A pedigree Aberdeen Angus beef herd has also been introduced, from which six fat cattle a week go into the Daylesford Organic business.
Six years ago the tally was just one beast a week and 10 lambs compared with the current 80 lambs a week. Carcass utilisation efficiencies have been achieved through setting up a ready-meals kitchen and while Richard is not responsible for any of the non-farming businesses, he works very closely with them.
The success of the brand means that Richard must now double Daylesford’s beef production over the next two years, probably through partner or contract farms with the challenge of maintaining production integrity.
With 13 full-time and two part-time employees, staff management is one of Richard’s biggest challenges. His tenure has seen the market garden expand from two people on less than 1ha to five full-time employees on 8ha. Here the focus is on high-value, diverse cropping of more than 100 varieties of fruit and vegetable.
- Organic system includes 130-cow dairy, Angus, South Devon and Old Gloucester cattle plus three pedigree flocks, 1,250 commercial ewes, large poultry enterprise
- Produces clover, wheat, oats, spring barley, triticale, winter beans, red ryegrass
- Market garden producing 100 fruits and vegetables
Staff induction ensures an understanding of the ethos of the business while each member of the team takes ownership of their role. Employees are expected to be multi-skilled, and are given the freedom to use their initiative. Staff are also involved in budgeting and monitoring their enterprise.
Seven apprentices have joined the farm in the past five years, with two of these now employed full-time and with increasing responsibility.
To make best use of market garden labour and to improve income in quieter times, Richard has introduced cider production and wreath-making enterprises. Best use of resources is also demonstrated by his decision to double-up sheep housing as turkey sheds from July to December.
Richard’s strong belief in local, sustainable British agriculture is a powerful message carried through the Daylesford business, which has a butchery, bakery, cheese room, café, cookery school and farm shop on farm as well as retailing in London, wholesale businesses and online retailing through Ocado.
A key challenge is the quarterly price negotiation between Richard’s company and its sister businesses next door – while the farm must be profitable, the retail and other ventures need to buy as cheaply as possible.
Monthly enterprise updates from the farm’s accountant are complemented by quarterly enterprise profit and loss reviews against budget.
Hosting visits not only by farming groups but from a wide range of interests is one of the most satisfying parts of his role, says Richard, with an annual summer festival for 5,000 visitors, lambing tours, farm tours, school visits and demonstrations. Wholesale and other customers are also welcomed.
Under the sustainability strategy of the farm and food businesses, more than 7km of hedges and 20,000 mixed woodland trees have been planted. Rainwater is collected for the beef unit and the market garden, with plans for a further tank for the dairy. The farm also has a 250kW solar voltaic installation. The entire farm is currently in the OELS scheme and is about to enter HLS.
Richard’s vision includes profitable expansion, leading in sustainable farming, producing food of outstanding quality and driving efficiency though passing on experience and knowledge to his staff.
Lowther Park Farms, Cumbria
In his five years, Richard Price has managed huge change to create positive cashflow on the Lowther Estate’s 1,292ha in-hand farming operation.
A change of ownership, the need to re-organise enterprises and staff alongside tackling historical indebtedness put him on a steep learning curve. Dealing with those challenges has set up the estate’s farming business for a profitable future.
New marketing arrangements and collaboration with neighbours have been key, but one of the first big decisions was to switch the estate’s in-hand farming business back from organic to conventional production.
A five- to seven-year plan drawn up by Richard included the identification of key business risks. These are constantly monitored, with a plan for mitigation.
Investment in infrastructure, machinery and staff has been designed to give the estate’s owner, Jim Lowther, the “smart, ethical and profitable business” he wants.
The sheep enterprise has moved from 3,200 Lleyn cross ewes and 400 pedigree Lleyn ewes to 5,000 Mule ewes to increase output and longevity. The organic poultry unit of 1,000 laying hens which also produced 1,200 table birds a week has gone, as have the 250 suckler cows.
More than 300ha of arable cropping has been introduced, as well as 200 summer grazing store cattle.
When Richard joined the business, the farm staff included 16 full-timers plus part-timers. By spring this year this had become four full-time, three of whom Richard has recruited, with current staff members having between one and 34 years’ service.
With so many livelihoods affected, the staff changes were the most difficult aspect of Richard’s challenge. The wage bill has been reduced by 75% and the remaining jobs are more secure than those of five years ago.
Investment decisions under Richard’s direction include the construction of a grain store and workshop; roofing an existing silage clamp; and a sheep handling system. The creation of the arable enterprise led to a big investment in machinery, with the aim of reducing reliance on contractors in an extremely variable climate.
He sees staff, systems, communication and technology as the key elements for efficient production. Annual appraisals help to establish any work-related issues and technical days out such as Sheep 2013, Lamma and Cereals are part of involving staff in investment decisions.
Access to new technology and training are also key, while delivering wage envelopes to employees’ homes every six weeks allows partners the opportunity to raise with Richard any issues such as house maintenance. At Christmas there is a farm staff party, a free turkey and wine for employees.
Consolidation, attention to detail and simplifying the business have played a big part in his approach.
Early last year the decision was made to switch lamb marketing to supply Morrisons.
- 1,292ha in-hand farm of 28,328ha Lowther Estate
- 5,000 ewes, 200 store cattle, 80 red deer
- 324ha arable
In exchange for a commitment to supply the whole 2012 lamb crop, Richard secured a 10p/kg bonus for R3L lambs, limiting losses when prices collapsed last year. The farm uses auctions to buy replacement breeding ewes and rams.
Working more closely with some of the estate’s 90 farming tenants has been important, with feed barley and straw sold to neighbours, opening the door for further co-operation opportunities.
Agreements with local dairy farmers to supply silage and import their surplus manure and slurry allows tenants to expand and observe NVZ rules, while the estate reduces cropping risk by having additional grass as part of the arable rotation for lamb finishing on silage aftermaths.
As well as many commercial events, Lowther hosts non-profit events such as Riding for the Disabled, school visits and walking trails. Lowther is a LEAF farm and is considering Open Farm Sunday next year.
An HLS/ELS agreement will replace the existing CSS agreement in September and carbon footprint across the estate is under scrutiny, with quad bikes run on gas, and tractor fuel consumption measured to help keep establishment costs to a minimum.
Richard wants to ensure Lowther Park Farms is resilient, financially strong, durable and profitable post-CAP reform. Keeping an open mind and considering new business propositions is important in achieving that aim, he says, alongside consolidation of the improvements already made.
“This year’s three finalists share many outstanding qualities that set them apart in the agricultural industry. The three candidates equally demonstrate an innovative but ethical approach to their business management today and to the challenges the future will bring.”
Chief executive officer
Find out more about the 2013 Farmers Weekly Awards