Dairy Farmer of the Year Finalists – Geoff Spence

Geoff Spence – Low Field Farm, near Northallerton, North Yorkshire

Geoff Spence is a man who likes to talk about dairy cows, but when you’ve built up a successful business like his you’ve definitely got something worth talking about.

And what makes his achievements all the more laudable are that they came about during one of the lowest points in the history of UK dairy farming.

In 1998 it was crunch time for the business, says Geoff. Quota prices meant it was virtually impossible to get more milk out of the existing system, so it was either sell up or get bigger.

After advice from Strutt & Parker he opted for the latter, which, given his obvious passion for his cows, wouldn’t have surprised

Farms Facts

Farm size: 210 acres
No Cows: 350
Dairy System: Closed TMR-fed herd
Milk Buyer: Arla Foods (Asda contract)

anybody who knew him. Building for a new cubicle shed and parlour started in 1999, but only a year later milk prices collapsed.

“I wanted to run away” says Geoff, but showing Yorkshire grit and drawing on his strong faith he made it through the lean years. That commitment has been amply rewarded. The quality of his milk means he was selected for the Asda milk contract, which pays an extra 1p/litre, by his milk buyer Arla Foods and turnover has increased from £565,000 to almost £800,000 over the past five years.

Cow and staff comfort is paramount to Geoff and this is reflected in a number of unusual, and at the time visionary, innovations added when his new cubicle shed and 32-point parlour were built.

To help create an even better working environment for himself and herdsman Mark Fawcett in the spacious, clutter-free milking parlour, he added a sprung plastic grid over the floor. Installed by Delaval, it cost about £8000 but Geoff says the difference it makes to knees and back makes it well worth the investment.

Looking higher the technology continues with a purpose-built insulated roof that cost over £20,000. Again, Geoff says the cost was justified because it has made the parlour much cooler in summer and warmer in winter. His next move will be to upgrade the music system to digital.

His belief that light and space create more productive working conditions for humans applies to his cows as well. Spacious well-ventilated sand cubicles were installed and Geoff was rewarded with a 30% increase in yield. Output has been increasing every year and has now hit 10,000 litres per cow.

Geoff believes that his key role is to concentrate on getting the most from his cows and he has put together a strong team of consultants to give him the time to get on with doing what he likes best and avoid getting bogged down with paperwork.

Cow care is something he doesn’t skimp on and at first glance a 1p/litre charge in his accounts for vet services appears high. But this includes a routine weekly visit from vet Mark Glover and a very robust mastitis control regime that has seen cases drop to just one in the past three months.

With output up 1000 litres in the past year and an enviable bottom line to his accounts it looks like an investment that is paying off for Geoff.

Herd hygiene is considered vital and all replacements are home-bred. This means his surplus cows are in demand and Geoff makes a useful extra income by selling in-calf heifers and a growing number of bulls. He has never shot a bull calf, which all get sold to family and other local farmers.

Factory farming is an allegation that Geoff is keen to disprove and he will not send cows “down the road” just because production falls off its peak. A number of venerable old ladies, some into their tenth lactation are kept comfortably penned away from the rest of the herd and still remain profitable.

Geoff’s enthusiasm for his business is palpable and he likes to share it with, and hopefully inspire, other farmers. Over 400 have visited the farm in the past few years and he is always keen for more to see what he has achieved – not because he want to boast but because he genuinely wants to help others.

This attitude expands to the environment and Geoff has entered ELS and says the farm is home to all sorts of wildlife. He is also looking at the possibility of supplying  a proposed local biogas plant with slurry to help lessen its impact on the environment.

A man with strong convictions, Geoff believes his faith has helped him weather some tough times and every year he and his wife share their good fortune with 16 young children from Chernobyl.

Persistent radiation from the nuclear disaster in 1986 means many youngsters from the area grow up malnourished  and Geoff hopes that a month of good food and fun in Yorkshire will help alleviate to some degree their suffering.

A modest man, Geoff doesn’t talk much about his charitable work, which also includes helping local teenagers. Get him onto his cows, however, and you’ll struggle to get a word in edgeways. But it is well worth investing a few hours to learn from this forward-thinking and passionate dairy farmer.

What the judges liked
  • Prepared to invest in staff and animal welfare using innovative technology where appropriate
  • A hands-on approach that yields good profits
  • Strong morals – keen to help disadvantaged youths and young children