FW Awards 2009: Young Farmer of the Year finalist – Tom Rawson

Tom Rawson’s passion for farming is infectious and all-absorbing. He has so many ideas and different roles that there’s never a dull moment at Thornhill Hall Farm, Hall Lane in Dewsbury, Yorkshire.

This is the engine room for Rawson’s various enterprises, which include two farming businesses he has developed with his wife, Catherine, and parents, Gary and Linda.

Clever Cow Organics is a 302ha organic dairy unit he oversees, with 300 cows on the home block. He also has 200 youngstock and 40ha of crop at Market Rasen under a contract farming agreement as well as processing 33% of his own milk on-farm under the Clever Cow brand.

Readers might think that was quite a lot of demands to juggle, but Tom has somehow even found time to launch a herd advisory business called Evolution Dairy Herd Management, which includes recruiting and training for other farms.

As tenant farmers, Tom and his father had to make changes and develop the dairy side to stay in the sector. They converted to a low-cost organic unit in 2001 and two-thirds of their milk is supplied to OMSCO at 34p/litre, with cost of production at 30p/litre. One-third of his milk is bottled on site and sold across Leeds and Manchester coffee shops and offices under the Clever Cow label at twice the OMSCO price. One café uses 500 litres a week of his organic milk and this side of the business has seen profits triple in three years.

Tom travelled to New Zealand on a Nuffield Scholarship in 2005 and says it was “life changing”. He was bowled over by their once-a-day milking and low-input grass systems. The Clever Cow brand emerged shortly after his return and he seems to have continued with his entrepreneurial ways ever since.

“We are doing stuff that people think is wacky,” said Tom, “It’s about low input and getting on top of costs.” Feed costs have fallen from 12.12p/litre to 4.41p/litre. Holsteins are crossbred with New Zealand Jersey cows followed by Friesians to create animals able to cope with changeable weather and suited to a low-cost organic system.

Contractors are key to the operation, with one person, Andrew Nicholson, handling all tractor work except feeding and scraping. All heifers are reared on a contract farming arrangement in Lincolnshire.

New Zealand-style grazing for the heifers has reduced bought-in feed costs. He is rearing them for 83p a head a day as opposed to £1.10 a head a day this time last year. The herd is also managed on contract by his share-milker, Andrew Grayshon, who is responsible for staffing and milk management.

Tom conducts a weekly farm walk with a plate meter to measure the grass and then decide on the grazing plan. All staff eat each day in his house so that farm progress and any problems can be discussed. Tom’s wife, Catherine, works extremely hard as cook, mother to two young boys and chief accountant.

Contracting out has freed him up to develop many other interests, which include writing, serving on the NFU’s Next Generation Dairy Board, benchmarking and public speaking.

He has even bigger contracting ideas on the way which he wants to develop with his business partner Oliver Hall. “I need to be moving at a 100mph all the time,” he said. “I will probably expand my farming base to fulfil my aspirations. I’m not afraid to have a go and to delegate.”

The home farm is tenanted and in a non-rural location with limited scope to expand. It also needs big investment, including a new slurry store to meet NVZ rules. But this does not stop Tom from exploring new possibilities even if they may be high risk and high return ventures. So watch this space.

Farm facts

  • Organic dairy and herd advice business
  • New Zealand-style grazing with 300 cows
  • Contracting a big part of operation

What the judges liked

Paul Davies, vice-principal RAC Cirencester:

  • “An intelligent farmer and an ideas man with a missionary zeal for the dairy industry.”

Adrian Ivory, Scottish beef farmer and FW Farmer of the Year 2008:

  • ” If anyone is going to make the share milker idea work and happen it will be Tom.”

Three achievements

  • Big potential with Clever Cow milk brand
  • Inspiring others with his enthusiasm and progressive ideas
  • Constant review and revision of business to improve profit


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