The need for top-quality advice is more important than ever given low returns and the advance of new technology.
Our three finalists showcase what they provide for arable and livestock farmers.
Synergy Farm Health
Specialist vet Alastair Hayton played a vital role in helping one top dairy farmer recover from the debilitating floods across the Somerset Levels.
The farm lost nearly one-third of its grassland under deep water, so a good vet was essential in a revival plan that aimed to nearly double the number of milking cows.
Alastair helped raise fertility levels and pushed down mastitis cell counts as the herd size rose sharply to 800 milkers on 320ha of grassland.
The farm is now well on a recovery path with average cow yields up to 12,000 litre/year, and Alastair’s help is seen as vital in the five-year plan to push towards 15,000 litres.
Alastair has been behind a rash of innovations such as the move to more hygienic sand in cubicles, pushing up the average days of cows in milk and trimming the calving index.
“My aim is to be highly pro-active and try to get where the farmer wants to go,” he says.
What the judges liked
Good ambassador for the dairy veterinary industry
Innovative solutions for issues in the dairy industry
Putting academic work into practice on the farm
Good team performance in a modern vet practice
Breadth of knowledge of the dairy industry
Alastair is at the cutting edge of dairy health, looking to introduce a new TB test, working as a consultant with supermarket chains and with a string of papers and even a book to his name.
Two of his 13 clients have been named Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year and he advised the most recent winner, Anthony Gothard, on expansion.
When the floods came in the winter of 2012-13, Anthony had the dilemma of getting out of milk, downsizing or expansion.
On the premise that milking cows generates cash, and with a 50-point rotary parlour that was only 10 years old, he decided the time was not right to abandon milk.
The decision to expand was made – but only with the help of Alastair, who Anthony describes as one of the top vets in the country, on his side.
“We needed to expand quickly, and we needed Alastair as it was key to have a good person on the health side of the team,” says Anthony.
During nine years of working with Alastair, the calving index moved into the desired range of 380-385 days for maximum yields, and three of his cows are producing more than 20,000 litres/year.
The five-year plan aims for 800 cows, 600 youngstock and an average cow yield of 15,000 litres/year.
“We had the security of knowing we had an expert on board when we were expanding, and the wealth of his knowledge is unbelievable,” he says.
Alastair makes a weekly visit to the farm and the pair usually speak twice a week about all aspects of herd health.
He was instrumental in merging two vet practices to create a 27-strong farm vet team, which is now the second biggest in the country after the Westpoint Veterinary Group.
The practice boasts 220 dairy clients from Exeter to Swanage and as far north as Bridgewater, and Alastair personally looks after 13 dairy clients, including four organic milk producers.
His focus is on all aspects of dairy cow health including nutrition, lameness, fertility, mastitis and youngstock rearing.
Alastair is also a leading light in the development of a new bovine tuberculosis test for the UK, which is used for camelids such as goats and deer and which has been given tacit approval for validation work on bovines.
The Enferplex serological test will give a fuller picture of the disease and help farmers get out of TB restrictions quicker in endemic areas, he says.
“TB is the biggest single obstacle to our dairy client, so we see the test as potentially providing significant benefits to the control of bovine TB in the UK,” he adds.
In other work, he is now a consultant for two major supermarket chains with a role in advising them on hygiene and milk quality.
The last word comes from Anthony, who produces 27,000 litres of milk daily for Sainsbury’s through Dairy Crest with a team of 20 milking three-times-a-day at Slough Court Dairy Farm, Stoke St Gregory, some 10 miles east of Taunton.
He says that advisers don’t stay on his farm very long unless they perform, and Alastair has been here the longest. Enough said.
Cross Compliance Solutions, Herefordshire
Charles Mayson is having the most fun of his business life helping hard-pressed farmers cut through a mountain of paperwork.
He is greeted like part of the family when he visits his clients to guide them through cross-compliance to secure their Basis Payment Scheme (BPS) subsidy.
Charles, aged 68, has just returned from a trip to three dairy farms in Cheshire. On one, he has resolved a leaking silage pit problem and made friends with the farm dog; on the other two he has had a general routine catch-up with the farmers.
In six years, he has built a 900-plus client list of farmers eager for a helping hand through a form-filling flurry to ensure they do not suffer any penalties.
The BPS forms an important part of all farming budgets and suffering a deduction is painful, so Charles’ aim is to secure payment in full.
“If we do your paperwork, your paperwork will pass,” he tells the judges.
With the average farm BPS payout at about £30,000, ensuring this payment can often mean the difference between profit and loss for some.
Reforms within the European Union in 2003 introduced a cross-compliance mechanism linking direct payment subsidies to good agricultural practices.
Soon after, Charles saw a “steady glow” of demand for help when he was running his own fertiliser company from his base near the city of Hereford and close to the River Wye.
What the judges liked
Responding to the immediate needs of the farming industry
Very professional service delivered for the group’s clients
Sound products offered in a generally bureaucratic industry
Employees recruited from the local farming industry
A small but very motivated team with a coverage of the whole of England
He took the plunge and set up his own dedicated cross-compliance company in 2009 and set in motion a process to sell his fertiliser group to his daughter and son-in-law.
His idea was to create a service to produce detailed reports to help farmers pass any inspection from relevant official bodies such as the Rural Payments Agency and Environment Agency.
The aim was to ensure the BPS for farmers, which can range from under £1,000 for small farms to well over £250,000 for big estates, is paid in full.
His charges range from £400-£4,000 with an average fee of about £750, and his goal is to give farmers the confidence to pass any type of inspection.
Charles admits to only one failure in six years which led to an £80 deduction, and he has only refused one prospective new client.
Interest is strong in his service, with 102 potential new clients visiting his company’s stand at the recent Cereals 2015 event (10-11 June), and he is bullish about building up numbers.
Out of the 80,000-plus claimants for BPS, he says there may be 40,000 big farmers and he could offer a service to about 10,000.
As farmers now have to comply with the likes of the three-crop rule, greening requirements and detailed drainage plans, he sees an increasing demand.
His business is based in Byford, eight miles west of Hereford, but his clients stretch from Carlisle to Land’s End and from north-east England down to Dover, and he now employs 20 staff.
Charles’ general manager since 2010, Karen Powell, has expanded into filling BPS forms for farmers at a charge of £1/ha and the group has completed 71 this year.
One of Charles’ first clients was Mark Green, who farms 1,400ha of largely arable land at Ditton Farm, St Owen’s Cross, four miles west of Ross on Wye.
Running an enterprise growing potatoes, wheat, oilseed rape and herbage seed as well as rearing 3.5 million chickens a year, Mark was keen secure his BPS.
Supplying the likes of Walkers and Tyrrells with crisping potatoes, and feed wheat and chickens to Cargill, his aim is to make sure his cross-compliance is correct.
“We don’t have a huge office staff so when cross-compliance came along Charles said he could sort it out for me,” says Mark.
The charge is about 1-2% of the size of his BPS cheque, which is money well spent as Mark is busy running a complex arable operation. There is an annual charge for Charles’ report with a catch-up session every six months.
Mark even survived a European audit when Brussels sent over a team of five bureaucrats – some not speaking any English – to inspect his farm.
Cymru Agricultural & Rural Advice, Carmarthenshire
Better output, profits and lifestyle are the net impact of Iwan Price’s advice for many of his 400-strong south Wales client base, which stretches from St David’s to Chepstow and Aberystwyth to Abergavenny covering dairy, beef, sheep and arable businesses.
Iwan’s input on dairy farmer Nigel Land’s farm business is a prime example. With the prospect of exiting the milk industry looming towards the end of 2012, Nigel turned to Iwan for help.
His 120-strong herd was deemed too small to survive, and there was a desperate need for a new milking parlour. Added to these issues, one of his sons, Paul, wanted a rest after 30-plus years of early mornings in the milking parlour.
“There was no future with the old parlour and nobody wanted to milk,” says Nigel, whose family farm lies in the southeastern corner of Wales.
With a big investment needed to stay in milk, Iwan put forward the idea of using robots. This would solve the questions surrounding both the parlour and the milking personnel at a stroke.
Although Iwan had no experience with robotic milking, he assessed that a 120-cow herd and two robots would not pay.
A £400,000 business plan was drawn up for a 200-cow herd and three robots. The investment was split into £100,000/robot and a further £100,000 for building work.
With the project given the green light a herd of beef cattle was sold to bring in 90 dairy heifers to make best use of the expensive robots.
The changes mapped out by Iwan started in August 2014. They necessitated a fresh nutritional approach and heralded a new lifestyle for the farming family.
So was it a success? Iwan had budgeted on a 10% rise in milk yields and annual output a cow exceeds this, rising from 6,000 litres/year to 7,000 litres/year.
He now has four of his clients in south Wales using robots and believes the resultant calmer cows yield more milk.
“Happy cows lead to happy farmers, while the feed per litre of milk has dropped, meaning more efficient feeding,” says Iwan.
What the judges liked
Fantastic empathy and rapport with clients
Recognising successful businesses need successful people
A good level of training for all staff
Development of the business over time
Identifying areas of growth in beef
He believes there is no reason why a dairy farmer cannot have a good lifestyle, and the switch to robots has pleased all the family at the 120ha Great House Farm, Trelleck Grange, six miles north of Chepstow in Monmouthshire.
This is a common theme in Iwan’s work as another of his clients was despondent as the price of milk turned sour and the hours of work were long and arduous.
This family was about to exit the industry, but the business performance was good and no other enterprise could match the profitability of milk.
Speaking to Nigel and his wife independently, Iwan concluded the business was strong enough to take on extra labour, and the farm is now looking to introduce robotic milking in 2017.
He has four farms which are using robots, and some believe they may have a key place on family-run farms to break the daily milking routine grind.
Iwan was one of three partners who set up the farm business consultancy Cymru Agricultural & Rural Advice (Cara) in 2005, based in Ammanford in Carmarthenshire, covering livestock and some arable farmers across most of south Wales.
The original team has now expanded to 10, and Iwan sees big expansion to come from more work with beef and sheep farmers.
“The beef and sheep industry needs a revolution and should be looking at costs per kilogramme as the milk industry looks at costs per litre,” he says.
Back at Nigel’s farm, Iwan budgeted for a milk price of 24.5p/litre and this is still below the current 24.8p/litre for the farm’s Tesco contract through Arla.
One added consequence is that Nigel’s two grandsons are taking an interest in the farm due to the computerised robotic milkers.
“We looked at all the options but we didn’t see the younger generation taking an interest, so this is a bonus,” Iwan says.
Paul says it has given him the first Christmas Day when he did not have to milk in the afternoon, while brother Keith says he never liked milking anyway.
“These were three excellent finalists who were passionate about giving their best advice to their clients. They had innovative ideas and worked together with their clients to bring practical solutions on to farms”
Stuart Staples, UK technical crop nutritionist
Bunn Fertiliser (maker of Koch Advanced Nitrogen)