2016 Farmers Weekly Awards: Young Farmer finalists revealed

The Farmers Weekly Awards celebrate the very best of British farming by recognising and rewarding innovation, hard work and passion for agriculture.

These four finalists for the Farmers Weekly Young Farmer of the Year title are prime examples of the achievements possible if you have a clear vision and the drive and determination to see it through.

From left: David Cooper, Stuart Perkins and Richard & Grant Walker

From left: David Cooper, Stuart Perkins and Richard & Grant Walker

See also: Keep up to date with all the latest Farmers Weekly Awards news

David Cooper

Tardoes Farm, Muirkirk,East Ayrshire

Increasing his farm size from 190ha to 2,000ha and his flock size from 350 ewes to 3,000 breeding ewes and 700 hoggets is only really the start of what David Cooper has achieved.

David was born and bred on the family beef and sheep farm in Devon and realised at the age of 12 that farming was of more interest to him than anything else.

So, aged 15, when changes to the grazing rights on Dartmoor meant the family farm had 350 ewes needing a home, he was only too keen to be a part of the plan.

David Cooper with sheep

© Jim Varney

David and his father John were looking everywhere for land – in Cumbria, Wales and Scotland – and eventually came across 190ha of dilapidated opencast mining land in East Ayrshire, Scotland.

“My dad actually phoned the people advertising and said: ‘I think you’ve made a typo’ because it looked so cheap, but they said it was the actual price. So my dad said: ‘Don’t let anyone else look at it, I’m on my way’.”

The judges liked

  • Transformation of land and expansion process
  • Upskilling in fencing to create a successful business
  • The use of rotational grazing to maximise land and minimise inputs

The land was bought by the Coopers and the decision was eventually made that David would be the one to farm it.

David was 17 in April 2004, passed his driving test that May and drove his Land Rover Defender the 460-mile, 10-hour journey to the new farm in June, in convoy with his dad.

First he had to sort out the derelict farmhouse and then he got to work on the land, a lot of which had not been grazed for years due to lack of fencing. “I couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to fence it, so I taught myself,” he says.

He became very good at fencing, started doing it for others and now runs a fencing contracting business alongside the farm. He recently bought a tracked post driver, which allows him to access all terrains. And to date, he has completed about 50,000m of fencing on his own farms.

“My principal vision is to make sure I leave my land in a better condition than when I started,” David says. “I feel as a farmer I am a custodian for the future generation and must do everything I can to keep hill sheep farming alive.”

Farm facts

  • 2,000ha hill farm, 1,750ha owned and 250ha rented
  • 3,000 Herdwick and Welsh Mountain ewes put to tup of same breed and 700 hoggets
  • Agricultural fencing contracting business run alongside farm
  • Lambs sold through farmer co-operative for European market
  • Help only employed at scanning and shearing

And that he has done, improving it so greatly that the land is now worth £500,000 more than when he bought it.

Key to this success have been the Herdwick and Welsh Mountain breeds he farms, as well as his use of intensive grazing. David has been using rotational grazing almost since he arrived in Muirkirk.

He realised early on that when a large mob of his ewes with twins went into his smallest, 2ha field, the grass improved dramatically.

In the summer, groups of ewes and lambs will move on a daily basis. “I only need to use a sheepdog for a week, then the sheep remember what is going on and gather at the gate when they see me.”

David knows his market very well. He targets Europe, particularly Italy, and sells through livestock marketing co-operative group Farm Stock.

“I know Italy want light, lean lamb. I know I have demand there, so that’s what I produce.”

He lambs over a three-week period from late April to early May and lambs are starting to be slaughtered in the third week of July. “I aim to have everything off the farm by the end of October, killing at 12.5kg.”

He has also recently started exploring the restaurant trade and hopes to pursue this avenue.

The only jobs David employs others for are scanning and shearing – the rest of the time it is just him, his quad bike and his dogs.

It’s a simple system – low input and low cost, with absolutely no feed costs at all, and only trace element boluses given to the stock. He never breeds from twin ewe lambs because a single lamb will do much better in the hill farm environment they have.

David believes by fine-tuning his low-input system he will keep his business sustainable for future generations of his family and help ride out any price volatilities.

He is so confident in his system, he says if he were given a 400ha arable estate, he would reseed the lot and put Welsh Mountain sheep on it.

Stuart Perkins

Haywood Farm, Bath, Somerset

It all started with a birthday present for Stuart Perkins.

The 30-year-old, who grew up on the family dairy farm run by his father and late uncle, was given 12 chickens as a surprise sixth birthday present. This led to him selling eggs at the farm gate in Somerset.

This hobby became his business in 2004, when he was granted a Prince’s Trust loan of £4,000 to buy a mobile layer shed, and he established Castlemead Poultry.

The investments since have been rather larger and today the firm, of which Stuart is the sole proprietor, has 7,500 laying hens and processes up to 5,000 birds a week in its own EU-licensed abattoir.

Stuart Perkins with chickens

© Jim Wileman

The farm kills about 3,500 of its own birds each week and also  slaughters for other producers.

The judges liked

  • Identification of a gap in the market and maximising that opportunity
  • Constant innovation and improvement
  • Knowledge of market and how to reach it

Things really got going when Stuart returned home in 2007 after doing a degree in rural land management at Cirencester. He began to expand his poultry enterprise, which had surpassed the dairy business when it ceased in 2012.

“It was a difficult decisions moving from dairy to poultry but we didn’t really have a choice,” says Stuart.

Last year was another “huge leap” for Stuart, when he went from processing about 180 birds/week in a small, on-farm cutting unit to building his new slaughtering facilities.

He spotted a gap in the market because there were no local poultry abattoirs. By setting up his own and getting it licensed, he has been able to create a successful diversification, as well as ensuring he gets all the value from producing his own stock.

“The hard work is in the farming,” says Stuart. “And processing ourselves unlocks the value in that work.”

Stuart managed the build from start to finish, from idea to funding to construction, which is an incredible feat. “I was just about getting to the brink of losing the plot,” he says.

When you look at this scale of his business, it is hard to believe Stuart is only 30 and, until last year, was running the whole operation by himself from his bedroom in his parents’ house.

Farm facts

  • 90ha tenanted farm
  • Arable and beef farmed alongside poultry business
  • 7,500 free-range laying hens and finishing 3,500 broilers/week
  • On-farm EU-licensed poultry processing abattoir
  • Castlemead Poultry diversification selling wholesale into shops/butchers

Castlemead now employs 18 members of staff to help with farm management, accounts, admin, sales and processing.

Some 40% of his workforce is local and the rest of his team are from Poland and Slovakia. Finding good, reliable staff has been one of the main challenges, as he needs a lot of hands on deck, especially on the two weekly slaughter days, when 15 people are needed on the line.

Stuart is still in partnership with his father on the farm, where they have 120 head of beef cattle, reared for store and finished trade, and 48ha of crops, 25% of which is maize and the rest cereals.

The farm was in the Entry-Level Stewardship scheme and Stuart now intends to apply for Countryside Stewardship.

The farm contracts out all the cultivations, spraying and silaging to keep machinery costs to a minimum. Their homegrown barley and wheat all goes into the broiler finishing ration, but as they get through 60t of feed each month, the farm has to buy in additional cereals, as well as soya and vitamin/mineral mixes.

Stuart’s passion for his business and the poultry industry helps when he is selling the Castlemead range. He looks after most new business opportunities and sales himself, aiming to visit six to eight new customers each week.

Marketing and storytelling is a big focus for Stuart now. “We’re selling to the butcher or shop, not the consumer, so we need to complete that circle with our branding and website,” he says.

There is obviously no stopping Stuart. He has started trials rearing guinea fowl and ducks for the restaurant market and has employed a sales expert to work with him in this area.

Now that the processing facilities are built and complete, Stuart wants to focus on the farm and its costs in order to make the business as profitable as possible.

“I also want to tidy the farm up a bit, as I would like to do Open Farm Sunday,” he says.

“Not many poultry farms do open days, but I think it would be a good way of engaging with consumers.”

Richard & Grant Walker

Lakehead Farm, Thornhill, Dumfriesshire

Richard and Grant Walker experienced a key turning point in their farming careers in 2012.

It was the year they conducted a whole-farm review of their 170-cow dairy unit and produced a 10-year strategy for the business. It was this plan that led them to more than treble the herd and today they milk 500 pedigree Holsteins.

Both of the Dumfriesshire lads left the farm to go to university. Richard graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in civil and structural engineering and Grant studied agriculture at Newcastle University.

Richard and Grant Walker in a cow shed

© Jim Varney

Since returning from education and travels, the brothers have farmed in partnership with their mum Shona, who ran the farm after their father passed away in 1999.

This awards shortlist is not the only one they have made it into this year – they are also finalists for the RABDF/NMR Gold Cup. The Wallacehall herd, milked three times a day in the swingover parlour, is currently averaging more than 11,000 litres.

The judges liked

  • Impressive yields and fertility rates
  • Focus on and management of costs
  • Commitment to social responsibility and hosting school visits

Keeping a close eye on costs has kept the business profitable – Richard has developed his own computer program to monitor daily inputs v litres sold.

All cropping and silaging is contracted out in order to keep machinery costs to a minimum and the ration has recently been adapted to make use of cheaper feeds.

The cows are fed a total mixed ration of grass silage, wholecrop silage, wholecrop and a blend containing rolled wheat, soya, cheese whey and dark grains from distillers.

Richard and Grant have a close working relationship with processor Muller and retailer the Co-operative.

At Lakehead there is a big focus on the two Fs – fertility and forage.

“We recognise that fertility is where you win or lose in this business,” says Grant.

The herd has an average first calving age of 715 days and a 382-day calving interval.

“Ideally we would get the interval down to one year, but we are happy with that,” says Richard.

The Walkers have been fairly ruthless in their culling selection in order to keep fertility rates high. “Cow body condition dictates a lot of what we’re doing,” says Richard. That is why each cow has a manual veterinary examination three weeks post-calving.

Farm facts

  • 329ha
  • 500-strong pedigree Holstein herd, milked three times daily
  • 170ha grass for three cuts of silage, 60ha of wholecrop, winter wheat and barley
  • Five full-time staff with self-employed and relief workers
  • Milk supplied to the Co-operative at 26p/litre (May 2016)

Youngstock is one of Grant’s areas of responsibility. “Anyone can rear youngstock if they throw money at it, but the trick is making it economic and finding a balance between cutting them short and overcooking it,” he says.

“If you are not good at rearing youngstock, you don’t have the heifers coming through and you won’t keep your calving age down.”

The Walkers host school visits from primary and secondary schools every six weeks or so. They work with their local secondary school on the rural skills programme.

“Bringing young people in is important for the industry,” says Richard. “As we are a big diary farm – kids going home and telling their mum and dad what we are doing can only be a good thing for our reputation and agriculture’s.”

The brothers also see it as a great way of meeting potential employees. “It’s not all airy fairy – we let them know it is not easy, but it’s a great career choice if you are passionate about it,” says Grant.

The Walkers have a young team, with five full-time staff as well as self-employed milkers and relief workers. The average age of the dairy team is 24.

They also have a very low staff turnover – their tractor driver George has been working at Lakehead Farm for 34 years.

These proactive farmers are constantly seeking new ideas, looking both globally and nearer to home, and both attend discussion groups.

Richard started a discussion group with 12 other farmers in south-west Scotland, while Grant is part of another group with farmers from many different areas. They find this gives them wide-ranging ideas to bring home for discussion.

Both Richard and Grant clearly have a fantastic business acumen and a strong plan for the future. The past four years have seen significant growth, expansion and investment for the Walkers and, when you meet them, you leave with no doubt that 2012 won’t be the only positive turning point in their business.

The Farmers Weekly Young Farmer of the Year 2016 award is sponsored by the Co-operative.

Co-op-logo“The Co-op is proud to sponsor the Young Farmer of the Year award. We have always supported the UK farming industry and promoted British food and now we are supporting young farmers in our supply chain through our Co-op Farming Pioneers programme”


Ciara Gorst 

Agriculture manager