Dairy farmers swap cows for dog diversification

Setting up a dog-related business is a diversification option for farmers, who can have the necessary space and spare buildings. Many farmers own at least one dog, as well, so they have experience of man’s best friend.

But how easy is it to set up and make money from a kennels or other canine-related enterprise? And what are the issues you need to consider if you’re considering a foray into this market?

Wagtails Farm Stay Kennels

Located on New Acres Farm in Stanley, County Durham, Wagtails is the brainchild of Jayne and David Barron.

“We had previously been dairy farmers, but the buildings were empty for six years after we sold the herd,” Jayne says.

Jayne Barron outside Wagtails Kennels

Jayne Barron

“David struggled to find a use for them – they were really sound but you couldn’t get tractors in to muck out, or use them for anything else on the farm, so they stood empty for a while.

“At the time, milk prices weren’t great and to make a real go of it we would have needed to expand,” Jayne explains.

“The buildings weren’t big enough to take more cows and we would have needed to change things hugely. We loved the dairy so it was sad, but you can’t keep doing something that isn’t going to be cost-effective.”

Jayne had the idea for a dog-related business after working at a local vets. “I got to see more of the small animal side and how crazy people are about their animals – it really affects them to leave them anywhere,” she explains.

“When you’re a farmer, you have so many animals around and you look after them really well, but there is a different side to the domestic animal.”

They had to adapt the building to serve as kennels, so concreting work was required. Lighting, roofing and drainage also had to be considered.

Involve the council

Planning permission was not necessary, but Jayne recommends involving the council at an early stage anyway as it is necessary to secure an animal boarding establishment licence.

“There’s no point putting something up only to find it’s not the right material or size – and it may even vary from council to council. They told us exactly what we needed to do; it pays to talk to them right from the start about the licence and business rates, too.”

She also secured a grant – and advice on a business plan – from Business Link to help fund the adaptations.

“They came up with a small amount of money for me so I could buy the sort of doors I wanted for the kennels, which were quite expensive,” she adds.

Wagtails puts a huge emphasis on exercising the dogs, something she believes gives farms a natural advantage in a competitive marketplace.

“A lot of kennels don’t have much space or a variety of walking places with different terrains. They’ve probably been purpose-built especially, so they’ve put up as many kennels as they can, but it’s usually not a very big space and a lot of dogs don’t like being cooped up.

Bigger isn’t always better

“We wanted to be a small business and a place where your dog can come and actually enjoy themselves.

“Most people are really upset at the thought of leaving their dogs – it’s our job to get them round to our way of thinking that their dogs are going to go on lovely walks and have a lot of contact with us.

“That’s the biggest advantage to running a kennels based on a farm – actually having the space to be able to let them run off the lead.”

However, managing the dogs’ exercise has not been easy, as the farm is home to 400 sheep, as well as 35 suckler cows.

“We try to make sure that there aren’t stock in the fields where we will be walking and all the fields are well stock-proofed,” Jayne says.

“Running two businesses, whatever they are, means you always have to keep half an eye on what the other business is doing so that you don’t clash,” Jayne says.

Jayne admits she didn’t anticipate how much time would be taken up by other tasks. “On top of all the feeding, walking and cleaning, the phone is constantly ringing from people making enquiries,” she says.

“It can be tricky when you’ve got the farm to think about, too. Quite often I’ll be in the lambing shed and someone will arrive to look at the kennels, so I have to quickly wash my hands, run out and put my kennel maid head on.

“When I’m really tired and overworked, it feels just like milking again,” she says. “But we’re tied here anyway with the farm so we might as well do it – it’s money from a different avenue which is important, especially considering how farming is at the moment.

“However farming is still our main business and there are no plans to expand the kennels. Our niche is that we are small.”

Jayne’s advice

  • Give and take Communicate with the farm and plan ahead.
  • Talk to the owners They will be able to tell you about the dog’s character and whether they should be let off the lead or not.
  • Find a niche angle Wagtails is small – it is licensed to house 22 dogs, but rarely has that many. This is because the kennels are large, meaning that if someone wants to keep their dogs together, they can.
  • Think about location Wagtails is 20 minutes from Newcastle, 15 minutes from Durham and 30 minutes from Sunderland, meaning that there are lots of potential customers nearby.
  • Be open to day boarders Prioritise those needing to stay for a longer period, but don’t turn people away if there is space.
  • Think about local opportunities People running the Great North Run have dropped their dog off in the morning, and then picked them up on their way home.
  • Advertise Set up a Facebook page, get on as many free listings as you can and target your advertising work to vets and dog training classes.

Mayfields Farm

Mayfields Farm is 16ha site owned by the Countryside Restoration Trust, a conservation charity.

Its tenant farmer is Sarah Jenkins, who, as well as maintaining the land, also runs a sheepdog training business from the site.

Sarah Jenkins with two dogs

Sarah Jenkins

“I need two things to train a dog – sheep and space. A farm provides that environment,” says Sarah.

Animal boarding establishment licences

  • You must contact your council to apply for a licence to run a boarding kennel in England, Wales or Scotland. It needs to be renewed every year.
  • You will need one even if you’re only looking after a small number of animals in your own home. 
  • The council may inspect your premises before giving you a licence and any time after it is granted.
  • You will need to show that the animals are kept in suitable accommodation, provided with adequate food, water and bedding, regularly exercised, safeguarded in an emergency and protected from infectious diseases, including providing isolation facilities.
  • You need to keep a register available for inspection by a vet or other council-approved officer containing a description of all the animals you have kept, their arrival and departure dates and the name and address of their owners.
  • You can be fined or imprisoned if you run a kennels without a licence, or if you don’t follow its conditions.

“When I took on this tenancy, I wanted to improve the facilities to teach people about the working sheepdog and his role in sheep production.

“The countryside is not a relic. The working dog is incredibly undervalued as a tool – there isn’t a good sheep management policy that doesn’t involve a very good working dog.”

She acquired the tenancy to Mayfields six years ago. “Unbelievably you need planning permission to train agricultural dogs on farmland – you don’t need a change of use, but you do need planning permission to run this as a business.”

Mayfields offers training for anyone wanting to produce a good working dog or compete in trials. The different breeds of sheep on site mean that Sarah can help train dogs and handlers of any age and ability, from complete beginners to those with considerable experience.

Behavioural training

She also offers behavioural training for dogs who are aggressive, badly behaved off the lead, over-excited or nervous.

Both sheepdog and behavioural training use “The Natural Way”, a method that centres on the language and instincts of the dog as a pack animal.

“So much of what I do is training the handler, so the biggest challenge for me is teaching them to understand the psychology of the working dog.

“It takes a very long time to get to know your dog and to develop a working relationship – I don’t regard any dog as finished. They can improve all their life,” Sarah says.

Oak farm kennels

Oak Farm Kennels is located on a 200ha farm managed by Adam Quinney, current AHDB Beef and Lamb chairman, in Sambourne, Worcestershire,

Established 80 years ago, it was initially set up by a nearby vets, but Sean Quinney, Adam’s cousin, spotted an opportunity when they gave it up in 1986.

Sean credits the business’ success to their emphasis on walks and letting dogs be dogs.

“We do tell our customers that it’s a bit like Magaluf for dogs,” says Sean.

“Dogs are dogs; they come here, they sniff each other’s bums and do what dogs do – they love it.”

Not just dogs

And the kennels doesn’t just specialise in canines: “We’ve taken chickens, we had a sheep once, rats, gerbils, ferrets, goldfish and birds,” says Sean.

“I even had to go pick up the goldfish from Leamington Spa – you try driving a goldfish without spilling water everywhere.”

Sean Quinney

Sean Quinney

Sean loves his job, but admits there are downsides.

“Kennel cough is our major problem. We ask everyone to make sure their dogs have had the vaccinations, but if it’s wet and horrible then it’s a breeding ground for germs,” Sean says.

He adds that it is not possible to have many holidays, especially at peak times of the year such as August, when the kennels can be looking after up to 80 dogs at a time.

He also acknowledges that pet owners can be tricky to deal with.

“Dog-wise it’s great fun, customer-wise, it can be a pain,” he says. “I do tell my customers that the dog is my customer, not them.

“Cat owners are worse than dog owners; and rabbit owners are even more worse,” reveals Sean.

Fees and services

How much can I charge?

Prices vary depending on the facilities on offer. For instance, Wagtails charges £16/day, which includes an individually heated kennel, dry food (unless owners bring their own), walks and extras such as dog-appeasing pheromone diffusers, which help create a calming environment. Kennels marketing themselves as “luxury” can charge up to £40/day or more.

What if people have more than one dog?

Most kennels offer a special rate for owners dropping off more than one animal. For instance, Wagtails charges £13.50 a dog in this instance.

What about day care?

Smaller kennels such as Wagtails make boarders the priority, however if they have space they charge £16/day. Kennels with more room may choose to charge less, as it won’t impact as much.

Are there any extras I can charge for?

Yes. Wagtails charges £5 for a wash and groom, £5 for a socialisation session, can arrange a professional to clip and groom your dog and will send a text or email update for £2.

Oak Tree Farms offers a collection and drop-off service, and has also installed commercial washing machines for customers to wash dog beds in.

Sean even has a separate business called Pet Movers for which he drives abroad in order to pick up animals for those who are moving and don’t want to put their pet on a plane.

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