Students get taste of farm management

Lizzie Jennings, 20, has just begun the second year of a two-year foundation degree course in Agriculture at Bishop Burton College in Yorkshire

For our second year at college, we’re being trialled in detailed farm management to see if we’ll sink or swim on a number of challenges.

We’re in the process of planning and costing out a new beef unit for the college farm. It’s exciting because it’s a real-life scenario. They’ve already changed the breeding policy and bought two new Limousin bulls. But it’s also very daunting because the problems to be solved seem to become bigger the further we look into them.

Financial forecasts, gross margins and cash flow spreadsheets, solutions to the accommodation problem, suggested feed rations, action plans, SWOT and sensitivity analyses. It’s mind-boggling. I’m learning that all this planning and research can mean the difference between profit and loss, but I’m also learning that it would be so easy to get bogged down in the facts and figures and never do a thing. A thoroughbred accountant could never single-handedly run a farm. To help us with this type of assignment, we’ve had a couple of farm visits and have just come back from a college trip to Dewsbury to visit Thornhill Hall Farm. A stop at Burger King on the way enabled us to see from one extreme to the other: from the national chain give-away packets of UHT milk, to the organic home-processed produce from Holstein-Jersey cows. Is it possible both products can be called ‘milk’?

Tom Rawson runs the farm and is a regular Farmers Weekly correspondent. He is older than his two key employees and, at only 31, the average age between the three of them must be about 26. Three decades younger than the national average for a UK farmer.

The positive and progressive attitude about the place can’t help but infect any visitor to the farm. The business has expanded from 50 cows to over 300 in just six years and it seems extraordinary that it is going from strength to strength despite the pressure on dairy and organic products.

Tom was singing the praises of cross-breeding. The Holstein-Jersey cross is not one that would have occurred to me, considering the difference in size and the problems that might cause in management of the herd. But it produces a beautiful and well-proportioned animal – a smaller black-and-white but with a more defined bone structure than a Friesian and the doe eyes and dishy face of the Jersey.

Going around the farm, I couldn’t help noticing for myself how the cross-bred animals just looked healthier and more alert than the purebred Holsteins. Tom pointed out that they were much more likely to be making the most of the feed available, and significantly less likely to have feet problems.

Going on farm visits and having practical training built into the course is proving a winner this year. One of our tutors, Andrew Henworth, gives an optional tutorial every fortnight for the less experienced students. The first lesson was on how to disbud calves and, since then, disbudding has become part of my work placement routine.

Having practical training (including funded pesticide application courses) is a welcome addition to the rest of our time at college. Studying a degree nowadays seems to be mostly about learning how to research, and proving you can sift through the infinite amount of data available.

But a degree in agriculture needs to be so much more than that to feel relevant, and be worth paying for, to the majority of people who study it. At this stage, I’m certainly glad it was what I opted to study.

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