When he was 13, Connor Smith had a weekend job washing bottles at a local dairy farm which did a milk round.
With no background in farming, he was growing up on a former coal mining estate in north Staffordshire.
“My mum kept a horse in the livery yard at the farm and one of the family there asked if I wanted to have a go at cleaning bottles.
“After a while, he asked if I’d like to try my hand at milking. I thought I was doing terribly, but he asked if I’d done it before so I can’t have been too bad. I loved it and never looked back.”
Now 24, he’s back on that same farm – but this time in a management position, helping develop the Biddulph Hall Farm business, centred on a 220-head Holstein Friesian herd.
Those 10 years have seen Connor work and study hard to land his “dream job”.
College and university
He headed to Reaseheath College at 16 to study a level 3 extended diploma in agriculture – which was, he says, a great opportunity to learn about everything from AI to foot-trimming. “That course was worth its weight in gold.
“During my sandwich year, being out of study, I really missed challenging myself academically and realised how much I loved learning. So I decided to stay on to do a foundation degree in agriculture with dairy herd management.”
After his BSc, he joined Harper Adams University, recently completing an MSc in ruminant nutrition.
“The MSc was very hard work, but very rewarding. Having that level of knowledge is so useful and will always keep doors open for me.
“I found it really interesting delving that bit deeper into a subject. I really like getting my teeth into a topic.”
His original plan had been to pursue a career as a nutritionist or lecturer, but the Bostock family – for who he’d begun bottle-washing and has worked for on and off ever since – offered him a position and he jumped at the chance.
“I now work alongside the family – we make a really good team, everyone brings something different to the mix. We put our ideas together and hopefully collectively make some really good decisions.
“As I’ve progressed at work, my academic studies have proved really useful as it means I can come up with new ideas which, combined with their experience, makes for the perfect team.
“Running a successful dairy farm is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. It’s about lots of small improvements. You have to put all the pieces together to make the big picture.”
For Connor, good use of data, animal health and transition management are among the key priorities, as are fertility, fertiliser use and nutrition.
Communication is also an area farmers should concentrate on, he says. ‘Ultimately every farm is a team.
“Every couple of weeks we try to all sit down and discuss progress. If you don’t make time to think, the job becomes mundane and you can get into a rut. Change is essential in dairying.
“We’re just about to talk, for example, about what the Environmental Land Management scheme might bring and how we might prepare. Rather than dismissing it and complaining about it, we want to get ahead of it.
“Overall government financial support for farming is likely to decrease in the coming years, so we need to find new ways to make and save money. Technology is exciting and there could be a technology-driven revolution.”
It’s hard to tell whether Brexit will be positive or negative for the dairy sector, says Connor. “It could go either way. Meanwhile, dairy farmers – if they can – should consider diversification. We can’t assume everything in the milk sector will just be OK.”
Among his career highlights he counts netting The Meredydd David Award for Academic and Technical Excellence, plus gaining a scholarship which covered just over half his MSc course fees.
“It made it a lot easier. As well as financial support the scholarship provided me with opportunities to attend and speak at conferences alongside respected academics. It was a real honour to receive it.
“It feels a lifetime ago I was bottle-washing. I’ve been connected with this farm for almost 11 years and feel like part of the family. I’ve come a long way – but there’s most definitely still a long way to go.
“Friends were always jealous of the fact I was earning money at 13 when they weren’t, but most young teenagers didn’t have the ambition to work that hard.
“Most were more interested in Xboxes and PlayStations. I never got into any of that – it was far too time-consuming and I was never at home as I was too busy enjoying working at the farm!”
Connor’s top tip
“If you get an opportunity, grab it with both hands. You might not always feel confident doing it, but if you throw yourself into every opportunity, you’ll always learn something – and you never know what they’ll lead to.”