2012 Dairy Farmer of the Year: Thomas Steele

A 21st-century dairy farm to which you would be proud to welcome any visiting member of the public is how you would describe Thomas Steele’s Northern Irish unit.

His attention to detail, use and understanding of technology, impressive business plan for growth, focus on sharing knowledge with other farmers and impressive performance figures certainly wowed the judges on their visit.

By focusing on the latest technology, Thomas has created a modern farming system for his herd of 400 high-yielding Holstein Friesian cows, which pay their way with a profit before drawings of 6p/litre.

Together with his father and brother, he has carried out gradual expansion and a series of investments in the past few years including new cow accommodation, a 60-point rotary parlour and installation of innovative dairy farm management software.

A DARD Focus Farmer, Thomas is pioneering the AfiMilk computerised farm software – the first of its kind in the UK and Ireland, and originally developed in Israel – which uses cow pedometers and a weigh scale to body condition score cows as they leave the parlour.

Farm Facts: Rowreagh Farm, County Down
  • 263ha farm with 400 Holstein Friesian cows averaging 10,243 litres
  • Brand new, state-of-the-art facility
  • 40% yield from forage

During milking, conductivity is assessed to allow early detection of E coli and mastitis cases. The information gathered with body condition score, milk yield and stage of lactation allows Thomas to feed each cow according to its needs.

He explains: “Cows are fed by yield, days in milk and weight.” Technology has enabled him to use the information gathered to identify any problems early.

A farmer who is keen to share his knowledge, Thomas has welcomed more than 1,000 visitors to his farm since becoming a DARD Focus Farmer. After-school clubs come to visit, along with pupils from the local secondary school on work experience and students from Edinburgh Vet School.

Winning Ways
  • Fantastic use and understanding of technology
  • Great performance figures
  • Looks outside to bring in new ideas
  • Key influencer in the industry

Achieving an average yield of 10,555 litres a cow, the Steeles get an impressive 4,330 litres of this from forage – a strategy achieved by aiming to produce enough good-quality first-cut grass and maize silage to feed the high-yielders all year round.

From an environmental perspective, the family has set aside 12ha of the farm as part of a Countryside Management Scheme. In addition, all roof water is recycled for use in washing down the parlour and a heat recovery system has been put in place.

You might be forgiven for thinking time off from such a large, technology-driven unit would be unheard off, but there is nothing Thomas likes more than spending time with his wife and three children.

“Thomas Steele stood out because of his excellent performance figures, his grasp and understanding of technology and also because he was very aware of the key drivers in the UK dairy industry.”
David Cotton, RABDF

And when he’s not busy playing dad and dairy farmer, he spends time studying Business Development in Agri-Food MSc at Ulster University, Jordanstown or taking part in discussions with the Lakeland Dairies producer committee.

As he says himself, producers need to understand the supply chain they are part of and look “outside the box” to bring innovations to the core of their business.

Sponsor’s view

DairyCoDairyCo’s Hugh Black said: “Thomas Steele is passionate about the industry and someone who has developed a plan for the farming business and family to take this generation forward.”
Hugh Black, Extension officer


Phil and Steve HookPhil and Steve Hook
Langleys Farm, East Sussex

This small family farm on the edge of the Pevensey Levels has developed a unique local milkround for its own organic unpasteurised milk. Great marketing and building local relationships have been key to Phil and Steve’s success.

Neil and Michael ChristensenNeil and Michael Christensen
Steanbow Farms

Neil and Michael have an excellent working relationship with defined roles in the business. The dairy unit, managed by Neil, is an integral part of the farm. Protocols, teamwork and making best use of professional support are important to the smooth running of this business especially with the annual visit of Festival-goers as a challenge that has to be managed.

More on this topic

Keep up with all the news from the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards.