Insight into FW’s winning farmers

Henry Lewis – Cepravin Dairy Farmer of the Year

As you can imagine, I was thrilled at winning the Cepravin Dairy Farmer of the Year award. But I couldn’t have achieved this on my own, so I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone at Tack Farm, in particular my herd manager, Mark Lewis.

I would also like to say a big thank you to the judges and Farmers Weekly for a well organised competition and evening. My family were there to help me celebrate, I hope they enjoyed themselves as much as Sue and myself did.

So with the thank-yous out the way, one question is left – what difference will this award make to me? To be honest it is early days, but I hope it will make my business more profitable.

I am always an optimist, but at the moment unless you are on a lucrative supermarket supplier contract things could probably be a lot better.

For some guys costs are spiralling out of control, cows are not milking well, with low stocks of poor quality silage and feed prices on the increase. Late payment of SFP if you are in England and a government that, in my opinion, doesn’t really care.

But let’s not get down about it, for every loser there is a winner. There are opportunities out there to be had, so let’s look on the bright side.

Quota at the moment is not in the equation, so that will take a lot of pressure off farms that relied on leasing large volumes. So expansion, if you want it, should be easier providing you are on the right contract. Biogas could also be an option for some.

Some of you are probably thinking of packing up, as cow prices are good and beef, sheep and arable looks better for the future. Who would have thought wheat would hit £100/t, but equally that is the dairy farmers’ enemy, as it is putting pressure on forward feed prices.

I suspect you are now questioning what I will do? The answer is I don’t know. I can’t expand the herd any more and yields are pretty good, but if you are not going forwards you are going backwards.

We can always improve by trying to make the most of our milk contract by keeping a level supply and regularly communicating with the milk buyer, so I can give them exactly what they want.

Robert Neill – ASDA Beef Farmer of the Year

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It seems as though Christmas has arrived early at Upper Nisbet this year. It all started on 30 November, when, after having travelled to London for the Farmers Weekly Awards, we won the Asda Beef Farmer of the Year.

It was a glittering ceremony that was extremely well organised. Our table included all three Scottish finalists and it was good to see two Scottish farmers up on the stage to receive awards. The following day, while recovering from celebratory drinks from the night before, we discovered our IACS payment had appeared in our bank account.

This is often the time of year to look forward and to plan for the future. So what does the future hold for British agriculture, in particular beef farming? The trend certainly seems to be moving away from stocking suckler cows.

Some local farmers have been taking advice from agricultural consultants who seem to be of the opinion that keeping cows is non-viable and farmers are advised to sell their suckler cows and pay off a member of staff.

I have always supported local livestock markets and strongly believe that to set a fair price the live auction is essential. So what will this shift away from producing beef cattle mean for the local market?

In the short term cows being sold off at the market produce some lucrative sale days for the local auction company. But, longer term, there are serious implications. Falling store and finished cattle numbers are likely to have a detrimental impact.

These falling cattle numbers will inevitably lead to a shortage of locally produced beef. And at a time when the agricultural sector is trying to encourage the housewife to buy from butchers, there is a possibility that local beef will no longer be available.

To avoid this shortfall, supermarkets need to be pushed to increase the prices they are paying. Farmers need to look more closely at their farming enterprise as a whole to become more efficient. If they can reduce their overheads by increasing output, then revenues will also increase.

At Upper Nisbet we have made a number of changes to our cattle enterprise including increasing cow numbers and modifying feeding and handling systems, so there is less manual handling of feed and easier and safer handling of stock.

These changes have allowed our overheads to be spread further without increasing our labour costs, something many farmers will have to get their heads round.

David MacTaggart – Farmplan Sheep Farmer of the Year

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When you read this article we will all be recovering from the over-indulgence of Christmas and will be looking forward to some exercise. However, it is a reminder of what rams are put through each day before the sales.

When I stood back and assessed my sheep enterprise two years ago there were two main issues which needed addressing.

Firstly, I was the liability on the farm. If I was off work through injury or illness, the system was not versatile enough to look after itself. Secondly, where in future are we going to find hired help from during busy periods?

I decided the system I needed had to work for me and not me for the system. I had to be able to breed my own replacements, so I could control my own destiny and the easier care traits I wanted. Not all ewe lambs can receive any assistance at birth and must get up and quickly suck their mother.

I work on the basis of if in doubt chuck it out, and the guilty lamb will be ear-notched and go fat. If we all look at doing this our lives will be a lot simpler. It will be hard to ear notch the good tup/ewe lamb that was hung, but it will be worth it in future.

We are at some point going to have to go down the electronic identification route, so I have taken the first steps. If I make a mistake now it won’t matter too much, but in future it will. We have to keep the civil servants in a job and this will be a great way to do it.

Our role as guardians of the countryside will continue to increase on a yearly basis whether we like it or not and we must embrace this whole-heartedly. Should we graze grassland lighter and allow it to get away? This would allow more nesting birds and encourage more clover – definitely a win-win situation.

Farming’s future is in our hands and we need to give farming a sexy image – muddy wellies, torn jeans, holey jersey and smelling of sheep hardly satisfies the criteria – to attract the younger generation. They will want quality time to do other things. I hope one of my children will farm, but it is up to me to ensure a suitable system is in place.

If my children decide not to farm I will be older, so I will be able to benefit from my easier system. We will have time for a winter holiday, Easter holiday, coming back after the sheep have lambed themselves and a month off in summer, too.