Collaboration between different farming enterprises is beneficial to all involved as Aly Balsom reports
Traditional mixed farms may seem like a thing of the past, but adopting the mentality of a mixed business could help livestock producers cut costs.
Lincolnshire dairy producer and Farmer Focus writer Tom Rawson has taken one such approach and benefited not only himself, but his neighbours too.
Last spring, Mr Rawson and business partner Oliver Hall took on a 20-year farm business tenancy at Bleasby Grange, Legsby. Their project – to set up a 350-cow, autumn calving herd of Friesian crosses – was an ambitious one, particularly considering the business relied upon borrowings.
From the outset, they knew the 280-acre unit could not sustain 360 cows, so taking on rented land was part of the business plan. But as a newcomer to the primarily arable area, relationships had to be made.
“I knew I had to build relationships first. Our neighbouring farm, Bleasby House, was the first door I knocked to show my interest in renting land. From then on there was a lot of visits to the pub.”
Discussions with arable and beef farmer Ryan Dring, J G Dring and Son, then led to an agreement over rented grassland and shared machinery – an arrangement that has proved very successful for both parties.
“In an autumn calving herd we need to feed a TMR, but for us to feed out ourselves, we would need to invest in a wagon, which would have cost at least £15,000, plus a tractor for about £20,000.
“And then it would have been very frustrating to look over the hedge and see a wagon next door,” explains Mr Rawson.
At the time Mr Dring was thinking about reducing the size of his Limousin x Simmental suckler herd to focus on arable and contracting work.
“The opportunity presented by Mr Rawson worked well. I had a long discussion with my stock manager, George Smithson about whether he would be happy to also do some work on the other farm and he agreed,” explains Mr Dring.
“By doing so, we have been able to cut cow numbers from 120 to 90 and not lose any income from the beef side of the business. It’s also enabled me to make better use of poorer ground by renting it out for grassland.”
All the cows at Bleasby Grange are now fed by Mr Smithson after the beef animals. The whole process of feeding four groups of cows different rations takes about an hour, says Mr Rawson.
“The process is so structured and quick: the cows are fed at the same time every day; we make sure we shear grab out the silage before Mr Smithson arrives and I load the mixer wagon because the rations are always changing. The layout of the buildings also means we don’t have to move cows for feeding.”
It cost £7,000 last year to have the feeding contracted out, compared to the substantially higher costs of investing in the machinery themselves. There was also added maintenance costs to consider, coupled with the fact the wagon would have gone unused for 23 hours a day.
Because Mr Dring farms 900 acres of arable land and 300 acres woodland and grassland, as well as contracting for two other farms, he has a much higher level of technology at his fingertips – something which has been an advantage to Mr Rawson.
“Mr Dring and his team apply all the fertiliser to our land using his tractor with autosteer. There’s not many dairy producers who can apply fertiliser with such accuracy and with the cost of fertiliser, it’s well worth it.”
Working in collaboration has proved particularly useful during the winter months when staff are at their busiest. With 180 cows on straw yards, mucking out is potentially a big job, but by contracting out to Mr Dring and his team, the workers at Bleasby Grange can focus on calving and mating.
“Mr Dring comes with two big tractors and trailers and we can use our loader when necessary.”
Seventy acres of maize will also be grown under plastic this year as part of Mr Dring’s arable rotation. “By growing under plastic it means the crop will be off early enough for wheat to be planted afterwards. Mr Dring could rent this land for sugar beet, but it would be harvested too late,” says Mr Rawson, who will be organising the planting and harvesting of the crop through other contractors.
Forty acres at Bleasby Grange will also be planted with wheat and combined by Mr Dring. A further 60 acres has been planted with fast growing, short-term leys to be used as silage ground. “It’s all about keeping the wealth in Legsby,” says Mr Rawson.
A simple contract has been drawn up by the two parties to cover issues such as cross compliance, explains Mr Dring.
“Cross-compliance is an area that must be considered as part of this agreement. For example if Mr Rawson cut a hedge down on my land, I could lose up to 5% of my single farm payment. If we’ve got something in writing it covers our backs.”
A wheel wash has also been installed at Bleasby Grange. Something which is not only beneficial to current biosecurity, but also any potential problems, such as foot-and-mouth.
We will also be sharing a middle year student this year, explains Mr Dring. “This is great for me. I only need a student during harvest, where as Mr Rawson needs someone over the winter. It works well for both of us.”
Being contracted by Mr Rawson, provides Mr Dring with the same income to the beef enterprise with 30 less cattle and less hassle and risk.
You may argue there will be wear on the mixer wagon, but for one extra hour a day, this is negligible, says Mr Rawson.
Contracting Mr Dring to bed up the loose yards with Heston bales and an automated straw chopper also costs Mr Rawson about £22 a day, compared to extra labour costs from doing the job by hand.
“We’re a dairy right in the middle of Mr Dring’s arable and beef farm so it makes sense for us to work together to make our own businesses profitable.
“Generally dairy farmers are not tractor drivers, so if you’ve got a keen neighbour it well worth looking into sharing machinery – particularly if you’re a cattle producer in an arable area.”