2010 FW Awards: Dairy Farmer of the Year finalist – Neil Baker

You get the impression that Neil Baker wakes up every morning with a fresh performance target to set, to achieve and then to beat. Key Performance Indicators festoon the walls of the office, alongside large charts that display how successfully they’re being accomplished.

It’s a tireless drive for perfection that’s evident throughout the 1000-cow dairy unit at Crewkerne in Somerset. “The day you pass a bed and don’t kick the muck off is the day you give up, in my view,” he says. “If I don’t set high standards, how can I expect farm staff to keep them?”

His cows, his parlour and yards are in staggeringly good condition. There are KPIs to match, with health performance the key focus. Mastitis is down to 11 cows for every 100 a year, but the target now is zero. “Why should we accept a disease that gives our cows a painful udder infection?”

Lameness is down to 6.9%, but the aim is to eliminate it. “It makes you examine each individual case so you get closer to how you can get rid of it.” Conception rate is at 37%, up from 25%.

There are rigorous routines carried out throughout the unit that underpin these targets – from the four-stage process to present a clean udder in the parlour to the daily temperature monitoring of the fresh cow group. “We don’t let them leave the group until we’re confident the uterus is clear.” A separate parlour is used to keep infected cows away from the main milking groups.

The unit has grown rapidly, doubling in size in just five years. Successfully devolving day-to-day management to his staff has been a key recent achievement for Mr Baker. On the production side this is headed up by herd manager John Womack and health manager Richard Goodwin, who clearly take pride in, and can see the value of, the high standards they maintain.

As well as milk production, the farm produces 270 tonnes a year of vintage cheddar. Handmade traditionally (the head cheesemaker has been with the farm for 30 years) this is sold to Tesco, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. The drive is on to ensure consumers recognise not just the superior taste of the cheese, but its provenance, too.

Mr Baker remains in charge of nutrition and applies the same attention to detail that he expects from the rest of the unit. The cows are fed TMR all year round, with only a small amount of concentrates fed in the milking parlour. Mr Baker is also turning his attention to lucerne. “It’s got that magical combination of protein and fibre that stabilises the rumen. The cows look amazing on it.”

Nor is forage free from meticulous targets – field off-take is measured closely against inputs of fertiliser as well as dirty water and manure (separated through an impressive slurry plant). The aim is to minimise the amount of fertiliser and bought-in feeds by optimising what’s spread on the fields. “We buy in a hell of a lot of energy. Let’s get that back out off the field. It’s not an environmental woolly thing, but a simple measure of efficiency.”

So what one yardstick does he believe shows his system is working? “Cow comfort. Get that right and you’re heading in the right direction,” he says, and turns to his staff, “In fact, I was thinking we should be measuring lying times…” Today’s KPI hoves into view.

• 1000 cows plus followers
• 600ha based at Rushywood Farm, Somerset
• Current production nine million litres
• Third of production processed on site into vintage handmade cheddar

• High standard of health and animal welfare
• Ambitious performance targets are set and achieved
• Successfully grown business and devolved management responsibilities
• Adopts and integrates new ideas to grow business and improve performance further

• For more on the 2010 Farmers Weekly Awards
• For more on the the 2010 finalists