2010 FW Awards: Dairy Farmer of the Year finalist – Stephen and Linda Houlford

Few farmers deserve success more than Stephen and Linda Houlford. A strong business has grown on the back of a superbly managed dairy herd and their hard-working and honest approach to running a family farm.

“We’ve been lucky, but then I believe you make your own luck,” Mr Houlford maintains. His father died when he was 18, leaving him to run the struggling family-owned unit of 30 cows that was stuck out in the rolling North Devon hills, a mile from the nearest road.

“We were milking into buckets and pulling a mobile milk tank across our neighbour’s field every morning,” he recalls. Eventually, the neighbour agreed to a land deal that secured a decent access to the farm. In 1989, the now married Stephen and Linda sold the derelict farmhouse, built a new unit closer to the road and started to grow the herd.

They now have 500 cows, yielding an average 10,000 litres a cow. This brings in an impressive margin over purchased feed of £1700 a cow. An enviably low cost of production, forecast to drop further, means they’re turning a healthy profit to fund their expansion. But the growth and high output have been achieved without compromising herd health – mastitis and lameness rates are consistently low and comparable with the top 10% of UK herds.

“I just love my cows. There’s very few things a vet can tell me about them that I don’t already know.” Throughout the expansion of the herd he has kept a close eye on every cow as it comes through the parlour, which is where he prefers to be at milking time. “Your cows will soon tell you if you have a problem.”

Work on the farm is shared between family (son, George, 15, and daughter, Amy, 17) and a close-knit and loyal team of three. Colin Quick has been with the Houlfords all his working life, as were his mother and grandfather before him. Michael Down and Robin Gillet complete the team. “We’re really lucky – we work well together.” But you sense that doing a good job just comes by instinct.

Linda has recently started her own clotted cream business, processing about 10,000 litres in a broom-cupboard size creamery. “I think customers like it because it’s smooth and has the right texture – it took me a while to get that right,” she says.

Regular orders come from shops, pubs and restaurants as well as local markets and most new business comes by word of mouth. Two part-time members of staff have come on board to help satisfy demand, and Linda is now planning how to take the venture to the next level. “We had interest from Grosvenor House Hotel. It’s an option to explore for the future, but for the moment we’ll keep things local.”

For now there’s talk of consolidation. “We want to do a better job of what we’ve got,” says Mr Houlford. “We don’t want to be a big corporate. We’re a family farm and want the staff to be happy and for us to enjoy what we’ve got.” But push him on expansion plans and the warm glow from his cheerful face belies a different story. “Dairy farming’s like a drug, but there’s no counselling,” he beams – there’s no way those good-looking heifers are heading for market.

• 500 cows plus followers
• 5,000,000 litres sold to Milklink
• 322ha mostly rented in north Devon
• Clotted cream made on farm

• Hard-working and committed family and staff
• Strong business performance and low cost of production
• High herd health, down to attentive management
• Positive outlook to expand business and explore new markets

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