FW Awards: Dairy Farmer of the Year finalists 2018

The three finalists in the Dairy Farmer of the Year category all run efficient, productive and profitable dairy businesses. These farms are well set up to tackle the challenges of Brexit and price volatility.

Yield is high on the agenda, but herd health is a priority on all three farms, as is effective staff management.

See also: Meet the 2018 Farmers Weekly Awards finalists

The 2018 Dairy Farmer of the Year finalists

  • Will Frost, Childhay Farming, Beaminster, Dorset
  • James Tomlinson, DJ & S Tomlinson, Preston, Lancashire
  • William Westacott, Home Farm, Sevenoaks, Kent

The judges

  • Andy Dodd, dairy business consultant, Farm Consultancy Group
  • Neville Loder, last year’s winner
  • Hayley Parrott, Farmers Weekly deputy livestock editor

Will Frost

Childhay Farming, Childhay Manor, Beaminster, Dorset

Will Frost with his goats

Will Frost © Jim Wileman

Will has specialised and invested in niche milk markets, goat’s milk and organic cow’s milk, in order to establish two profitable dairy businesses.

His business acumen and entrepreneurial flair is clear and this, combined with a strong focus on animal welfare and having a well-motivated team, is helping to run two profitable enterprises.

He oversees the smooth running of one of the largest goat dairy herds in the country at Forde Grange Farm near Chard on the Dorset/Somerset border, while his home farm, Childhay Manor, has been managed for 10 years in a contract farming arrangement. Since Will’s grandfather arrived at Childhay in the 1940s with his sheep and cattle on the train and family in a pony and trap, the farm has come a long way.

Farm facts 

  • Both dairies run in contract farming arrangements
  • Will oversees day-to-day management of goats, but Stephen manages cows
  • Milking 2,300 goats on Forde Abbey Estate, supplying Delamere Dairy
  • Milking 350 organic cows at Childhay Manor Farm, supplying Coombe Farm (Waitrose)
  • 10 full-time staff in goat business

Technical efficiency 

With 2,300 goats going through the 80-point rotary parlour three times a day, Forde Grange Farm has to be efficient to work. The mainly British Saanen herd yields 1,050 litres of milk per goat each year, all being sold to Delamere Dairy in Knutsford, Cheshire.

Kidding takes place in quarterly blocks, so that Will and his wife Kate can manage it themselves and give it the attention that is required. Will likens the ‘batch kidding’ to ‘batch farrowing’ and can apply learnings from previous work on an outdoor pig unit.

Alongside the milk, breeding stock provides a valuable income source. Genomics are used in the breeding of bucks for replacements and to be sold.

Meanwhile, at Childhay, the cow dairy is run by Stephen Raymond, a local farmer’s son who Will and Kate approached when they decided contract farming was the way forward to allow them to focus on the goats.

Investment in facilities over the last four years has allowed cow numbers to be lifted to 350, with the herd yielding 7,400 litres a cow, 2,800 litres of which are from forage. All milk from the autumn and spring-block calving herd is sold to Coombe Farm (Waitrose).

Welfare management 

Both the cows and goats are run as closed herds to improve biosecurity, as one of Will’s biggest paranoias is TB, which is why Forde Grange is double-fenced against badgers.

Kid mortality sits at 7-8%, kept low through rigorous protocols put in place and reviewed at quarterly vet meetings. These protocols include minimising stress at kidding to reduce the chance of black udder in the mothers.

The kids receive colostrum from their mothers via stomach tube before being bottle-fed on pooled milk for 48 hours to get them teat trained for the rearing unit, where they are on automatic feeders with ad-lib haylage and lamb creep feed from one week old.

Vaccination and ventilation are also major components of the herd health, with buildings fitted with fans and curtains in order to maintain a comfortable environment and vaccinations given against Johnes, CAE, abortion and clostridial diseases.

At Childhay, Stephen oversees the heard health plan and is focused on reducing antiobiotic use. They now dry off 85% of the cows with teat sealant only.

Staff welfare is as important across both businesses, with Will claiming one of his key strengths is his well-motivated team. All of his 12 employees are local and many have been there in excess of 10 years.

Leadership and vision 

Will has clearly made the most of every opportunity available to him, even housing a vodka distillery in a converted barn on the farm to bring additional rental income. And through his contract farming and recruitment, he is helping younger people to get involved in agriculture.

As chairman of the Milking Goat Association, he remains passionate about the future of goat dairy, but as more people enter the industry, he is continuing to explore diversification opportunities. He has recently become a shareholder in a new company, Cabrito, marketing finished billy kids to the high-end restaurant market.

Milk from forage is an area Will and Stephen are keen to maximise for the cows, ensuring the business is as resilient as possible.

With a responsible approach to managing the environment, installing solar panels on new buildings and partaking in environmental stewardship schemes, Will is developing businesses that have the scale and efficiency to withstand future challenges.

The judges liked

  • Involvement in and proactive approach to wider goat industry
  • Attention to detail
  • Great staff retention due to good employment policies
  • Entrepreneurial spirit of the business
  • Forward-thinking nature, to ensure business is future-proofed

What the judges say

“These established joint ventures are credit to Will’s management skills and attention to detail. A clear vision and excellent communication of it to all parties involved aids the successful running of these high welfare herds.”

James Tomlinson

DJ & S Tomlinson, Bilsborrow Hall Farm, Preston, Lancashire

James Tomlinson © Jim Varney

Since returning from university and travelling, to settle at Bilsborrow Hall Farm in 2005, James has led the business in taking the all-year-round calving pedigree Holstein herd from 140 to 270 cows, getting the calving interval down from nearly 500 to 382 and reducing the age of first calving from 30 months to 24.

The turning point, as James and his wife Eleanor call it, was in 2010 when they purchased a second 73ha farm. This is what really focused them on driving the business forward in the most cost-effective way.

Farm facts 

  • 160ha, split over two units
  • Two units sit one mile apart; second unit purchased seven years ago
  • 270-head Holstein herd, all-year-round calving
  • Limited company with family shareholders
  • Biomass boiler and two property rentals

Technical efficiency 

James is driven by yield, but says he never wants to lose sight of being efficient. This is why he and Eleanor, who manages the accounts, review the figures every month to identify potential cost savings.

The twice-a-day milked herd is currently averaging 11,386kg at 4.27% fat and 3.16% protein. And their recent shift to a free-range contract with processor Pakeeza Dairies will gain them an extra 1.2p/litre.

The closed pedigree herd gives James an additional source of income, selling breeding heifers and around 20 breeding bulls each year.

All maidens and the top 5% of cows are served with sexed semen, up to twice before conventional is used, with insemination carried out by James and one of his team members. Around 20% of the herd is inseminated with Aberdeen Angus beef semen and all bull calves go to Buitelaar.

A believer in the forage quality of multi-cut silage, James takes four cuts starting in early May and feeds the cows a TMR once a day with concentrates fed to yield in the parlour.

To help benchmark the business, James takes part in discussion groups as well as working closely with consultants, nutritionists and vets.

Welfare management 

James is after “healthy, trouble-free cows” and his breeding strategy is key to this. He picks bulls based largely on health and fertility traits as well as PLI and is using 70% genomic semen. Vaccinating for leptospirosis, IBR and BVD and having weekly vet meetings helps the herd stay on track.

Mastitis levels are at an impressive 19 cases per 100 cows and there are no three-quartered cows on the farm. James has been using selective dry cow therapy for some time, keen to keep antibiotic use to the minimum necessary.

Youngstock management at Bilsborrow Hall is very thorough, with a specially designed calf shed being erected four years ago and a meticulous approach to colostrum management.

“I just think it’s so important because it’s your future,” he says.

All breeding bulls sold from the farm are genomically tested and heifer testing is planned.

James employs two full-time members of staff and a morning milker, as well as benefiting from help from his parents who are shareholders in the limited company.

With skilled labour short in the area, James is careful to look after his valuable team. Six-monthly reviews, training and flexible time off for his staff help him retain employees.

Leadership and vision 

Having just bought another 16ha in May, the next goal for the Tomlinsons is to increase the milking herd to 300 cows without needing much more labour.

To achieve this, investment in slurry storage and the parlour is needed, with James’s beloved 12-point auto tandem not sufficient for more cows.

They have also just got permission to convert a derelict barn to give them another income stream and been granted a mid-tier stewardship scheme, so there are busy times ahead.

Already active in the local community, getting more involved with the local school is something James and Eleanor are keen to do and they’re already planning their first Open Farm Sunday event for next year.

The judges liked 

  • Passion for the health and welfare of the cows
  • Improvements made by informed breeding decisions
  • Attentive youngstock management
  • Playing to staff strengths and using expert advice
  • Being bold in taking opportunities and investing

What the judges say

“Playing to everyone’s strengths, James, Eleanor and their team run an efficient unit with healthy, fertile cows and have maximised opportunities to expand the business when they arose.” 

William Westacott

Home Farm, Sundridge Hill, Sevenoaks, Kent

Josh Westacott, William Westacott and Richard Evans © BillyPix

Having been faced with the decision to get out or go all in around 12 years ago, William Westacott decided it was all in and approached his landlords about the opportunities on the Chevening Estate where his family have been since 1894.

As one farmer on the estate was emigrating, it gave William the opportunity to take on more land and a new farmstead, an opportunity he jumped at and has made the most of. In 2009 he moved his 90 cows to Home Farm.

William has now successfully expanded the herd to 190 autumn-block calving Holstein cows, which he runs in partnership with his wife Carolyn and alongside his herdsman Richard Evans and son Josh.

Farm facts

  • 190-head Holstein herd
  • Autumn calving
  • Milk sold on liquid contract to Freshways
  • Three full-time staff plus seasonal help and contractors
  • 297ha on tenancy plus access to additional land in HLS scheme and parkland on estate
  • 27-year farm business tenancy
  • Solar panels on building roofs (27KVA)

Technical efficiency 

A self-confessed ‘numbers nut’, William uses a lot of data recording to inform management decisions with a focus on cost-effective milk production.

The herd’s average yield is 9,742 litres, 50% of which comes from forage, at 3.96% fat and 3.24% protein with all milk sold on a liquid contract with Freshways.

“I’m convinced that block calving is worth 2p a litre to us. It’s the classic thing of doing one thing at a time,” says William.

Calving begins on 30 August and 140 calve in the first six weeks. The Home Farm team are expecting 54 calves on the first day of calving this year. They serve a large number of cows on day one of the service period, through using a synchronisation programme.

All cows are inseminated with British Blue semen; heifer calves are reared to 10 weeks and bulls are sold at two weeks.

Since 2012, all heifers have been bought in-calf from the continent, predominantly Germany, to calve in September to a Holstein bull. This decision was made because of the cost of heifer rearing and fits their system well.

Josh manages the arable side of the business, which grows winter and spring wheat and beans over 150ha. Not one for tractors himself, though, William keeps machinery purchase to a minimum using contractors, a machinery ring and recruiting neighbours.

Welfare management 

Cow welfare is at the top of William’s list of priorities. Operating a maintenance contract with his vets gives him the confidence that any member of staff can call on a vet at any time.

Biosecurity is an important aspect of protecting herd health and all replacements imported from Germany are isolated, treated for ecto-parasites and vaccinated for IBR, BVD and leptospirosis.

Body condition is monitored closely in the cows, which are double footbathed to keep lameness low. William is keen to minimise antibiotic use, so is focusing on reducing the mastitis rate in the herd, which currently sits at 36 cases in 100.

An additional member of staff is brought in just before the calving period begins to give the youngstock the attention they deserve.

William claims to be lucky, with lots of part-time staff available in the area, but no doubt this is also due to his approach to managing a team, which includes decent pay and time off, as well as training and flexibility.

“Nobody has ever worked for me; they’ve always worked with me,” he says.


Leadership and vision 

Having already paid back the borrowings taken out to facilitate the move to Home Farm, William now believes the business is in a good financial place to move forward.

Taking a proactive approach to succession planning, the family have already sought advice on the matter and are looking into diversification opportunities.

William is as passionate about the health of the dairy industry as he is his own herd and has hosted school visits for many years, promotes the industry to local groups and sits on the RABDF council.

What the judges liked

  • As opportunities have been presented, they have been seized to develop the business
  • Good relationship with landlords and neighbours
  • Positive approach to staff responsibility and training
  • 50% of milk yield from forage

What the judges say

“Making excellent use of local labour, maintaining strong relationships and using data has enabled William to expand and develop, rearing heifers within tight environmental scheme restrictions and increasing profit by around 2p a litre by block calving”

Sponsor’s message 

“The modern day dairy farmer needs to demonstrate so many skills and drive efficiency in every corner of the business without compromising on production or animal health. These three finalists are great exemplars of how to manage a profitable dairy business. 

“As a brand that aims to help with the everyday challenges of the dairy farmer, ArmaTrac is a very proud sponsor of the Dairy Farmer of the Year award.”

Ray McNally, chairman, ArmaTrac