The Leen is the first ever grass-based dairy enterprise to win the distinguished NMR/RABDF Gold Cup award.
Brothers Chris and Rich Norman, who milk 600 autumn-calving cows, beat off stiff competition from six other finalists to take the trophy at the Dairy Tech event in February.
We went along to the open day at their farm in Herefordshire, attended by 900 farmers, to find out what makes them winners.
Having clear business goals and targets have enabled the Normans to develop a highly profitable and diverse range of agricultural enterprises that can withstand volatility.
The Normans’ primary enterprise was a 600-cow autumn calving herd at The Leen, Pembridge, but in recent years they have established a 200,000-bird broiler unit and a 500kW anaerobic digester.
This was made possible by sticking strictly to a budget and aiming to generate enough profit for drawings and reinvestment. Any new business must also deliver a return on capital employed of 15%.
The enterprises dovetail nicely. The AD plant is fed with poultry litter, maize and cow manure, and produces enough electricity to power the entire farm, with surplus exported to the national grid.
But one of the biggest benefits has been the digestate produced, which is used to fertilise grass and avoids the business having to buy bagged fertiliser.
“The reason we went into chickens is because we wanted to expand the dairy from 250 cows to 600. We looked at where we wanted to be financially and realised we wouldn’t make it with just 600 cows,” explains Rich.
He adds: “The symbiosis between the units works well and is a very good formula.”
The business philosophy is to “keep things simple” and achieve a good quality of life for all partners, including their parents, Tony and Barbara, and wives, Pip and Sarah.
The dairy enterprise
Simplicity is at the heart of the dairy and the main aim is to maximise milk solids produced from grazed grass.
The herd of autumn-calving Friesian cross Jerseys is a perfect fit for their fertile, light loam gravel soils which, combined with 711mm of rain each year, allows them to produce more than 11.5t DM/ha/year on their 167ha grazing platform.
Cows produce about 517kg of milk solids each – the equivalent of 95% of their liveweight. They are fed less than 1t of concentrate a head a year. More impressively, production has been increasing over the years while concentrate input has fallen.
At drying-off in July and August, cows are strip-grazed on standing hay, where average pasture cover is 4,500kg DM/ha, and are allocated 10-12kg DM a head daily.
Calving kicks off in September for 10 weeks. Closer to their due date, cows will be moved into calving paddocks, where they strip-graze grass and hay bales and receive 1-2kg pre-calving concentrate a head a day.
Once calved, they move to the grazing platform and are fed 14kg DM/day plus up to 6kg a head in the parlour, where they are milked twice daily through a 50-bale rotary parlour.
Grass silage and maize is buffer-fed when cows are housed in cubicles at night from mid-October. Cows are housed fully by the end of the month to allow average farm grazing covers to be built up to 2,600-2,800kg DM/ha, ready for turnout the following February, when cake fed in the parlour is reduced to 1kg a head daily.
Mating begins in November. This season, the six-week in-calf rate slipped from more than 78% to 67% and the empty rate after 10 weeks of mating has doubled from 10% to 20%.
The primary reasons have been sub-optimal heifer weights at bulling, disappointing results to synchronisation – which meant more cows calved later to stock bulls than planned – and increased calving difficulties.
To correct this heifers are being given better-quality grazing this year, but Chris says it has highlighted the importance of weighing stock regularly.
Silage is usually cut three times a year, but in an attempt to make better-quality forage for the winter and reduce bought-in protein further, the Normans are taking five cuts this year.
Digestate is being applied straight after cutting at 60-90cu m/ha annually as a rule of thumb.
The Normans believe maximising milk from forage is key to helping them ride out low prices. In the low payout year of 2015-16 they paid off every bill with no loan adjustment.
Staff management and board
They also recognise that staff satisfaction and good retention rates are the foundation of business performance and sustainability.
Working with people consultant Paul Harris, the Normans carry out annual appraisals.
Staff work seven days on and three days off, never milk more than once a day and receive regular training to improve skills.
- 600-cow autumn-calving herd
- 200,000-bird broiler unit
- 500Kw anaerobic digester
- Yielding 5,792 litres at 4.96% butterfat and 3.70% protein
- Vaccinate for lepto, BVD and IBR.
- Test for Johne’s
- Supplying Arla
Furthermore, the Normans have a nine-member board, made up of the six partners, their business consultant Tony Evans, their accountant and a close family friend, a former banker. The board meets every six months.
The brothers say it holds them “more accountable” for the decisions they make and safeguards the family’s assets.
“The first meeting was probably before we started building the poultry sheds. We were borrowing so much money that we felt it was irresponsible to not have one, and up until then we hadn’t employed many professionals,” explains Rich.
Their latest business venture is Arc Farming, which has seen the brothers add another two dairy herds to their portfolio.
One is a 600-cow spring-calving contract farming agreement locally with Adam Boley, and more recently they have taken on a 25-year farm business tenancy in Gloucester, where they are establishing a 350-cow organic autumn-calving herd.
This is being headed up by Chris North, who will become an equity partner.
The brothers believe equity partnerships are a growth area and hope to take on more units using the low-cost blueprint they have established at The Leen.
“If you have a good person, you will be able to back them. It’s a win-win situation, because they are growing their equity and at the same time they are growing our equity,” says Chris.
“Chris and I believe there is a great future for dairy farming. You need to pick a system that suits, understand your costs and make it a good place for people to work – time off and good pay,” advises Rich.