Farmers Weekly Awards 2018: Dairy Farmer of the Year

James Tomlinson has been crowned the Farmers Weekly 2018 Dairy Farmer of the Year.

If there’s one word to describe the running of Bilsborrow Hall Farm, it is efficient – from the content cows and organised yard to the smooth management and business planning.

James, alongside wife Eleanor, is running a high-yielding year-round-calving herd in the countryside not too far from Preston. The 270 Holstein cows in the Bilsrow herd are averaging 11,386kg at 4.27% fat and 3.16% protein.

Working on a breakeven price of 26p/litre, including servicing finance, James says he is driven by yield, but never wants to lose sight of producing milk in the most cost-effective way possible. He aims to “maximise yield per cow place without compromising health or welfare”.

See also: Meet the Farmers Weekly 2018 Dairy Farmer of the Year finalists

James Tomlinson

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

James Tomlinson

James Tomlinson © Jim Varney

Farm facts 

  • 160ha, split across two units, run as a limited company
  • 270-head Holstein herd calving year-round and milked twice daily
  • Sells breeding bulls and heifers
  • Sells milk to Pakeeza Dairies
  • Two full-time staff and morning milker employed
  • 40ha in rotation of winter wheat, spring oats and grass leys

Impressive expansion

Debt has clearly focused the mind. In 2010 the Tomlinsons borrowed money to purchase a second 73ha farm and earlier this year they bought another 16ha.

Succession planning has enabled the business to push forward with everyone clear on the future direction. The business has recently been restructured from a family partnership to a limited company. And while James and Eleanor now take care of the day-to-day running of the farm, James’ parents, David and Sheila, are still actively involved and remain shareholders in the company.

To maximise income from the pedigree herd, James sells about 20 breeding bulls and 60 breeding heifers each year once he has selected his own replacements.

The herd has nearly doubled in size since James returned to the farm, with breeding one of James’ passions. Impressively, while expanding, James has managed to get the age at first calving down from 30 months to 24 and reduced the calving interval from nearly 500 days to 382.

Breeding a healthy herd

Cows are bred to a selection of genomic, proven or beef bulls with selection criteria based on milk yield, fertility, somatic cell count, type and profitable lifetime index, with an emphasis on longevity and wide-chested bulls with excellent legs and feet.

Herd health is paramount. Daily locomotion scoring sees any sign of lameness treated immediately on the way out of the parlour and pre- and post- milking routines keep mastitis incidence low.

With vaccination policies in place, James is keen to reduce antibiotics use. He dries off 60% of cows with teat sealant only and puts a huge emphasis on youngstock management and health from an early age. A fairly new youngstock shed at the farm was built with specialist advice on optimising ventilation, hygiene and welfare.

Working closely with a nutritionist, feeding has moved from twice a day to once a day with no effect on yield. The simple cow diet consists of grass silage, of which James takes four cuts a year, wholecrop wheat and oats, a customised blend, minerals and megalac.

James and Eleanor are incredibly dedicated to their herd and the success of the business, but it is also good to see the value they put on their own time and a positive work-life balance, setting time aside to spend with their young family.

The next goal, having bought more land not so long ago, is to increase the milking herd to 300 cows. Because labour can be hard to source, James is planning some system changes so this is achievable with the same number of staff.

James’ vision and business acumen will no doubt see him make a success of it. And enthusiastic about the future of dairy, he’s a great ambassador of the industry.

Winning ways

  • Attention to detail across the business, including budgeting and cashflow
  • Excellent stockmanship and high cow welfare
  • Progresses the breeding with genomics
  • Good grassland management, making the most of forage
  • Seeks to add value through free-range contract and diversification options with barn conversions
  • Passion for wider industry and consumer engagement
  • Involves staff in future planning and providing training and appraisals

A word from our independent judge

“Efficiency, team work and herd health were the key elements to James and Eleanor’s success. Their passion and drive was evident right across their farming business from newborn calves to mature milking cows without compromising a vital work/life balance with their young family.”

Andy Dodd, dairy business consultant, Farm Consultancy Group

The Farmers Weekly 2018 Dairy Farmer of the Year is sponsored by ArmaTrac

The other finalists were: 

  • Will Frost – Childhay Farming, Beaminster, Dorset
  • William Westacott – Home Farm, Sevenoaks, Kent