An endless cycle of losing cows to TB, coupled with the loss of a milk contract with Dairy Farmers of Britain might cause many to throw in the towel, but not dairy farmer, Jonnie Yewdall, who continues to invest in his North Devon farm.
Mr Yewdall, West Webbery Farm, Bideford, is no stranger to standing up and fighting for what he believes in, having taken DEFRA to court last year over the reliability of the gamma interferon test.
But after losing that case, he was delivered a further severe blow, losing 89 of his 300-cow Guernsey herd to TB in one go.
“As a spring calving herd, losing 89 cows in March and April 2008 meant production took a severe hit. And with in-calf Guernseys few and far between, we had to make the decision to buy Jersey replacements,” he says.
In May this year, the farm was subject to another setback, this time losing its milk contract with Dairy Farmers of Britain. “May is one of our largest production months, with 180,000 litres, but because of the DFoB collapse we did not receive a milk cheque for May and the beginning of June.”
Despite these setbacks, Mr Yewdall has powered on. “We have lived with TB for years. The fact is, you either live with it or pack it in.
“We had 150 milkers when I took over from my father and have built up the herd ever since. Don’t get me wrong, we were close to giving up last year, but, we’ve invested a lot in the farm and it would be a shame to give up now,” he says.
Since then, the farm has driven forward, continuously investing and striving to improve efficiency. “We want to be in a position where we can run this number of cows as efficiently as possible with the scope to expand to up to 350 cows in the future,” says Mr Yewdall.
Luckily, because of its Channel Island herd, the farm was able to secure a contract with local cheese producer Parkham Farm.
The farm runs a low-input, New Zealand-influenced system, maximising milk from forage to try to minimise costs.
In the current climate, the key to the success of any dairy farm is having a good, clear budget and sticking to it, stresses Mr Yewdall. “Obviously, it is impossible to budget for huge events such as the DFoB collapse or TB, but we can maximise efficiency as much as possible.”
The farm has regular meetings involving farm staff, consultants and vets to discuss how the system can be improved. “We are always assessing how we can reduce costs, and we use these meetings as a way of setting targets,” he says.
But cuts are never made at the expense of cow health. “The key is to maintain good cow condition and keep cows healthy, while not over-pressurising them.”
And this drive to maximise cow welfare and improve efficiency can be seen in the farm’s new investment in cow buildings.
“I have had to go to the bank,” says Mr Yewdall. “We have invested in a new calf shed, which has significantly reduced pneumonia levels and subsequently cut vet and medicine costs.”
Old buildings have also been modified to improve efficiency. “We have modified one shed for housing heifers in the winter, so there is now an outside concrete feeding area.”
In fact, this year a substantial amount of concrete will be laid throughout the farm. “The aim is to improve feeding efficiency throughout the farm so one person can milk while another feeds. We will also be installing 80 more cubicles. This will give us the option to expand by providing more room to buffer feed and housing for 340 cows,” he says. “It has definitely been a struggle to become more efficient while losing so many cows. But we have pushed on. If we have another massive disaster, I am not sure what we’d do.”
But, adds Mr Yewdall, farmers can act to drive costs down and protect themselves as much as possible. “Ask yourself, what works best on my farm and how best can I manage it. There is no doubt it has been a struggle, but life is not straightforward for any business in the current climate,” he says.
“As farmers we are in a lucky position – there will always be a requirement for food.”