Firing on all cylinders

Keep firing the arrows – one day you will hit the bullseye. That simple bit of homespun wisdom, handed down to him by his father, has served Oliver Neagle well these past few years.

Not just as a general rule of life but as a business philosophy when it comes to clambering up that rickety, slippery thing that is the farming ladder.

His grandparents were farmers at Chandlers Ford in Hampshire, not far from where Oliver farms now. In fact they started the Hiltonbury herd of pedigree Jerseys in 1947.

 His parents farmed too, though on a different site, and at age 10 he was showing cows at the local show and getting up at 5.15am to milk.

By the 1990s he had finished school and been to college. But there was no chance of a farm tenancy coming his way so he spent several years doing relief milking and driving the forage harvester for local contractors.

Though his parents had divorced and his mother had decided to sell the cows, Oliver kept back three show cows and started rearing beef calves on their milk.

But he was still firing those arrows – looking for a farm that he could take on in his own right. When a farm business tenancy came up on a small dairy unit on an activity farm, he jumped at the chance and stocked it with 19 of his Jersey cows plus another 25 black-and-whites.

This is also where he met his now long-time partner, Julie Smith.

But one of the other arrows he had loosed off two or three years before was to get himself on Hampshire County Council’s waiting list for its own farms. And, though only 18 months into the five-year FBT on his new farm, he and Julie were shocked to find they had won a fierce tendering battle for HCC’s biggest holding.

It was 80ha (200 acre) Uplands Farm near Botley and came with the definite bonus of a seven-bedroom 17th century farmhouse.

Why did they win it? “We didn’t talk about doing B&B and said that the cows had to be the core of the business,” reckons Oliver. “They knew we were already milking and were serious about making a go of it.”

With no cash in the bank, they borrowed from Oliver’s mother the lump sum needed to pay the outgoing tenant. The farm was in a run-down state and they had a battle on their hands to get it in fully working order for the arrival of the cows.

Now, 18 months since Oliver and Julie moved in, the farm has been transformed. More than 100 cubicles have been installed, with 44 more being added this year to house the 120 Jersey milkers, plus 80 followers.

Two new tractors stand in the yard and a new mower (financed by Oliver giving up a 150/month smoking habit), power harrow and maize drill have all arrived this year.

Hampshire County Council has done its share too, paying for two new loafing yards and the slurry ramp to be concreted, a feeding barn put up and the parlour rewired.

Two new silage clamps and an extension to the loafing yard are planned for this year.

Given the generally bleak state of the dairy sector, how is this young tenant farmer making a go of it? The answer lies partly with the 22-27p/litre price the milk from the farm’s Jersey cows attracts.

But mainly it is careful cost management and sheer hard graft that have made the venture a success. Oliver and Julie do all the work themselves, so hours are long and holidays rarer than hens’ teeth.

But there’s huge pride in knowing that the Hiltonbury herd started by Oliver’s grandfather is being carried on.

There are still quite a few arrows to fire though. One day they’d like a 250-cow herd, a rotary parlour and a dairyman. And if they really struck it rich, Oliver would spend the money flying up to Manchester every other weekend to see his beloved Manchester United play. Now that is an ambition.

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