Pushing up milk yields

Bed and breakfast and quad biking holidays – great potential ventures though they are – aren’t likely to form part of Jonathan Gibbins’ plan for the future.

Diversification may have its place on many farms, but not on Hethenhill Farm, Clyst Hydon, Devon, where Jonathan farms with his father Geoffrey.

“There is definitely room for some people to diversify and make a go of it, but we only have so much management time and we could end up taking our eye off the ball,” he says.

“The farm is our business and it is profitable enough for us to concentrate on it and make it work.”

Jonathan always wanted to farm, and after graduating from Reading University with a degree in agriculture three years ago he returned to the family farm and set up in partnership with his parents with a view to taking over when they retire.

Unlike many farmers’ sons, Jonathan is granted considerable input to the decision-making in the business.

“Dad is very good at letting me have responsibility, although he is always happy to give advice.”

He has made some key changes to the farm since returning from university.

The 350 dairy cows have been split into high and low-yielding groups to improve cow management.

Better genetics and artificial insemination have been used on the high-yielding group and the heifer replacements kept to create a younger, higher output herd.

Costs have been cut and herd health boosted through better dry cow management and more spacious heifer-rearing facilities.

The figures show that these new policies are working: Pneumonia has been cut by 60%, the amount of milk lost through antibiotic wastage reduced sharply and conception rates increased by 50%.”

Combined with a changed feed ration, it has allowed Jonathan to boost annual yields from 6000 litres to 7400 litres a cow.

And he hopes to push that further.

“We always want to be moving ahead, and when we run out of production improvements then we’ll probably look to expand the herd, although that will involve putting in a new parlour.”

Over the last five years the family has invested in improving the farm’s ageing infrastructure, albeit on the sort of tight budget that means they do a lot of the work themselves.

Old stalls have been replaced and a new slurry system put in.

Jonathan reckons the SFP will focus farmers’ efforts on the profitable enterprises, and sees plenty of opportunities in the future.

“I think subsidies will eventually fade to nothing – then we’ll be in a totally free market which I don’t think will necessarily be a bad thing.

The supermarkets have always known how much subsidy we get and have simply taken it off the price they pay us.”

“We can compete with the rest of Europe, and we’re next to the biggest market in the world.

With the SFP there’s going to be less overproduction which should mean better returns.”

However, prices could fluctuate more, and Jonathan hopes that minimising the farm borrowings will ease the pain through any tough periods.

He is also keeping a close eye on the profitability of the farm’s other enterprises – 350 outdoor sows and 120 beef cattle.

But it would take a lot to encourage him to diversify out of farming altogether.

“I think the overall state of farming is more optimistic now than it was a few years ago.

And I want to continue improving and progressing in my job – which is producing food.”

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