Achieving a viable dairy business, from scratch, in three years

Published 24 July 15

Approximately 90 farmers attended the LIC/Synergy Open Day for Prospect Farming at Longlands Dairy Farm, Little Bredy, Dorset, in mid-July, according to Rebecca Miles, AHDB Dairy Extension Officer, who attended the day.

Sir Philip Williams, landlord to the business run by Neil Grigg and Tom Foot, opened the meeting by explaining why he accepted the tender from the pair, as he initially said he would never have another dairy business on that land – the previous dairy enterprises had run the village dry of water.

He felt that Neil and Tom had an altogether different dairy structure in mind and so was willing to consider the application, even though they did not offer the highest rent.

Neil explained that he and Tom met at agricultural college and, a few years after leaving, had decided they wanted to run a dairy business together. The pair built up capital in stock by buying cull cows and getting them in calf, keeping the resulting heifers. They also bought high EBI calves from Ireland, and between 2010 and 2013 amassed 300 head of stock, predominantly in-calf heifers.

The pair made about 10 tenancy applications but, as for so many, a lack of working capital proved to be a barrier, until they were successful at Little Bredy. At first, they thought they could not afford to take the farm on as it needed a new parlour, slurry storage, concrete, etc. But then they looked at the options and, thanks to Peter and Di Wastenage and Tom Tinknell, they devised a system that used a mobile parlour and negated the need for slurry storage.

Mobile parlours were invented by Arthur Hosier in the 1920s and have not really featured in modern dairy farming – until Neil and Tom re-embraced the concept. They found an old shell of a mobile unit that had been abandoned in a hedge, got it back into working order and got started.

Neil and Tom took advice and found a cooler system to cool the milk, and now have two side-by-side mobile parlours, a lorry carrying the water, cooling system and generator, plus a tanker. The cows have no problem in using the steps up into the parlour and steps back down – cows prefer steps to slopes as their eyes can ‘see’ the outline of steps but cannot work out gradient on slopes – so cow flow is no problem.

After three years, they now have a spring block herd of 850 on an OAD system, with milk going on a cheese contract, plus followers. They have devised a daily routine of:

  • 7:30 start
  • 8:00 cups on
  • 12:00 finish milking and wash down
  • 13:00 move fences, pack up unit
  • 14:30 lunch
  • 15:30 set up parlour in fresh paddock ready for next day
  • 17:00 home

 

Some days, there are obviously other jobs to be done and, some days, the parlour does not need moving but they always try to plan less work for the weekends.

As with any dairy, there have been teething problems but they have overcome:

  • Lameness – when they first started farming at Little Bredy, the previous cropping meant that lots of flints were poking through the grassland causing lameness problems. Tom and Neil worked with their vet and, once the paddocks had been grazed a few times, the flints settled into the soil and were no longer a problem.
  • Weather has had a major impact. In 2013 the submission rate was 57%, well below target, due to temperatures of –4 for 6 weeks in April. The pair now supplement when weather holds back grass growth, either with cake and/or zero grazing, which we saw in action on the day. A forage wagon load of fresh grass was delivered so the weaker heifers, who were last to be milked, got a chance for a good feed very soon after milking. In 2015, the submission rate was 90% in three weeks, so Neil and Tom are convinced they have got minerals and herd feeding/health right.
  • Cows suffered from red water in year one. An infection of the red blood cells by a single cell parasite of the genus Babesia, which is tick borne, and results in abortion in naive animals, 80 aborted and 10 died. This would be a crushing blow for any dairy business let alone one in its infancy. As they now know it is prevalent in the land, heifers are vaccinated to prevent any further outbreaks. The vaccine is obtained from Europe.
  • Mineral deficiencies have been identified and, with support from their vet Tom Clarke at Synergy, and Phil Evans from LMS, they designed a mobile water trough with minerals being added at correct dose rates. The trough uses solar panels to power the unit and, although this has not been proved easy, the pair feel they have now mastered it.

 

Grazing plan

Paddocks are measured weekly, although the grazing round does not always follow growth as Tom and Neil have to factor in time spent moving the parlour in the most efficient way. Some paddocks may get left a few days longer than they would otherwise in a conventional grazing round.

Residuals are targeted to be 1,600kg DM/ha, and the collecting yards get a 30-day break to allow for some recovery. The whole farm has been re-seeded, re-drilling bare patches in the spring. The pair confess they still struggle with ‘allocations’ in spite of LIC Sarah Payne explaining it more than once.

The herd has fresh grazing immediately after milking, then offered further fresh grazing at 14:00 and again at 18:00. All fencing is electric and water has been laid on with 100m between joins so they can tap in with the water trailer in the most appropriate place for the herd each day.

Breeding

Tom and Neil hold back the first 25 bull calves from AI service to use for future breeding. One person carries out all AI so they can focus on this very important role. The ‘standard cow’ is now 400kg cross bred and will go to a NZ Jersey one year and then NZ Black and white the following year. A culling policy has not been used to date but will be from this year onwards.

Calving

The herd start drying off on 15 December and are split into roughly two groups, early and late, and are housed for about a week, calved indoors and the calf suckles for 48 hours. Calves are not tubed, and are put on powdered milk ad lib up to intakes of 7 litres/head. At approximately 41 days of age, they are moved to the heifer rearing unit in Devon, weaned at 10 weeks and reared outside and trained to graze grass and respect electric fencing! Animal Health has been very helpful in setting up a TB restricted unit to try and minimise any risk to the business of not being able to move stock. Heifers are returned to the main unit in their second year.

Costings

Tom and Neil shared their Comparable Farm Profit figures and talked through their weekly KPI (key performance indicators) and how valuable these had been for them to keep on top of their business. They said it allowed them to make informed decisions rather than guessing.

The pair said that we all have days when things go wrong, for example, a couple of sudden deaths, and you think that the system is failing. But, with good records you can check how you have been performing and understand that it is generally a blip. It enables you to carry on running the business as planned knowing that you are on track.

Neil and Tom’s path to success:

 

  1. Back-up from the professionals and family support
  2. Being open-minded and grasping opportunity
  3. Attention to detail – records, planning
  4. Staff – work hard, get regular time off and are appreciated
  5. Look after the land you have  and make it work for you
  6. Learning from others, sharing experiences

This dynamic pair have started from scratch and borrowed on short-term finance, which is not a cheap option. But, in three years, they have a viable business which has a defined plan, which they know will work and they can pay their bills, finance and themselves.

Many thanks to Neil, Tom and their team for sharing their experiences.