Dewsbury farmer’s hard slog to break even

Thornhill dairy farmer Tom Rawson.  Picture: Scott Merrylees
Thornhill dairy farmer Tom Rawson. Picture: Scott Merrylees
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Milk prices are still at a worrying low for most dairy farmers in England, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the industry is idly scratching their heads and praying for better times.

Tom Rawson of Thornhill Hall Farm, Dewsbury is in determined mood running the family farm with his parents Gary and Linda while also building up his business, Evolution Farming, that he operates with partners Oliver Hall and Charlie Crotty. Next year will see them with 1,500 dairy cows across various locations.

He has great pride in his father’s rise through agriculture that he is seeking to emulate although not through organic production.

“My dad was a farm manager in Ossett before receiving the offer of a lifetime tenancy here in 1991. It was a considerable achievement for someone who had come up through the ranks.

“They had 60 cows and decided to turn the farm fully organic in 2001 as at the time it was on what seemed the crest of a wave. We had a month of 29.5 pence per litre before the organic milk price crashed but it took ten years before we went back into conventional farming.

“When I studied at Harper Adams University my original intention had been to go into farm consultancy but instead I came back in 1999.

“The family farm operation runs across 375 acres with the main holding tenanted from Savile Estate as well as a number of other landlords. Some of our buildings at Thornhill Hall date back to the times of the Civil War.

“We currently have 280 crossbred cows. We started cross breeding 11 years ago and everything now goes to the Irish Friesian. Dad used the Jersey to bring down the size of the cattle that had been big powerful Holsteins. We’re now maintaining the smaller size and because we’re on a manufacturing contract with Arla our aim is to increase butterfat and protein each year. We are currently at 4.5 per cent fat and 3.5 per cent protein.

“We moved from supplying OMSCO (the organic milk company) to Buckley Dairies in 2012 and then on to Arla in 2014. Our spring block calving was not appropriate for Buckley’s and I felt Arla offered us greater opportunity. They are a global company and we had the chance to become full co-operative members.

“My wife Catherine and I, who are both partners in the farm with my parents, have three children – Matthew, nine, William, seven, and Charlotte, four – and we will be fully paid up members of the co-operative in seven years which should benefit them if they follow us into the farm business.”

While it is hard enough making ends meet at present in one dairy farming business Tom also has Evolution Farming that he started initially with ex-RABDF Young Dairy Person of the Year Oliver Hall from Bingley in January 2010.

The pair took on a 20-year farm business tenancy at Market Rasen in Lincolnshire six years ago, which had been rearing young stock. They converted it into a dairy farm that now has 280 cows.

Oliver now lives in Scotland where they have a contract farming agreement at Turnberry and where they have taken the dairy farm from 140 cows to 300 within 18 months. They get a better price for their milk in Scotland of 25ppl that is supplied to First Milk for Nestle. Last week they signed a tenancy with Farmcare to milk 700 cows at what was the Co-operative farm in Leicestershire.

These are hardly the normal acts of an industry that is still licking its wounds from two and a half years of low prices for its milk, but Tom believes that what he, Oliver and Charlie are doing with Evolution Farming, incorporating far more than pure dairying, plus a hoped-for rise in price this autumn, will set things on a better course.

“Charlie joined as our third director in April. He managed a large estate in Fakenham and still manages it but now under the Evolution Farming umbrella. His wage goes into the overall pot that includes our farm consultancy business and industry work I do with the NFU, where I’m currently vice chairman of the National Milk Board and AHDB Dairy where I’m a board member.

“All of that along with the farming interests we have in Lincolnshire, Scotland and soon Leicestershire goes into the same pot and out of all that comes three directors’ salaries and payments of debts. What we’ve tried to do by managing it this way and having a variety of income is to de-risk ourselves from the volatility and vagrancies of the dairy market.

“Make no mistake this is all still a huge headache because of the milk price. These are massively challenging times and amazingly with what we’ve done at home we’re just about drawing even which is a fair effort but has come at both physical and mental cost. I’m working seven days a week either here at Thornhill or in Market Rasen, or with the NFU or the other organisations we work with and we’ve geared up more towards helping the larger enterprises such as The Wellcome Trust and the estate in Norfolk.

It seems that Tom and his fellow Evolution Farming directors may have hit on a niche market and that when the price starts moving in an upward direction they could be very well placed.

“In the medium to long-term I feel that dairy farming can once again perform well.”

WELL PLACED

One of Evolution Farming’s benefits is it can buy in bulk to achieve better prices for semen and dairy chemicals while also sharing machinery such as the forage wagon.

“We’re now in a position where if we start getting more for our milk we can come out of these tougher times more focussed. The only potential problem is if dairy farmers turn the taps on and produce more we might end up with a short term dip that will do nobody any good.”

Tom, who voted to leave the EU, believes any new British agriculture system should be about being able to compete on a world scale.

“What is the point in promoting exports if we have a system that can’t produce it cheaper than the country we’re trying to export to?”