Farm of the Week: Four for strength to overcome rocky markets

Ian Thompson with dairy cattle.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson
Ian Thompson with dairy cattle. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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MILK AND grain prices provide the primary income for the Thompson family of Scurf Dyke Farm, Watton Carr near Hutton Cranswick and they’re currently facing up to a double whammy with both sectors struggling.

Just over a year ago their milk cheque was being calculated at a rate of 34-35 pence per litre (ppl) produced from their 170 milkers, this month that rate will be 21.8ppl.

Wheat takes up around 50 per cent of their overall acreage of around 1,000 acres and this week’s market price for feed wheat is trading at just £103 per tonne, down from £180 just a few years ago.

On the face of it you’d expect long faces but that’s not the way life is down their East Riding country lane. Indeed the family plans to increase cow numbers and they’re satisfied with this year’s harvest yielding an average of around 4.5 tonnes per acre for wheat on their grade 2 land.

Four brothers Ian, Peter, Roy and Keith run the farm today that their father Hubert ran before them, having followed on from his father Harry. Three of their sons are also involved too - Ian’s sons Danny and Russ; and Peter’s son Liam.

“When the price we were getting for our milk was 13ppl higher 18 months ago I said at the time that it wouldn’t last forever,” says Peter. “But I didn’t think it would fall as low as it is now. It’s the lowest price we’ve had in 10 years. We’ve sold our milk to Arla for at least the past 10 years and we’re still happy to be with them even though we could do with a better price.”

The Thompsons started with all-year-round housing of their cows this year, which is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, following suit with many European counterparts who’ve been doing it for years.

“It’s paid dividends for us on both cow welfare and milk yield,” says Peter. “Fertility and feet condition are another two areas to have improved. Our average yield per cow is now running at 9,400 litres per year. We are feeding a TMR (total mixed ration) that incorporates the barley, maize and this year wholecrop beans that are all grown here. We’re in the early stages of feeding the beans but it appears to be working well so far.”

The dairy herd of black and white Holstein Friesians runs to 200 but the intention is to increase that to 250 with 220 milking. The replacement rate is around 25 per cent with sexed semen used on the maiden heifers. Bull calves are kept until six months when they’re sold as store cattle. This is another change from their previous system that saw them keeping steers up until two years of age.

“To expand the dairy herd we needed more space for the heifers so we’ve put up a new shed and moved to getting young bulls away earlier. Everyone on the farm does their stint with the milking and my son Liam is my understudy.”

Wheat is grown for both feed and seed. The latter brings a premium that is much needed at the moment.

“Our four main varieties of wheat are JB Diego, Relay, Grafton and Barrel,’ says Danny. “This will be our fifth year growing Diego and it’s never let us down, always performing the same on yield and quality. It brings about good straw too. We grow Grafton and Barrel, which is new this year, for seed. The good side of growing seed wheat is that we get closer to last year’s price for feed wheat.”

Spreading their cropping between wheat, barley, maize, spring beans or perhaps spring oats next year and grass, both temporary and permanent, gives the Thompsons a two-fold benefit. It assists with crop rotation and fits in with ‘greening’ requirements as part of the new Single Farm Payment regulations.

“We grow a handful of maize varieties, but more predominantly Beethoven and Asguard. They’re like rocket fuel for cows and a lot of beef farmers have realised the benefits of it now too. It also helps with blackgrass control. The spring beans we’ve grown this year were Fuego. We’re monitoring how well they do before deciding between them and oats for next year.”

While crops and dairy make up the larger slice of the farm business the Thompsons have added agricultural contracting for other farms as another string to their bow.

“We started with it around 2007 just after I’d finished working for RBM Agricultural. We decided to buy a second-hand forager because we had been spending a lot of money on getting somebody in to do it and we had our own resources here at the farm. It also enabled us to get on with it when we wanted rather than waiting for someone to be available. Once we’d bought it one or two others then started asking whether we could do theirs. We now look after around ten other farms for either their foraging, baling or both.”

Russ has become the farm’s finance man, having worked for Barclays and Skipton Building Society before coming back to the farm.

“What’s happened to the milk price in the past 18 months has made a heck of a difference. When there’s talk about farms making money it never really happens. It’s more a case of reinvesting back into equipment to bring us up to date when times are good and using whatever we do make for helping us through when times are tight.

“It’s all about being efficient in what we do and at the moment we’re just about at break-even point.

“The grain price can be a double-edged sword for us because it can be good for us in terms of feed costs but not when we’re looking to trade it. We could certainly do with the milk price moving in the other direction fairly soon.”

Russ has also recently taken on another business that is based on the farm, which he has rebranded as Thompson Engineering.

“Its core is in grain drying and grain handling equipment selling leading brands. I’ll come up with whatever the farmer wants. It’s another nice tie-in with the farm.”