Farm of the week: Holding on as herds get bigger

KEEPING CALM AND CARRYING ON: Nick Brown at Waterloo Farm, East Witton.'Picture: Gary Longbottom.
KEEPING CALM AND CARRYING ON: Nick Brown at Waterloo Farm, East Witton.'Picture: Gary Longbottom.
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Dairying is a business with a future if you are a big and a desperate struggle if you are small. Chris Benfield met a man in the middle.

DOOM seems comfortably far off on a sunny day where Wensleydale meets Coverdale and Nick Brown runs a middle-sized herd of middle-sized Holsteins.

Once upon a time, his 220 milkers would have been quite a lot.

Now that number, meaning about 190 producing at a time, is probably somewhere near the new bottom line. While the public has been gasping at proposals for “megafarms”, herds of a thousand and more have quietly become quite common. Mr Brown knows he really ought to have at least 50 more. But that would require more building. Meanwhile, he is still making a profit, despite all the gloom coming out of the sector. Or, at least, he was last time he looked.

“It has to all go right and there are so many things to go wrong,” he says. “My gut feeling is that we are still holding the fort. But I won’t actually know until I get a report from my accountant at the end of the year.”

He is in the lucky minority who are on the “dedicated supplier” contracts the supermarkets always quote when they tell you what they pay for milk. Mr Brown supplies Asda, through Arla, and currently gets 1.25p a litre extra for it – which means £25,000 a year on two million litres. In return, Asda expects its producers to attend best practice meetings and meet its standards for the milk and the health of the cows.

Nick Brown was recommended for these pages, by one of his professional advisers, because he hits the targets and is approaching an average 10,000 litres per cow per year without having invested hugely in high-tech low-maintenance systems. But he does not think he does much unusual.

“Low-budget dairying is doing all your calving in the spring and running almost everything off grass,” he sums up. “I suppose I get 65 per cent off grass and grass silage. But I have to feed all year. I need buildings. I need nitrogen for my grass. I need everything I can get to keep mastitis under control. Of course you watch costs all the time. But I cannot claim to be low-input.”

He is 49. His wife, Julia, is a GP in Leyburn. Two sons are 13 and 15. His grandfather was first of the family on Waterloo Farm, East Witton. His parents, now retired to East Witton, started acquiring a bit of land. But between them the family still only own 60 acres. The rest of the 500 lowland acres of the farm are rented from the Jervaulx Estate. The tenancy comes with grazing rights on Jervaulx Moor, so the farm also has around 440 ewes, mainly Swaledales, producing Mule gimmers and butchers’ lambs for sale at Leyburn. The sheep are run by Simon Yates, who also helps with the calves. The dairy operation also pays for a full-time stockman, Paul Thirlow. Two other hands, David Binks and Dan Croft, work part-time.

About 130 acres of the in-bye are rough grazing. About 150 are cut twice a year for silage and reseeded every four or five years. He is growing 50 acres of forage maize, which does surprisingly well on the right sites. He has grown wheat but it is comparatively expensive. Up to this year, he has always bought wheat, but it has priced itself out of his range. He is running low on all supplementary moist feeds while he shops around. Beet pulp from Newark will be a fall-back if there is nothing cheaper. Whatever he gets, he will take advice from his consultant, Nigel Hardy, from the Dairy Group, on how to mix it. When it comes to breeding, he trusts Genus to get it right for him – on the general understanding that longevity is now the target. He is sticking with Holsteins, however. He gets an average 4.5 lactations from his – some live for 10 – and thinks some problems are inevitable with high-end milkers and the alleged frailties of the Holstein are mainly down to housing.

Also, he bought a few old-style Friesians six years ago and was startled by how wild they were.

He finds sexed semen worthwhile for use on the heifers. In fact, it has been so successful he expects not to have to buy any replacements in next year. It is less reliable on the older cows. He can sell his spares for beef and he uses some Belgian Blue AI on the cows and a live Limousin bull when AI is inconvenient. Bulls are troublesome, he says, with a tendency to spread venereal disease and so on, but he would replace the Limousin if he lost him.

His milking parlour is a 20-berth herringbone, updated and expanded eight years ago, with basic computerisation to read activity pedometers and record outputs. Another extra he thinks was worthwhile is an automatic washer which cleans the cluster between cows. A little stroke of luck at around the same time was being able to connect up to a three-phase electricity supply after Yorkshire Water ran one nearby. It means smoother running of big motors and fewer breakdowns and blown fuses.

Now he is looking forward to seeing results from a £4,000 heat exchanger, producing hot water from the cooling system, which has been installed on the promise of 58 per cent grant from the Rural Development Programme.

The housing sheds are basic but he has put rubber flooring in the walkways and mattresses in the cubicles, against lameness. He is currently trying gypsum, from recycled plasterboard, as an alternative to sawdust on the mattresses, against mastitis. He is impressed by the virtues of sand, as used by Asda’s star performer, Geoff Spence of Northallerton, but it would not be practical here at the moment.

His father, John, was seriously active in the NFU. Nick is a member, and alert to the many uncertainties in the bigger picture, but finds it hard to see what he can do except carry on doing his best. “It would nice to have another 500,000 litres going through, just to water down the overheads,” he sums up. “You can’t stand still. And sometimes you do feel the pressure of that.”