Friday, October 19, 2018

Hard work pays off in Herefordshire

March 31, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles


Mixed farms may be better placed for Brexit uncertainty, says Herefordshire farmer Robert Davies – but bovine TB is a challenge much closer to home. Simon Wragg reports.

Farming in partnership with his wife Rachel and parents Bryan and Jean viagra sans ordonnance at Hopes Ash Farm, near Ross on Wye, Robert Davies has broadened the income stream from a focus on dairy in the late 1980s to include beef, sheep, arable, orchards, residential and commercial lets.

“We are not a mixed farm by accident,” he says, emphatically.

The policy has been driven by a desire to spread the risk of being hit financially should commodity prices take a tumble for the core business. Adding to the woes of low milk prices (still in recovery currently) the family’s 120-cow dairy herd recently lost 22 of 46 heifers to bovine TB. “The disease has blighted my whole farming career,” he says.

Defra’s tabular compensation rates do little to ameliorate the pain, he explains. Currently, each pedigree heifer will be paid out at £761/head as between 10-18 months old. In practice compensation for 22 culls will equate to the cost of just 13 replacements at current market value. “It’s just woeful,” he declares.

TB strategy

Mr Davies feels the government’s current TB strategy is inadequate and unlikely to make much headway in tackling the disease. “We have to look at changing our business to mitigate the impact this devastating disease has both financially and emotionally on us all at Hopes Ash Farm.”

Despite going against suggested consumer’ wishes, maiden heifers may have to be housed until calved to avoid becoming infected whilst out at grass. This, he says, is only marginally more palatable than becoming a flying herd with the associated risk of buying in disease such as Johnes, Lepto, and BVD.

Around 100 in-milk cattle including some Simmental crosses are milked through two Lely Astronauts robots (called Buzz and Neil). Average milk yield is 10,000-litres/cow derived largely from a TMR diet. Milk is sold to farmer co-operative Arla.

“If we didn’t have children I think the on-going situation with TB would see me looking at an exit strategy,” he admits. But son Harry (16) and daughter Lucy (13) both show a keen interest in the farm.

Building the future

“Farming is a generational thing. While you need governance and guidance there’s also a need for youth and vigour,” reflects Mr Davies, who at 46 admits he’s becoming more risk adverse. “When I took on from dad I had no fear of taking on borrowing at 15% interest to buy more land and put up sheds; it was building the future. You need that drive.”

His hard work – and that of the current team and previous generations, he suggests – was recently recognised when Mr Davies was named Mixed Farmer of the Year 2016 at last year’s Farmers Weekly awards.

“Aside from dairy heifers, all young stock are taken through to finishing either for a local abattoir (steers) or sold off farm via Ross market (heifers) with about eight of the best being sold direct as boxed beef.

“We buy 200 ewe lambs each September to help manage the grazing which are sold on as yearlings through Hereford (market). These out-winter on stubble turnips drilled straight after barley is harvested. It provides a good break before spring beans or maize.

Turkeys and apples

“We also rear 30,000 turkey stags annually for (poultry processor) Faccenda. And there’s 600t of apples grown for local cider makers – a useful cash crop,” he adds.

Other non-farming enterprises have been developed. Traditional stone barns are let as residential and commercial units as well as two local cottages being tenanted.

Overseeing all the operation is Rachel, who acts as both administrator and accountant. The farm uses no consultancy services and only relies on farm contractors to drill and harvest forage maize.

Staffing runs to four days help a week from father, Bryan, and the equivalent of two other full-time staff  “Our aim is to be as self sufficient as possible,” adds Mr Davies.

With a high reliance on electricity for both the dairy and poultry enterprises, 100kw of solar panels (attracting a Feed-in Tariffs) help reduce energy charges. These may be reduced further with a recently commissioned bio-mass boiler.

“We need the farm to stand on its own (without the Basic Payment Scheme) and be profitable. We gear our machinery replacement to cash flow and if we’re short then we alter our expectations. The objective is to have capital available should an opportunity arise to diversify or expand.”

As a firm supporter of the Remain camp, he fears Brexit will see farming given less political support than sectors such as financial services. “We need to be prepared and, fortunately, we’re already well down that route.”

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