Sunday, November 19, 2017

Team approach to farming

September 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

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Farmer Rupert Major has a forward-looking outlook to milk and poultry production. Simon Wragg reports.

Team building, employee empowerment and motivation are normally the preserve of blue chip or large companies striving for profit. But producer Rupert Major believes it has just as much to offer his family-run dairy and poultry farm at Castle Hayes Park, near Tutbury, Staffordshire.

“In essence we’re all in business for the same aim – to generate profit,’ suggests Mr Major. “Business expenditure on employment is an investment that yields profit and not a cost that reduces profit.

“Our mission on the dairy side is to keep healthy cows, graze lots of grass, produce lots of milk from forage and make good profit. We can only do this if we have good staff; that’s the foundation.”

The trigger for a review of staffing at Castle Hayes Park – a Duchy of Lancaster tenanted farm covering 290ha (716ac) run with his parents James and Rowena – came with a need for Rupert to take on more involvement in managing a specialist non-farming enterprise.

“We run 600 cows and all young-stock along a New Zealand style system and block calving from mid February. There’s only a certain amount of time I can allocate to this part of the business so I have to rely on good staff.

Rewarding career

“If we have a simple system then everyone can understand what is happening and why. This allows staff to be engaged, to take responsibility for their roles, to make decisions, to see the impact when mistakes are made, but – importantly – to get some reward from it, to feel valued and to have a sense of progression (for their own career aims).”

To create the dynamic some staff changes have been necessary. A year ago Andy Goodwin joined the business as herd manager working alongside the experienced hand of Terry Murphy and younger employees Matt Yates and Oli Mears. Three relief or part-time staff complete the contingent: Ashley Bailey, Bradley Parker and Liam Farmer – all with links to Reaseheath College.

Communication on the farm is key. Everyone gathers for a weekly meeting to review what’s happening, from measurements of grass growth, milk production, herd health, to an opportunity to raise questions.

“We share knowledge; it’s no good if it stays in the farm office,” explains Rupert. “So rather than just one person going out weekly to plate meter grass we share the role. It’s good because it gives the younger members of the team experience they can build on.

Top of the list

“Grazing is how we feed our cows. If they graze well, they’ll milk well. To communicate this clearly a graph is produced each week showing in descending order which fields have the largest covers (of grass) so we graze from the top of the list down. Everyone knows what’s happening and why.”

Similarly, information on herd health parameters such as cases of mastitis, lameness, fertility and losses are all discussed. Targets are set with each member
of the team having an understanding of how their role can impact on any improvement or change.

Productivity is aided by using cows as ‘mobile black boards’. For example, those treated with antibiotics have the date and medicine used written on their skin for relief and full-time team members to see easily in the 40/80 herringbone parlour.

As many employees are never far from a mobile phone, the farm has set up a Whatsapp group where messages on daily tasks and progress can be logged for all to read and respond.

But what of staff rewards? Wages matter, yes, admits Rupert but so does acknowledging and helping team members with their own career progression. “I don’t expect to keep staff forever. For example, Andy may want to progress to a unit of his own in future and we will help him achieve that goal where we can.

Good reputation

“But I do want to generate a reputation for being a good employer. It will help attract good candidates as and when a vacancy arises.”

The team benefits from having outside expertise brought in for demonstrations on elements such as cow condition, locomotion scoring and foot trimming.

The same philosophy is extended to Kevin Eldridge who runs the on-site 24,000 bird free range egg unit (supplying Noble Foods’ Happy Hens range) alongside egg collectors Mandy and Jemma Hall, Peter Cromack and John MacCallan.

“Kevin was working locally but this is his first unit manager role. We have teamed up with poultry specialist Dave Galley who is coaching him in various aspects from understanding how diet impacts on egg mass to carrying out post mortems.”

Other principles are observed. Good planning ensures staff take all annual holidays albeit outside the critical calving period from mid-February to mid April. “I need to have time away from the business to remain fresh and spend time with family and so should they.”

It is a step-change in running a family business, admits Rupert, and one not all farms will either be comfortable with or be able to adopt. And like larger companies – blue chip or not – the most critical judge of its success or failure will be the impact on farm profitability.

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