Friday, December 6, 2019

Cawley Farms: Finding the balance

July 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Cawley Farms has expanded its dairy herd – now changes are afoot for its sheep flock too. Simon Wragg reports.

Expanding the family dairy enterprise from 180 to 500 cows had its challenges, admits William Cawley, of Herefordshire-based Cawley Farms. But having subsequently shifted from spring to autumn calving, now changes are afoot for the sheep flock too.

“Now the herd is flying, it was definitely the right thing to do,” says Mr Cawley. “But, I think, looking back we probably worked ourselves too hard which is why we’re now trying to achieve a better work-life balance for everyone.”

Cawley Farms is a mixed farming partnership with William’s father John. It covers a swathe of 485ha (1200ac) adjoining the family’s former home of Berrington Hall – now managed by the National Trust – a short drive north along the A49 from Leominster.

Expansion of the dairy began in 2014 after milk prices peaked around 30ppl. Budgets for the expansion were based on a predicted milk price of 24ppl, explains Mr Cawley. Little did he know that it would eventually bottom out for the herd at just 17ppl.

“We recognised that of all our enterprises the dairy had the greatest potential to increase income and our herd manager Matthew Ingram – the contractor for Cawley Farms’ Dairy – had the skills and commitment to undertake the expansion,” he adds.

Top-notch facilities

When Midland Farmer first visited the business in 2014, new facilities at the company’s Merrivale Farm included cubicle housing for around 500 cows, a 40/80 swing-over parlour and the laying of 19,000 concrete sleepers to provide access to a 138ha grazing platform.

Over 200 Kiwi-style Jersey and Friesian cross-bred heifers were imported from Ireland to increase herd size. Mr Ingram adds: “We’d set out with plans for a spring-calving herd but what we actually created was an autumn calving unit, beginning in mid August for lasting for just over 10 weeks, which suits this farm.”

Peak milk yield occurs in November and suits the farm’s current constituent-based milk contract with Arla after an original milk buyer veered towards liquid contracts. Typically, cows yield 6300 litres off 1.5t of cake at an average of 4.81% butterfat and 3.75% protein.

Investment and management to hit every bonus available for volume, assurance, hygiene and buyer-led technical specifications saw the dairy enterprise achieve a rolling milk price to June 2019 of 34.78ppl from a base price of 30.24ppl.

Teamwork vital

To ensure the dairy farm team isn’t over-stretched (full timers work seven days on/three days off) most mechanised grassland work is undertaken by Cawley Farms’ arable manager Steve Cooke’s team. Contractors DJT Morris and WE Price handle the annual harvest of circa 3500t of grass and maize silages.

Mr Ingram continues: “We aim to graze the 5ha paddocks rotationally from Valentine’s Day to Guy Fawkes night. There’s no need to buffer feed during summer as production’s low as cows are dried off ahead of calving.”

Grass leys for cutting are merged into Cawley Farm’s arable enterprise helping keep on top of the emerging need to tackle black-grass, explains Mr Cawley. “There’s approximately 83ac of rotational grass put down as a three-year leys for this purpose.”

Although both the farming platform and dairy facility could handle more cattle outside of housing there’s a resistance to ‘unsettle’ the current routine for both staff and livestock.

Sheep enterprise

But change is unavoidable and latterly it has been in the farm’s sheep enterprise. Mr Cawley explains: ‘The Trust wanted to preserve a unique Capability Brown circular walled garden we used for indoor lambing at Berrington.

“Instead, we were offered financial help to change the flock and the Trust offered a grazing licence for its nearby Croft Castle for the transition. But a lack of buildings meant a switch from an intensive to a flock of 1000 Easycare Exlana ewes.”

Managed by Mark Hollis, the flock grazed stubble turnips within Cawley Farms’ arable rotation over winter before lambing outdoors at Berrington in April. Groups of ewes and lambs then moved onto parkland for the spring and summer.

“Lambing losses have been higher than expected in the initial year – well above the 10% norm we’d been led to believe for outdoor lambing – possibly caused by mixing ewes from different flocks,” suggests Mr Cawley. “Like any new enterprise there will be teething troubles. We aim eventually to increase flock size to 2000 ewes.”

Fortunately, other investments will buoy-up overall farm income in the interim including 100KW of solar panels installed before government support tumbled. “We’ve also been fortunate to buy 60ac of land locally (in the past year) to add to our acreage,” he says.

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