Friday, December 6, 2019

Evolution Farming: Dairy company puts faith in youngsters

October 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Encouraging young people to progress their careers rapidly is yielding results for Evolution Farming. Simon Wragg reports.

A team of four dairy professionals – with an average age of just 22 – is managing 620 spring block-calving cows producing 3m litres of milk for Evolution Farming at Houghton Lodge Farm, near Leicester.

The company – set up in 2010 and today owned by Tom Rawson and Charlie Crotty – manages 2600 cows and associated farmland at six sites from West Yorkshire to Norfolk within a variety of tenancy and contract farming agreements.

The opportunity to take on the dormant 600-cow former Co-op Farms unit at Houghton came to fruition in 2015 and embodies the company’s ethos: To make a profit and create businesses alongside people with whom it wants to work.

Evolution attracts employees from a variety of backgrounds.

Houghton’s dairy team is headed by Ifan Roberts, 24, a farmer’s son from Ruthin who initially joined and subsequently managed Evolution’s 250-cow dairy unit at Market Rasen, Lincolnshire.

Second-in-command is Rob Proud, a graduate of Nottingham University, joined by trainee herdsman Jack Springthorpe – who came to the business from fast-food outlet KFC – university placement student Olivia Leen and trainee Simone Wood.

Ifan explains: “We have a 230ha milking platform divided into 32 paddocks and accessed by good tracks. Despite being heavy ground the area’s low rainfall allows cows to go out in mid February as fresh calvers.”

Grassland strategy

Grass is plate-metered twice weekly in peak season with figures entered on to AgriNet to help produce a grazing plan.

Typical milk yields are 5500 litres/cow/year at 4.9% butterfat and 3.8% protein from forage and 500kg of concentrate feed per cow. Milk is sold to Arla for processing currently achieving 32ppl against a budgeted production cost of 26ppl.

Three cuts of grass silage overlaid with maize silage – mostly from land within the Houghton Estate’s arable rotation – is taken using Evolution’s in-house contracting team.

Surplus grass from the grazing platform is also baled as winter feed for dry cows. Ensiled forage is mixed and put out using a tele-handler bucket rather than a costly feeder wagon.

“Our aim is to shut paddocks with a typical cover of 2350kg DM/ha in early November. A recent tour to New Zealand with Positive Farmers (funded largely out of his own wages) highlighted the quality of over-wintered grass shouldn’t be underestimated,” explains Ifan.

“It can be 11.0-11.5ME – perfect for transitioning cows with low appetites in early spring.

“We also learnt cows will typically eat 90% of their daily allocation of grass within three hours of being turned out. On very wet days they can then be pulled back on to hard-standing rather than left out to loaf to reduce poaching.”

Condition scoring

In preparation for winter the herd will be condition scored shortly. Thinner cows will be dried off early and fitter milkers over-wintered outdoors on pasture and baled silage to avoid putting on condition ahead of calving from next February.

This should be less labour-intensive from 2020 as the team tightened the service period for breeding from 16 weeks down to 12 earlier this year.

Using heat labels and tail paint to identify cows cycling within the first six weeks, these  are AI’d with sexed dairy semen to produce replacement heifers. Thereafter a team of 14 native breed bulls – split between am and pm service groups – act as sweepers.

“We’ve also made changes to reduce calf mortality which at one time was running at 18% to weaning. The milking team is now responsible for ensuring new-borne calves get up to 4 litres of colostrum in the first few hours of life.

“Thereafter a member of the team then takes sole responsibility for rearing calves through to weaning at 12 weeks old. The change has reduced calf losses to nearer 2% this year,” explains Ifan.

Staff training

As well as changes to day-to-day management, staff training in elements such as foot-trimming and AI is very much part of the Evolution deal. Unit managers expect trainees to move to more responsible roles within the company relatively quickly. It is key to Evolution’s development, suggest its founders, as two new joint ventures near agreement.

The culture of the business has encouraged some employees to invest earnings into buying dairy cattle or equipment of their own – Ifan has 50 head leased to a dairy farm – leading, almost inevitably, to some leaving to set up their own herds.

While understanding a desire ‘to get your name above the door’ the business has also seen some joint ventures overtaken having set up staff and milk contracts. “In future these will be ‘tied’ to the company,” says co-founder Tom Rawson.

There are more opportunities to come, he suggests. These include the impact of Brexit on support payments, a growing social acceptance of letting out your own land and facilities for others to farm – and the desire to reintroduce livestock to arable rotations for weed control.

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