Farming Connect Study Visit - Grazing Gogs

Funded through the Knowledge Transfer, Innovation and Advisory Service programme under the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 - 2020

Grazing Gogs

Bath, Bristol & Presteigne

3rd - 5th October

1) Background

Six members of the group went on tour, the lowest number we have ever had travel. Although thought to be disappointing at first, the low number meant that we had very in depth and open discussions with our hosts.

2) Itinerary

2.1 Day 1 – Dairy Show

Because of the distance and different travelling times it was agreed to meet at the dairy show so that there would be no issues if people were late arriving. There was the usual show exhibits to see but the one that caused the most interest with the group was the Sabre Sensor equipment. This black box technology is attached to the milking parlour and used for checking milk quality and somatic cell counts as cows are milked. On the Old Barn accountants stand we were also given a short presentation by Robert Driesdale on a new proposal to rear and finish Jersey cross bred bull calves.

2.2 Day 2 – Alvis Bros Ltd / A & R Giles Ltd

On the second day we visited Alvis Bros in Bristol where we were given a tour of the plant by John Alvis senior, who since the visit has been awarded an OBE. This was where the low number on tour was beneficial as we sat in the board room and had a full discussion on the family cheese business including the margins involved, capital required for plant and maturing cheese stock and how it was financed. The need for quality management was emphasised and the family paid high salaries for top people to bring skills to the business that the family lacked.

An interesting fact was that they found it easier and more profitable to export to North America than supply UK supermarkets. They also exported to the EU and had no fears of Brexit as they thought either a deal would be agreed and business would continue as now, or a ‘no deal’ would bring opportunities to replace EU imports to the UK.

After the cheese plant we visited the dairy farm and learnt about some serious TB issues. The main farm had been closed down for 23 as a result of with TB and the second farm had been totally cleared of cattle over 12 months as test after test brought more reactors until the final 30 or so cows were removed. The second farm is now used to grow fodder for the main farm. They ran two herds through the same rotary parlour, one being milked once a day to maximise its use. They were also hoping to buy a neighbouring farm which would be soon on the market. A salutary lesson, the neighbour had invested heavily in a new dairy expansion but failed to include slurry handling facilities and, as a result, had been banned from milking by the English environmental which forced them to sell.

An extra visit to Andrew and Rachel Giles was arranged at short notice. Andrew and Rachel were Gold Cup finalists in 2017, excellent farmers and with a good story to tell about their progress. They began farming in Pembroke with two separate blocks of 100 acres, owned but heavily in debt. They sold these farms when they moved to a 500 cow tenanted farm in Herefordshire.

Each of their two sons had moved to 500 acre tenanted farms in Somerset. Andrew thought that this was important as otherwise they would come home to an established business that would not challenge them. He had also sold a very small part of his business to his herdsman who had asked for a joint venture. The herdsman was receiving £3,000 pa return on his investment, a good return but Andrew said that the change in attitude was unbelievable and could never have been achieved by paying and extra £60 per week wage increase.

The group all agreed that they got some very good take home messages from Andrew.

2.3 Day 3 – EP Davies & Son Ltd

‘Bill the Knill’, as he is nicknamed, is now in his 70s but still fully involved in the family business that he and his wife built up over the years. The business consists of two dairy farms, one arable and three broiler units. We visited the home farm which had the oldest broiler unit as well as a 450 cow dairy unit. While our main aim was to see the broiler unit, the dairy was very interesting as they were using some very modern technology. A spring calving dairy herd that was trying to avoid using bulls to mop up after the AI period, they had installed a drafting system that had a computerised camera checking for signs of bulling as the cows left the parlour, drafting any that it identified. The results were good but not good enough to make any of the group members to rush out to make the investment but they had eliminated the use of bulls which the herdsman was happy about.

William Davies, one of the sons, gave us a breakdown of the economics of the broiler industry and how it worked. Margins are low for any new investment but with the right investment with a long life span and after capital loans were paid off it generated a good return and the fact that the family had been doing it for a long time gave them confidence.

The unit we saw was an old silage clamp built into a hillside which had been converted to a three level broiler house with 50,000 birds on each floor. It was fascinating to see the system and the facts of running these units are impressive -35 days from arrival as day old chicks to leaving as finished birds, with one week to clean the building before the next batch arrived. A change from gas powered heating to wood chip boilers had reduced finishing time by two weeks as the heat was not as dry. Salaries for staff were high as only people with a certain personality could make the systems work and poaching of staff was not unknown. The industry was also very innovative and much research was being done, one example being putting point of hatch eggs into the sheds instead of day old chicks as this reduced costs and because of the rapid turnaround of batches the speed of evolution in the industry was quick and with being paid on the average cost of production if you did not keep up you were out.

There were some very important lessons to be learned from the Davies’ as well as the other hosts on our tour.

3) Next Steps

  • One of our tour group is trying out the Sabre sensor technology as milk recording in their parlour is difficult and this new technology should help identify high SCC cows early which would be cost effective.
  • The unit that reared bull calves would pay so little for them at six weeks of age that no members would be interested in pursuing this idea, although the issue of bull calves on dairy units is a problem that will have to be addressed.
  • Alvis Bros were an example of what can be achieved by a family business with good succession planning and a generational approach to building their business with an open mind to new opportunities and looking for niche markets which allowed them to compete with large businesses.
  • From the Giles’, the main point was be prepared to move to where the opportunities are and not wait and hope that they will come to you, respond to a changing situation and be challenged.
  • From the Davies’ it was clear that Bill had seen a gap in the market years ago to move into broilers and that he had exploited it to build a successful diversified family business that could be passed onto the next generation.
  • All three businesses had family members who had thought outside the conventional farming box that they had inherited. Good lessons to learn.
  • Finally, there was also one point that if you buy thank you gifts for hosts, you should take them with you so that you don’t have to buy electric fence reels at the Dairy Show although they were a big hit and all hosts claimed that it was the most useful gift they had received.