Anyone in the dairy business will tell you that recent years have not exactly been a bed of roses. Persistently low milk prices, cheap imports and uncertainty about the future have all made it difficult to plan for sustainability and development.
There are different schools of thought on the best way to meet these challenges. Some farmers, including quite a few new entrants to the dairy business, are developing large farms with up to 1,000 cows, seeing economy of scale as the answer to maintaining competitiveness in milk production. On many smaller farms however, where milking has been carried on through generations of the same family, the number of cows may have increased over the years but there simply isn’t the scope or the desire to take the large farm route. That doesn’t mean to say these farmers don’t see a bright future – it’s more about adopting the right approach and it’s encouraging to see significant investments being made for milk production on a smaller scale.
A case in point is Whitchurch Farm, Ston Easton, where the Osborne family has been engaged in dairy farming since 1947. Although only 11 miles from Bristol the farm could hardly be more rural, occupying a wonderful position on the Mendips, some of the buildings dating back to the mid-1600s. Today the farm is in the care of brothers Tom and Jonathan Osborne who took over from their father and grandfather. With 220 cows to milk they have just committed to a new, fully automated DeLaval 20/40 herringbone parlour from T H WHITE’s Dairy Department.
“Our old parlour certainly didn’t owe us anything,” says Tom who runs the dairy side of the business. “It was installed in 1976 so has given more than 40 years service, although we have updated it a couple of times with direct milk lines and milk meters. But it was becoming clear that it was approaching the end of its life, so rather than wait until we had a failure in, say, five years time, we decided to go for a new parlour.”
The decision was part of a plan to ‘future-proof’ the business. Both Tom and Jonathan have sons, but it’s too early for them to say whether they might eventually want to take over the dairy operation. To provide flexibility for the future Tom and Jonathan decided to locate the building to house the new parlour next to the substantial cow shed they built in 2003. This is a few hundred yards from the main farm complex, meaning that if necessary the dairy operation could become a self-contained unit if required.
When the cow shed was built extensive earthworks and ground levelling had to be carried out and much more of the same will be necessary for the new parlour, but it will be worth it says Tom: “The new 20/40 parlour will enable us to milk in around two hours, just right for our herd size. There are three key factors which can help make a smaller-scale dairy operation successful: herd size and health – which are inter-related – and guaranteed outlet for your milk. Experience shows us that our herd size is right and it enjoys good health with low veterinary bills. Our cows yield 7,200ltrs, with solids of 4.4 butter fat and 3.45 protein.
“That’s ideal as all our milk goes to Alvis Brothers in Bristol for high quality cheese production, which gives us an assured market.”
There is, however, another reason underpinning the viability of Whitchurch Farm – a high degree of self-sufficiency – with 120 acres of land providing grazing and forage. “Our grazing is white clover and we are also growing three-year red clover rye grass and crimped wheat,” says Jonathan, who manages the arable side of the business. “The only things we buy in are soya blend and cow cake.”
It was through the arable activities that the Osbornes first started doing business with T H WHITE, purchasing agricultural machinery from 1985 onwards, and then dairy service and maintenance from about 1990. “It’s a great relationship,” says Tom, “and one which looks set to continue with the new parlour!”
If you would like to talk to T H White about a dairy installation of any size, call Dairy manager Nigel Ellis on 01373 465941, or contact him by email at