Benchmarking is helping one of East Yorkshire mixed farm business develop better relationships with consultants, implement new ideas and future-proof profits.
For Angela Kirkwood, the 950-sow pig enterprise is the main focus of her farming business. However, joining AHDB’s Farmbench programme has allowed her to take a closer look at the performance of the arable operation.
Ms Kirkwood became a partner in P.S. Kirkwood with her father Peter in 2009, after spending several years gaining business experience in a variety of other companies both in and out of agriculture.
As well as this, Ms Kirkwood is NFU county chairwoman for the York East region.
She says: “My time away from the farm has put me in good stead for thinking a bit more broadly about the business, and running it as a business rather than as a family farm.”
The business includes a farrow-to-finish indoor pig enterprise with 950 sows, from which some of the pork produced is sold through another branch of the farm business, East Riding Country Pork, which was set up 19 years ago.
This allows for pork to be sold directly to local customers through their farm shop, as well as supplying wholesale to local catering and leisure industries.
The farm’s arable land produces wheat, barley and spring barley which is milled and mixed on-farm to feed the pigs.
Ms Kirkwood says: “We have been doing this for the last 40 years. It gives us control over seven different rations.
“This means it can be focused on meeting the nutritional requirements of each age group and gives them a tailor-made diet.”
As part of Ms Kirkwood’s role, she is responsible for business development.
She says: “I am always trying to drive the business forward with new ideas and reduce operating costs.”
In 2014, the business invested in a solar energy source, a 25KW panel on one of the arable buildings, and has since installed a 500KW wind turbine, which supplies all the electric required by the pig farm.
“It is all about reducing risk to the business and I think a diverse business is one that reduces its risk.”
In 2018, Ms Kirkwood was approached by local land agency Brown and Co to join AHDB’s benchmarking group, Farmbench, with a group of local farmers.
She says: “I had initial concerns about joining the group. I think a lot of farmers would. I was worried who would access the information, how it was going to be used and the accuracy of the data for comparison.
However, Ms Kirkwood is currently undertaking a Nuffield Scholarship and, on a visit to Ireland, she saw how successful the country is at benchmarking businesses.
She says: “Even the smallest farmer will be talking about his costs and what he is doing to manage them. Benchmarking is a requirement to gain a lot of Ireland’s grant funding and support.”
Ms Kirkwood says the fact Brown and Co was collecting and inputting data, meaning it would be recorded in a consistent and accurate way, helped her decision to join the programme.
She says: “In the future, we will need to be able to justify to the Government why financial support is needed. I thought it was important I got involved with that and was ahead of the curve.
“We have always known our costs, but this has allowed us to break those costs down. Comparing ourselves with other people in the area with the same weather and land type constraints will be really useful.”
Ms Kirkwood set her own aims when starting out with Farmbench.
She says: “I said I would get involved, but I wanted to know what I was going to achieve by doing it. I set myself aims and objectives of what I wanted to get out of benchmarking.”
These aims were to compare P.S. Kirkwood with other local farmers, identify where future technology investment would benefit the business and to set a baseline to improve from.
Staffing is also high on Ms Kirkwood’s agenda and, according to AHDB’s Horizon reports, one of the characteristics of top-performing farms is continuous improvement of people management.
In total, there are 30 employees across all branches of the business, with a manager overseeing the pig, arable and butchery operations.
Ms Kirkwood says: “I put my trust in them to do their best and I give them responsibility for their area. I try not to micromanage too much.
“If you do not have the right people around you, it is not going to work. I am all for everyone working together for the best. I am keen everyone works as a team to move the business forward.”
The Kirkwoods’ business is run as a whole, rather than with focus on each area as a separate entity.
Ms Kirkwood says: “Benchmarking has allowed me to look at the arable part of the business and focus on that area to make improvements. “There have been a few unintended outcomes so far. It has focused my arable farm manager and educated and motivated him on costs.
“It has given him a more rounded approach to what he is doing and the impact of his day-to-day work and how that affects the overall business.”
HAVING only been involved with her Farmbench group for one year, Ms Kirkwood says they have had a meeting and discussed staffing and the industry as a whole.
However, she says it will take time to build trust and relationships within the group to help members share their costs and improve their businesses.
She says: “Being part of Farmbench has encouraged me to have the conversation with agronomists and farm advisers and it has made them sharpen their pencils a little bit.
“Their knowing I am involved with Farmbench means they have to justify everything they are doing now.
“We have started benchmarking antibiotic use in our pig business and the same has happened with veterinary consultants.
“They are now a lot more aware of the advice they are giving. I think it will do the same for the arable consultants.”
In the future, she says opportunities in the arable part of the business will be down to investment in technology.
She says: “Because we are only 650 acres, we are not into precision yet and we are not on variable inputs. For me, that is where we can improve.
“When I need to buy new equipment, I will buy the best and most technologically advanced kit I can afford.”
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