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Dairy business booms after Welsh farmer sets up one-man band operation

After being inspired by international travelling, Iwan Francis returned to the UK focused, ambitious and has gradually progressed to run his own dairy business with optimism and efficiency. 

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Although growing up on a West Wales beef and sheep farm, a visit to New Zealand seven years ago helped bring about a complete change in direction for Iwan Francis.

 

The trip provided first-hand experience of support-free farming, hammered home the need to maximise output from grass and set the seed for a life spent milking cows.

 

As a result, today at the age of 32, Iwan runs his own 200-cow dairy herd on a tenanted 109-hectare (270-acre) Carmarthenshire holding.

 

Achieving a lot in a short space of time has not, however, been without its setbacks – not least the challenges of low farmgate milk prices of recent times alongside the need for a considerable on-farm investment.

 

“We have replaced a five by 10 herringbone parlour with a 12 by 24, built a new 70-cow cubicle shed, as well as putting in cow tracks and additional drinking troughs,” says Iwan, who was recently named as the Welsh Dairy Stockperson of the Year.

 

"When we arrived here there were only two water troughs on the farm. Now we have 20.”

 

Travelling

 

His first introduction to dairying came when, after leaving school, he enrolled on an agricultural course at Llandeilo’s Gelli Aur College followed by a six-month work experience placement on a local dairy farm as a relief milker.

 

He went on to Aberystwyth University where he gained a degree in agriculture and business, before spending a further spell working on local farms and setting sail for New Zealand.

 

“The year I spent working on a 1,400-cow unit at Invercargill on the South Island and a 550-cow unit at Hamilton on the North Island was a real eye opener,” he says. “It fired up my ambition to run my own dairy farming operation.”

 

He returned to Wales in the month of March and by August the same year began farming Nantglas, a 52ha (130-acre) farm at Talog, near Carmarthen, where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and four-year-old daughter, Eira, just nine miles away from where he grew up.

 

The opportunity came about by pooling resources on a 50-50 basis with a business partner who he had met while working on local farms and securing a joint 15-year Farm Business Tenancy.

 

They set about stocking the holding with New Zealand Friesians and Jersey crosses.

 

“I had seen how they performed off grass in New Zealand and that was the way I wanted to farm,” he explains.

 

But the business partnership came to an end in 2016 when his partner moved to Llandeilo to run his wife’s family farm and Iwan bought out his share.

 

An additional 36ha (90 acres) are now being rented on a neighbouring farm, along with a further 20ha (50 acres) three miles away largely being used for silage.

 

The initial idea was to establish a spring-calving herd, but the economics of buying cows and heifers in August without generating much income until the following spring, was seen as financially unsustainable.

 

Instead Iwan opted for a split-block calving arrangement, with 100 cows calving in spring and 100 in autumn, a decision which has proved to be the right approach given his circumstances.

 

“It means I am not reliant on too much paid labour by only having to employ a relief milker for six milkings a week and using contractors for field and slurry work means I have little money tied up in machinery,” he adds.

 

“If I had to calve everything in spring I would need to employ someone full-time for six weeks. I can manage to calve 100 cows on my own and there is not the pressure in the parlour there would be from milking all the herd in one go.”


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Efficiency

Efficiency

With twice-a-day milking the average annual yield stands at 6,000 litres per cow, with butterfat at 4.5 per cent and protein at 3.5 per cent from one tonne of concentrate being fed in the parlour.

 

Grassland management is a key area of focus and, with the grazing ground rising to 260 metres (850 feet), grass growth in spring and autumn can be slow.

 

“While rarely drying out the grass can poach in wet weather,” he says. “But the paddock grazing layout and network of cow tracks makes this more manageable.”

 

Stocking levels are fairly high at four cows per hectare, with heifers being away-reared on a contract basis from four to five months old until the point of calving on a farm seven miles away.

 

Cows are housed from October onwards according to the weather and winter feeding is based around grass silage fed in troughs, with the daily routine kept fairly simple in order to make it a one-person task.

 

With efficiency never far from his mind, Iwan has one of the two sheds fitted with slats and an underground slurry store, which eliminates the need for regular scraping together with automatic scrapers in the new housing.

 

Sand is being used for bedding, a material he maintains has had a positive influence on both cow comfort and hygiene.

 

“It has increased the time the cows lie in the cubicles,” he says. “They are certainly more content and much cleaner, meaning when they come into the parlour we only have to brush off the sand which helps to keep milking time down,” he adds.

 

Some 20t of sand are delivered to the farm every two weeks at an all in cost of £12/t, though on the downside there is the cost of removing it from the slurry stores.

 

Selective dry cow therapy is being used on two-thirds of the herd, an approach encouraged by the farm’s vet, with milk recording identifying which cows need antibiotic treatment.

 

Adopting that policy has been taken in support of Iwan’s belief the industry needs to move to a situation in which less antibiotics are being used.

 

“As an industry we just cannot risk being directly responsible for a threat to human health. It also means there can be on-farm cost savings. A dry cow tube costs about £7 per cow but we now only use these on a third of the herd,” he adds.

 

Independence

 

One of the first tasks when taking on the farm was to secure a milk contract, initially with Dairy Crest but subsequently with Muller since the May 1 takeover by the German processor, a move which brought some disadvantages to Iwan’s supply contract because of lower fat content and more severe seasonality payments.

 

“When we first started milking we were getting 30p before dropping to 17p at its lowest for two months and then 20p. Hopefully we will not see such low returns again,” he adds.

 

Like on many other farms that has not been the only major challenge, with bovine TB also putting the system under pressure.

 

Despite consistent, clear testing, a reactor and 15 inconclusive readings were identified in January this year, while the second test showed three of them to be repeat IRs, seriously affecting the sale of breeding heifers.

 

“Livestock sales have become a major part of the business as we always have excess in-calf heifers to sell.

 

“Last year we sold 47 off the farm and with 43 heifers born this spring to lose that income this year would have a big influence on cashflow.”

 

As to the future, Iwan is optimistic the dairy industry will remain stable following repercussions from Brexit, and it is something Iwan sees as possibly being of benefit to UK dairy farmers.

 

“I believe the dairy industry will do okay after Brexit. Two of our major milk buyers are European-based and have invested heavily in the UK. They will make it work,” he says.

 

As to his own farm business, attention to detail will continue to be the main driving force – alongside making the best use of the knowledge he gained in New Zealand with its different mindset to farming, low cost systems and the ability to produce a calf per cow per year.

 

“Grass drives the system there and we are trying to replicate it as much as we can, even down to not relying too much on farming subsidies,” he adds.

 

“Dairy farmers in New Zealand are functioning successfully without support payments but for that to work here the prices we are paid would need to be a more accurate reflection of what food costs to produce.”

Farm facts

  • One-man New Zealand-style dairying
  • 200 Friesian cross Jersey milkers
  • Paddock grazing with cow tracks
  • Investment in parlour, infrastructure and cow comfort
  • Split spring and autumn block calving
  • Milk supplied to Muller
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