Until 2011, Red Hall Farm was home to a herd of dairy cows, but fast forward to present day and it is a very different product which is now being sold off the farm. Katie Jones reports.
Red Hall Farm near Crewe, Cheshire, has a history in the dairy industry.
James Charlesworth, the fourth generation of the Charlesworth family to farm at Red Hall Farm, explains that his father, Marshall, a renowned show jumper in his time, maintained the farm as a dairy farming enterprise.
However, after various changes to the business, the now 242-hectare (600-acre) arable operation, which is run alongside a separate broiler business, is focused on the production of small bales of straw, hay, haylage and Lucerne intended for the poultry, equine and domestic pet markets.
James says the recent history of the family business starts back in 1997, when milk quota had a value. After selling some quota, James established a poultry business.
He says: “At that time, the milk price shot up because of the demise of the Milk Marketing Board. We thought it would not last, so we sold some quota at about £1/litre. At the time we thought we were giving it away.
“We then put up two broiler sheds. The infrastructure for the sheds did not take up too much room and I could milk the cows in the morning before seeing to the broilers.
“The media coverage of mad cow disease meant that white meat had become very popular, so this side of the business did very well.”
He adds that the litter from the broilers made excellent fertiliser for the farmland.
However, the direction of the dairy side of the business took another change in 2001, when foot-and-mouth hit the farming community.
Although the farm managed to avoid the disease itself, the decision was made to sell the cows to a farmer in Cumbria who was restocking after his own herd was taken out.
James says: “At this point our pedigree Holstein Friesian cows were getting too big for our sheds and system.
We were milking 260 cows three times-a-day through a 20:20 herringbone parlour and we were milking for eight hours/day. Everything was stretched to the limit and we were starting to see problems creeping in.
It was not long before cows arrived back on-farm though. After the sums were done, it was decided in 2002 to buy a herd of Jerseys in order to supply milk to a local cheese producer.
James says: “To begin with we were getting a fantastic milk price as we were paid on fat and protein. But that soon came crashing down. Our milk price was capped and we could not produce the volume we needed to make it add up.”
“We were selling all of our straw to merchants. So I began looking at whether we could process some of that into a bale suitable for enrichment.”
So in 2011 the cows were sold and this was to be the last time dairy cattle would be on-farm.
However, James wanted to continue making value from the farmland and he was not keen on letting others farm it.
So the poultry side of the business was expanded. By this stage there were four broiler houses on-farm, which quickly turned into eight.
Land was ploughed up and everything drilled to arable crops to produce as much home-grown feed for the birds as possible.
James says: “We were keen to reduce feed costs long-term and improve feed traceability.”
Now everything, along with rented ground at the neighbouring farm, is in a seven-year arable rotation of wheat, oats, oilseed rape, peas and beans.
And the latest venture combines James’ interest in the arable and poultry businesses. He says in poultry sheds there is a rule which stipulates bales should be provided as enrichment for the birds.
He says: “Regulations within the poultry sector are stringent and there is a huge focus on animal welfare.”
For environmental enrichment, Red Tractor requires at least one bale per 1,000 birds to be used throughout the bird’s life. The bales can be wrapped or treated, and should be placed in the shed prior to chick placement.
Generally, plastic wrapped bales of shavings are used for this. However, James says the birds do not interact with these and if they do there is a danger the birds will try to eat the plastic. He also highlights the issue of disposing of the plastic wrap once the bale has served its purpose.
James says: “We were selling all of our straw to merchants. So I began looking at whether we could process some of that into a bale suitable for enrichment.”
So in 2019 James invested into a piece of machinery which processes, disinfects, destones and de-dusts straw, before rebaling it into an 8kg banded bale measuring 600mm by 400mm by 200mm.
The product is sold under the ‘BALED’ company name, and the machine’s capabilities have been extended to the processing and baling of hay and haylage for the equine market, and bags of chopped hay and straw for
There are also plans underway to turn home-grown Lucerne into bales for both the equine and the free-range poultry sector.
James says: “Most of the Lucerne for this sector comes from Europe, so this is a market we are hoping to get into.”
He adds that a European-funded grant contributed 40 per cent towards the cost of the machine and he is hopeful the initial investment will be recouped within five years, dependent on demand.
“The machine can bale anything, but no-one so far has used it to make enrichment bales for the poultry industry,” he says.
James says the birds interact with the enrichment bales instantly. He says: “Chicks peck and pull at the straw, and this leads to a reduction in litter pecking. By one week old the birds are able to jump onto the top of the bales.
“Bales are easy to handle, are better for the environment, as they are not individually wrapped in plastic, and they can easily be disposed of when sheds are cleaned out between batches.”
The large six-string bales fed into the machine at the beginning are processed to make a pallet-load of small bales, priced at £4/bale.
James says the machine, which has been set up in a cubicle shed that has been converted into a purpose-built processing unit, can make 10-14 pallets of bales a day and he hopes to be able to sell 400-500 pallet-loads a year.
The machine is operated by one person. James explains his son Kristian, who is the farm’s arable manager, and two full-time arable workers are all able to work on the bale plant when needed.
Investment for the business at Red Hall Farm does not stop there. Recently a small haulage business, Red Hall Logistics, was established with the purchase of a lorry which is used solely to bring poultry feed onto the farm.
He says: “That one lorry is just going to the feed mill and to us. From a biosecurity point of view this is great.
“This lorry is expected to make 380 deliveries of feed a year to our farm. We have now ordered a second lorry so we can do all the haulage for another farmer.”