Nearly 12 months ago, Miles Saunders and his family won the Farming Partnership of the Year title as part of the British Farming Awards. Sarah Peacocke finds out what is happening on farm.
Managing to secure a summer lease on 202 hectares (500 acres) of local organic grassland has allowed Miles Saunders to keep an extra 230 beef calves and dairy youngstock this year. And, although organic beef prices are not at their best, he is hopeful that when it comes to selling in September, they will add some valuable cash to his farm income.
Key to this will be passing the next set of imminent TB tests, and with a number of badger sets on his National Trust property, keeping the herd free can be quite a challenge.
“Having the extra grass has allowed me to make more silage and to keep more youngstock,” he says. “My aim across the farm is to keep my reliance on bought-in feed to a minimum. It is not all about milk volume, it’s about keeping farm costs down.”
Miles runs the 526ha (1,300-acre) Step Farm on the outskirts of Farringdon in Oxfordshire. He is the fourth generation of his family to keep cows on this picturesque unit, which first began when his great grandfather held the tenancy for six years in. Next was his grandfather for the next 35 years, his father for 40 years, and Miles has been in charge for the past seven.
Cow numbers have grown over the last year, with a herd of 400 milked twice-daily and plans to carry about 420 through the winter, when OMSCo – his milk buyer - is offering a higher milk price. He concentrates on a New Zealand Friesian as his base cow, crossing with a Brown Swiss and, more recently, with a Norwegian Red.
“We have been very impressed with the stamp of cow we are producing now,” he says. “I am looking for more hybrid vigour and darker feet – and key to this is getting the balance right between strength and milking ability.
“The Norwegian Red heifers will be served this autumn, so it is too early to say how they will add value, and breeding is such a long-term business. But we want cows that have longevity in the herd, those that suit our organic system, giving good yields from high forage diets. The maximum concentrate fed to any cow here in the winter is 8kg/head.”
Current yields are running at about 6,300 litres/cow, and he runs two Hereford, a Simmental and two South Devon as sweeper bulls.
“I am looking to increase the number of cows I have calving before Christmas,” he says. “If all goes according to plan, we should have 370 calving between September and December.
“This is purely market led. The OMSCo price is higher from July to February, so the more I can calve in that period, the better. It also helps to even out organic milk supply for the market and balance the overall milk pool.”
Miles has been on the OMSCo board for the past four years, and praises the marketing team who he believes are always looking for new opportunities across the world. “I find this really exciting, and being part of the business at such a time is really motivating.
“They are trying so hard to market organic milk at a premium, and not just as straight liquid milk. This is one of the keys to success at the moment – we have allowed milk to become such a commodity product when there are plenty of opportunities out there to add value, leading to a higher price for producers.”
Joining a premium milk price pool for the US organic market will increase Miles’ milk price by up to 5p/litre, and he met the tough standards for this growing group at the end of June.
“Over the past year my herd manager Richard Adams has used a combination of new and old methods to reduce herd health issues. All credit to him – he has, for example, halved our incidence of mastitis.
“We are very hot on cow lameness, and although it was an expensive piece of kit, installed a rollover crush which allows us to trim all four feet regularly and effectively and, in addition, we are breeding for improved feet.
“We have made some major changes to our cubicle building, taking down walls to improve ventilation, moving managers, moving cubicles and, as a result, getting better air movement and drier beds. It has been quite costly and we have got some more work to do, but it is paying dividends with improved cow health.”
He has also installed a new 5,000-litre bulk tank, which joins the existing 10,500-litre and 8,000-litre tanks, giving an overall capacity of 24,000 litres and enabling every-other-day collection and separation for the premium pool milk.
“Looking ahead this will allow us to segregate milk for different markets,” he says. “I always try to think forward, and it is clear we will be producing for different premium pools with different requirements – these three tanks will allow me to go for the best prices when they are on offer.”
They also give him economy of scale – when there is less milk available he can use the size of tank his milk flow justifies.
Of his total of 526ha (1,300 acres), 134ha (330 acres) are cereals, 101ha (250 acres) permanent pasture, and the remainder is down to grass leys. Those closer to the farm are perennial rye-grass and white clover, those further away are hybrid rye-grass and red clover. He also grows 28ha (70 acres) of lucerne which is made into silage, but says it is struggling a little this year as it is on light land, planted last autumn and has not had much rain.
“My aim is to keep all the cereals on the farm. I have done something a bit different this year, as with the cold spring my spring barley took quite a while to germinate. I also became aware of some potential winter feed issues, an expected shortage of organic protein supplies, so decided to direct drill peas into the existing stand of barley.
“It is the first time we have over-drilled and at the moment I am really happy with how the crops look. I use high seed rates to ensure a thick canopy and help to control weed populations, so as well as 80kg/acre of barley, we over-drilled with 80kg/acre of peas. I aim to get yields of about 1.8 tonnes/acre of barley, so with the added peas I am hoping to get more than 2t/acre.
“I need a 0.14/t increase in yield to break even, so it stacks up financially, and will give me higher protein levels in my winter feed. The more grain I have to buy-in, the more my profit drops – I can grow cereals at half the price I have to pay to buy them in.”
All-in-all Miles is very positive about the future in dairying and says remaining flexible is the key. “I keep a really close eye on opportunities and I am always thinking forward.
“OMSCo is a fantastic organisation which is a true partner in my business, and looking ahead to all the global marketing opportunities it is working on at the moment, I am really excited about where we are going together.”
There are a host of different business models operating within farming and partnerships are a fundamental part in developing new and existing businesses.
We are looking for farmers who are working in partnership with a commercial company.
You might have merged with other other farmers to become a co-operative, you could be a group of farmers supplying your product under contract, or a member of a large consortium.
Whatever your situation, you can enter this award as a whole team or individually on behalf of your partnership.
On being named the 2014 winner of Farming Partnership of the Year (corporate) at the British Farming Awards, Miles says: "It was a massive surprise, I never expected to have a chance. The partnership between OMSCo and ourselves has been in 20 years in the making and working in partnership with it has made our farm what it is today.
For more info or to enter, please go to www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk