When returning to work on the family farm in Cheshire after a city job, Andy Venables was determined to carve his own niche, but also wanted to add further value to the family’s existing business.
The Venables family has been farming at Hills Green Farm, Siddington, since the early 1900s, with the 59-hectare (145-acre) farm part of the Capesthorne Estate.
Andy Venables farms in partnership with his parents, Andrew and Pat. But up until the beginning of 2016, Andy was working away from the farm in a career outside of agriculture.
His journey back to farming at home has been different from that taken by many farmers’ sons, and involved a university degree in business studies, a year travelling, and six years working for a digital marketing company in Manchester.
When returning to work on the family farm in Cheshire after a city job, Andy Venables was but also wanted to add further value to the family’s existing business. Katie Jones finds Andy explains before going to university he weighed up his options of either a degree in agriculture or in business.
He says: “I decided that the business side of farming was the area that really excited me, and at that stage I thought a business studies degree would stand me in good stead whatever I decided to do.”
As part of his degree at the University of Huddersfield, Andy completed a placement year at data company, Bounty. Then, in his final year, he focused more on agriculture, with his dissertation looking at the branding of milk.
“I feel very strongly that milk is under-marketed,” he explains.
Following university, Andy and wife Claire took time out to travel, taking in countries including Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada. Time was spent visiting farms, but also working for non-farming companies, including the retailer group Coles.
“When we came back it was decision time,” says Andy. “It was either go into the family business, or do something different.
“It was always the plan to come back home, but I also wanted to work somewhere else. So in 2010 I went to work for a start-up digital marketing company in Manchester.
“I started as a business development executive and, due to the nature of working for a small company, I did a bit of everything.”
The business started to do well due to the growth in demand for online marketing.
Andy says his six years at the company allowed his career to flourish and he also experienced the ups and downs of a growing business, the challenges of recruiting and retaining staff.
“I really enjoyed it, but I was at a bit of a crossroads,” he adds.
“I needed to commit to staying with the company in Manchester, or come back to the farm and see whether I could add value to the family business and spend more time with my family, rather than dealing with the commute. In the end it was a no-brainer.
“I would always advise going to work for someone else before coming back to the family business, and would also encourage gaining experience in another sector.”
It was also around this time that Spring Bank Farm, just down the road from the home farm, came up for sale.
This is where Andy and Claire now live and the extra land has also meant heifers can be reared at home, rather than being contract reared as had previously been the case.
“TB meant it was a massive risk when rearing the heifers away from home, so there is a big benefit to having them on the farm now,” says Andy.
Cow numbers have been creeping up from the 140 that Andrew senior was milking when he took on the farm tenancy in the early 1980s.
The 300-strong herd is calved all-year-round, but with a break in calving for two months in summer, and a month around Christmas.
Andrew says: “This helps with management at these times of the year and also means we can clean everywhere out and give everyone a break from calving cows.”
Everything is put to the black and white bull from July to December, and then the beef bull for the remainder of the year.
“From a management point of view, this helps simplify the rearing of heifer replacements and makes it easier to manage batches of youngstock,” Andrew explains.
Average yields stand at 7,800 litres at 4.2 per cent butterfat and 3.27 per cent protein, with most achieved from grass.
“We are feeding 1.8 tonnes of cake/cow on average and have an extensive network of cow tracks around the farm to keep the cows out for as much of the year as possible to make the best possible use of grazing,” says Andy.
In a normal year, cows go out around March 20, come in at night from October 20, and will be housed day and night from mid-November. The herd is managed as a single group, and plans are in place to remodel an existing cubicle shed this year to allow cow numbers to increase to 350.
Andy and his dad are both keen to work alongside them and learn Farm facts from them.
“For the first six months I did a lot of the day-to-day jobs, as our herdsman had to take some time off,” Andy says.
“It was useful as I could get back in touch with what was happening on a daily basis and also meant I could see where the quick wins might be.”
Andy now describes himself as the ‘relief man’ and focuses on the business management side of things, which is something he enjoys.
He is also keen to introduce more technology on-farm, but says any new investment has to be something that everyone is on board with and, ultimately, will help make improvements to the business.
Two years ago, Andy started working with farm data specialists Map of Ag, as a demo farm. This has helped Map of Ag to gain greater knowledge of the UK dairy industry and develop an online platform which helps farmers gain better insight from their data.
This has also led to an interest in how farm data can help inform decision-making and, to this end, the business invested in SmaXtec boluses and Uniform Agri.
Andy explains: “The boluses monitor heats and also provide data on the cows’ water consumption and body temperature. With a number of staff involved in milking, this adds another level of monitoring for emerging issues, such as mastitis.
“And Uniform Agri, which we can integrate to our existing parlour software and boluses, means we can easily crunch the data.
“What I did not want to do was introduce something that would upset the apple cart. It had to be something that would improve the farm.
“And we have to do something with this data, too, otherwise it is just pointless.”
Andy’s other reason for returning to the farm was his desire to start up his area of specialism.
“I wanted a diversification with a difference, so I have tried to combine my two passions – marketing and agriculture,” he adds.
This arm of the business, Hillsgreen Marketing, is providing marketing expertise for a range of rural and agri clients.
“I can go to a client and talk about farming as well as about marketing, and I am the target market for a lot of these companies so I understand the market.”
Andy says he is working hard to grow this part of the business and now works with a team of specialists to facilitate client marketing campaigns .
“I see it as another revenue stream, so I want to build the marketing business so we can reinvest in the farm,” Andy says. Andy admits he is not a conventional farmer.
“I am probably quite unusual in that I worked away, then decided to come back and farm, but I am not actually out there every day milking cows,” he adds.
“But running the farm as a business was the big attraction for me coming back home.”