The Chesters family won the Family Farm of the Year at last year’s British Farming Awards, which was co-organised by Farmers Guardian. Danusia Osiowy visits Cheshire to catch up with them.
It is not often you manage to get the whole family sitting around the kitchen table when you arrange a farm visit, but when it happens, it reinforces how such units are the backbone of the farming industry.
David and his wife Sally Ann took over what was at the time a struggling 85-hectare (210-acre) dairy farm in Malpas, Cheshire, and turned it into a diverse business which is pulling forward thanks to the hard work of the whole family, including their children, Laura, 17, Lloyd, 16 and Lucy, eight.
David came into the business at 19 after completing an NCA in agriculture, joining his older brother and father who bought the farm in 1971. By 1976, they also purchased the farm next door and set up a second dairy unit. It was during David’s first year home, his father suffered a mild stroke.
David says: “At the time, we had one full-time worker who also went off sick, so it was just me and my mother and I was thrown in at the deep end.”
The family continued to milk, David’s father recovered and David married Sally Ann 20 years ago when the milk price was good and the mood positive.
To utilise the considerable size of their farmhouse and add value to the business, the couple decided to start up a bed-and-breakfast, taking four rooms in the house as the basis.
Sally Ann, who previously worked in financial services at Marks & Spencer before joining the farm full-time, says: “Some people thought it was a cuckoo idea, asking the question of who actually comes over to stay in Cheshire. But we knew a friend was closing down her B&B and there was a gap in the market.”
To advertise, David put a sign at the end of the road, which at that time was just by the side of a busy A41 and attracted a lot of passing trade.
“That really was the size of our advertising, as we did not even have a computer back then. We were absolutely astounded at how fast it took off.
“Initially, we welcomed many international customers and it got to the stage where we had to turn a lot of business away.”
Some of the beef calves which are taken up to seven months old before being sold on to be finished.
Shortly after Lloyd was born, the family ventured on a self-catering holiday to Gwynfryn Farm Holidays, near Pwllheli, which inspired the idea they could replicate a similar business model on-farm to accommodate their growing market.
Over the course of seven years, they built up a business of five self-catering, new-build cottages and bungalows offering a range of bedrooms, disabled access and facilities.
After 15 years, the B&B was closed in 2009 and transformed into a two-bedroom cottage. In total, the properties can now accommodate 24 people at any one time.
A combination of being a Farm Stay member for 11 years and increased advertising and listings on more tourism websites have contributed to a successful steady and consistent growth.
Sally Ann, who is now chairman of Farm Stay Cheshire, says: “We have been very lucky with grants and received funding from Marketing Cheshire and the Rural Development Programme for England.
“I think because we have run the B&B for so long, people can see we are genuinely committed to offering a high standard of tourist accommodation.”
One of their biggest realisations throughout the process was how much their working farm status appealed to the public.
Sally Ann says: “We realised people really wanted to stay on a working farm and help out with daily tasks, so we began utilising this within our marketing, which was something we didn’t do with the B&B.
“For some farmers, having people on-farm is their worst nightmare, but we enjoy educating the public. If anything, it can be quite comical, as sometimes it is Mum and Dad who are mad keen to get stuck in and help out more than the children who just want to stay on the ride-on toy tractors.”
In total, the properties can accomodate 24 people at any one time.
The family have introduced more and more accommodation.
After David’s father passed in 2007, David decided to cease milking in March 2010, selling all the dairy cows through the market.
He says: “It was the end of an era, but we were okay about it, as the price was so bad.
“The dairy herd had gone and we were thinking of starting up a calf rearing business. We had the cottages had changed our bank after feeling let down. It was a lot for us to think about and we needed help.”
The family enlisted the help of a consultant David says: “The consultant helped us create a new business plan which helped in securing the necessary loans.”
Capital from the dairy sale was reinvested into a new 400-head calf rearing business, increasing sheep numbers and farm efficiency.
David says: “We are aware calf rearing is risky. You are dealing with baby animals and a typical group comes in as 60 calves from 50 different farms.
“If you do not have a good health plan and the buildings are not ventilated properly, you are soon going to run into big problems.”
In order to avoid such mistakes, they worked with local vets who advised what was needed to improve, introduce and change to maximise rearing efficiency.
Calves are bought-in at three to four weeks old and sourced from Meadow Quality. They are immediately put through a strict three-step system on arrival, which incorporates feeding, medication and vaccination. Routine vaccinations are carried out against BVD, leptospirosis and pneumonia.
“We get all calves onto an even keel as they come from different farms and have different levels of pathogens. We need to vaccinate to minimise risk. “We found through trial and error if we did not vaccinate or missed a medication, we had problems further down the line.”
This pond is part of Millmoor Farm's stewardship scheme.
Guests are given home produced pork products to take home with them.
Predominant breeds are Hereford and Aberdeen-Angus, although there are some continental breeds in the mix. They are taken up to seven months before being sold on to be finished.
David says: “The breeds we are dealing with appeal to commercial beef farmers, so we have to be consistent.
“Somewhere down the line, they are involved in a scheme. Our Herefords can be for the Waitrose scheme, Aberdeen-Angus for Marks & Spencer and the Holstein finished bulls, which is more of a side line, are for McDonald’s and Morrisons.
“We find it really satisfying we get calves in at three weeks old and manage them through a simple, low input system. They are fed milk when they arrive and then ad-lib nuts with some home-produced forage. It is amazing how fast they grow.
“They are sired by good bulls and have genetic potential within them. It is very satisfying growing them on as a group.”
The calf rearing business provides a fast turnaround, which David says impacts positively on cashflow.
“We dictate the price, which is a nice position to be in, as we know our costs down to the penny and what we have and want to make.”
The online marketing development, showcasing calves, has proven effective in securing repeat business.
David says: “It seems if you have good photography for calves, people are more inclined to send us the cheques directly and not necessarily trawl all the way over here to look. It has taken us a long time to build this up, but we have a lot of repeat business as a result.”
Sheep have always featured at Millmoor Farm and have increased to 400 as a result of renewed investment.
Operating an early lambing system for the spring market, David runs Suffolk cross continental breeds, which are put to a Millenium Blue Ram offering the benefit of a Beltex shape grown to the size of a Bleu du Maine.
After scanning, singles are fed on some buckets, while twins and triplets are on nuts and home-produced forage. They are all sold liveweight at 36-38kg through marts. There are even 18 Saddleback pigs in the mix, which allow the family to produce home-made bacon and sausages, so guests are able to take away something produced on-farm.
With Lloyd’s involvement, the Chesters family has built up a 14-head suckler herd of Hereford crosses, which he is very keen to expand once he joins the farm after leaving school.
Lloyd says: “I have always had an ambition to farm and enjoy all aspects of agriculture, whether it is working with the livestock or tractor work. I hope to expand the suckler herd to 40 cows over the next two years, as they are a great asset to the farm. They help to manage grassland for sheep as well as producing good calves.
“Dad has always encouraged me to source good breeding stock. With this in mind, we purchased the pedigree Hereford bull, Free Town Kington, at the Hereford Herd Book Society October sale last year. I am eagerly awaiting his first
Looking to the future, it is hoped planning permission will be passed for the sixth new-build, which David says will be the family's last, shortly followed by a reminder from Sally Ann that is what he always says.
She says: “When we went out of dairying, people judged us and thought we would be another farming catastrophe, so we had to work very hard at it.
“Ironically, we have grown the business, but in a way which allows more time as a family and puts us in a position to afford a couple of staff. The children are great and help out in the business.”
Lucy is a big help in showing visiting children and families the animals on-farm to make their stays all the more memorable, while eldest daughter Laura has built up a DIY livery business, taking care of all the day-to-day management of the livery.
But with plans to attend the University of Liverpool’s School of Veterinary Science in September, the family is looking at ways to manage the business in her absence.
As presidents of Malpas YFC, David and Sally Ann are proud of their involvement with the club. Following in their footsteps are all three children who are also members too.
David says: “You get involved in a local fundraiser and sometimes you worry about being away from the farm and having other things to do. Then I look around me and there are all these farmers and vets, or a guy from the air ambulance – all busy people who rally round for their community.
“The other week, we raised £3,000 for our local school which was spent on improving IT for children. Family provides a backbone to the industry and we are so pleased the children take such an active role. In some areas, if there are no farmers, there is no community.”
Entries are now open for the 2015 Family Farm of the Year.
On winning the award last year, the Chesters family remains shocked, but it now features proudly on their website.
David says: “We went along thinking it was just going to be a good night out. It literally was the biggest shock of our lives to have won it. We looked at each other as we were not sure if we had misheard.”
Sally Ann says: “We actually entered it to help with Laura’s application form to vet school and now we use it on our website and whenever we can really.
“I vividly remember one lady coming up to me on the night after it was announced and telling us to make sure we use it. While it felt strange at the beginning, we have become used to it now and our bookings have gone up.”
For more information on the award and on the British Farming Awards visit www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk