Spreading the risk and making the best of the farm’s assets has proved a successful business model for the new Nottinghamshire NFU county chairman.
A small family farm with ‘a bit of everything’ has created the foundations for a thriving business which has weathered the storm of volatile prices and increased regulation.
Des Allen farms Drove Cottage Farm with his father Bernard and brother Robert and complementary farming interests allow the two brothers to play to their strengths.
“I have always liked livestock, particularly pigs and my brother has always focused on the arable enterprise and this works well,” says Des.
The variety of land types on the farm means there are suitable conditions for each of the main enterprises - arable, indoor and outdoor pigs, and sheep.
“We have a mixture of heavy and light land here so we plan the rotation and the location of the outdoor pigs accordingly. We also have some land which is best suited to grass so we keep 350 Mule ewes to utilise this.”
The strategy has clearly paid off as the family business has gradually grown in size over the last 30 years and now extends to more than 324 hectares (800 acres), including more than 200ha (500 acres) of owned land. They also have a share-farming arrangement on a further 32ha (80 acres) of land.
Securing the viability of the farm in the face of a volatile market for pigmeat has not been without challenges and Des recognised the need for a step change in 2011.
“I realised the pig enterprise was not achieving a performance which was sustainable in the long-term. I knew pig genetics were progressing significantly but we were unable to make the most of what was available within our system.”
To take advantage of the modern genetics within a short timescale would require a complete re-stocking and 2011 was the right time to take the big decision.
“We sold everything and we were four months without any pigs. We took a massive hit to the cashflow but it was worth it.
“The biggest cost was the new underground slurry store, but I think we will look back on this in years to come and realise what a valuable investment it was because of the benefits of better harnessing of nutrients from the manures.”
Restocking after the period allowed him to choose the best genetics he could buy.
“We sought genetics which would bring health improvements to the herd and this has paid off because the pigs are now entirely free of mange, we have no PMWS and initially we were free of pneumonia but we did have a breakdown in the first year after restocking.”
The restocking was also an opportunity to upgrade the buildings so the old fattening shed was demolished and a new one built in its place. Ensuring the highest standard of welfare for the pigs is Des’ main priority.
“For the last 20 years we have farrowed half the sows outside and the other half indoors. There are welfare advantages to both systems, but since we restocked in 2011 we have found we are weaning one pig per litter more from the sows housed indoors compared to those which are farrowed outside.”
These figures have persuaded him to consider farrowing more sows inside in the future, particularly as only a small premium is received for the outdoor-reared animals.
“We are a visible farm here and on a sunny day you see families pulling up next to the outdoor pigs to have a look and the pigs do look content. But people do not see the pigs on a wet and cold winter’s day, it is a different picture then.”
Of the 540 sows on the farm, about 70 are pure-bred Duroc and these are served with a Landrace sire using AI. The female offspring retained as replacements are crossed to a Large White.
“The Duroc brings hardy characteristics to our pigs and means they are better able to cope with conditions outside. The pigmentation of their skin also helps to prevent sunburn during the summer,” he explains.
Des believes soil type at Drove Cottage Farm does not lend itself to an outdoor pig enterprise.
“We have to push continually for improved performance and we would also like to increase sow numbers. Even our lightest land is a little too heavy for outdoor pigs and I think one day we will move everything indoors.”
With the exception of the sows in the farrowing shed which are kept on slats, all the breeding sows and the piglets in the fattening sheds are kept on straw. Des’ brother Robert believes the demand for straw could prove an issue for them in future.
He says: “With more and more farmers in the area moving to spring cropping to tackle the black-grass problem, there is less straw produced. We are not entirely self-sufficient in straw so have to buy some in.
“More farmers want straw for livestock because of the perceived welfare benefits and we are competing for it because there is also demand from power stations and carrot and parsnip growers in the north of the county.”
But the combination of pigs and arable at Drove Cottage Farm works well and reduces input costs for both enterprises.
“All the wheat and barley grown here is fed to the pigs, but we do buy-in some cereals. The wheat and barley is milled and mixed with purchased biscuit meal, soya and minerals and the feed is put through a pelleter,” he adds.
The slurry is a valuable resource and it is applied to the sugar beet crop and stubble turnips. The solid manure is also used on the sugar beet as well as the cereal growing land.
“We move the outdoor pigs every two years and the land where they have been is then used for sugar beet. We do not need to apply any phosphate after pigs or where manure has been applied.”
The opportunity to buy the farm next door to the original holding brought with it the chance to run a sheep flock.
“We have small parcels of land which have always been down to grass and the farm next door was already kitted out for sheep so it seemed like the natural thing to do.
“We run 350 Mule ewes which we buy as gimmers and we use a Charollais ram on them. We like the Charollais because the lambs have plenty of get up and go as soon as they are born.”
The lambs are sold to a local wholesaler and slaughtered at a local abattoir before being retailed through local butchers.
“We try and sell as many lambs as possible straight off the ewe so we minimise the amount of lambs to be weaned. The aim is to sell 20 lambs each week from mid-June until Christmas.”
The diversity of enterprises at Drove Cottage Farm gives Des insight into the range of issues currently affecting livestock and arable farmers and equips him for his new role as county chairman for the NFU in Nottinghamshire.
He is also Midlands representative for the National Pig Health and Welfare Council and chair of the BPEX Regional Technical Forum and believes it is important farmers step forward for these roles.
“The main driver for me is to get as much producer influence on these industry boards as possible, as otherwise decisions will be made without us which will harm our businesses.
“The next debate in the pig industry will be a potential ban on tail docking and teeth clipping. This will have major welfare implications.
There is often common ground to be found but farmers need to be involved to point out the practical consequences of proposed rules and legislation.”
Despite the ongoing uncertainty and volatility in both pigmeat and cereal prices, Des is upbeat. His youngest son Fred is now considering a future in farming and Robert’s son Edward already works full-time on the arable side.
“I think agriculture has a great future. The prospects for this generation are far better than they were for us and there is more of an appetite to harness improvements in technology,” Des says.