An East Lancashire milk producer-retailer business provides employment and income for nine family members and three part-time staff. Howard Walsh visits the Fielding family.
It is almost 40 years since Sandra Fielding and her late husband Leonard bought Pulford Farm, near Belthorn, and moved from a nine-hectare (22-acre) rented holding about eight miles away.
Now, three generations of the family, with Sandra still very much ‘the boss’, farm a total of about 142ha (350 acres) and have a milking herd of about 125 pedigree Holsteins, plus dry cows and followers.
And it is the family’s development of the business over the years and its readiness to embrace new opportunities which saw the Fieldings win last year’s Family Farming Business of the Year category at the British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
The whole family pulls together as one, although the business is structured with Sandra, her son Colin and daughter Sally as partners, with the others effectively ‘employees’. Pulford, an all-grass unit, has always been a dairy farm and also now carries about 80 Mules and Texel cross breeding ewes.
A Holstein bull is used across the whole herd, with all bull calves left entire and reared to a minimum of 220kg deadweight at 10- to 14-month-old, selling as rose veal to Buitelar. However, it is milk which is at the core of the business.
On twice-a-day milking, the all-year-round calving herd is averaging 9,000 litres per lactation and has now got to the stage, with business expansion, where the level of production is occasionally supplemented with bought-in milk have to buy milk in than sell surplus milk wholesale.”
All herd replacements are home reared and Colin says being pedigree helps the sale of any surplus through Gisburn dairy sales. Cows are grazed during the day in summer and housed and buffer-fed at night with clamp silage. A flat rate concentrate is fed in the 20:10 swing-over parlour, but there are also out-of-parlour feeders.
Colin says: “This is not the easiest of farms and we find any heifers we sell go on and do well for their new owners.”
Over the last 12 months, quite a lot of money has been spent at Pulford Farm, both on cows and the processing dairy.
Colin says: “We replaced most of the small, concrete bed, Newton Rigg-type cubicles with longer beds, mattresses and cantilever divisions. The positive difference it has made to practically everything has been quite amazing.
"Cows simply will not lie in any of the small number of old cubicles which remain, so that tells its own story.”
Most of the new cubicles are in the former silage clamp and two new clamps, in a concretepanelled, seven–bay double-span galvanised frame building, have been constructed.
Automatic scrapers and daily footbathing after milking have ensured virtually trouble-free feet.
Colin says: “What has also helped is the fact the cows lie down and take the weight off their feet a lot more in the new cubicles.”
Also working on-farm alongside Colin and wife Becki are sons Ted, who is full-time, and Sam, who is part-time until he leaves college, plus Sally’s son Paul.
Sally runs the dairy with partner Steven, who is also in charge of the calf rearing unit and her other son Joe. With the dairy a few fields away on what was once another farm, it is a short road trip with a milk tanker each day from the main holding.
Two of the developments there this year have taken advantage of a local demand for untreated milk, and a particular type of probiotic catering yoghurt popular with the Asian community.
Sally says: “We have added on a new dedicated yoghurt room and this product, for which we use a specific culture bought from the South West, is taking off well.”
It was Colin Fielding’s wife Becki, a passionate believer in the role of family farming units in British agriculture, who entered the Pulford Farm Dairies for British Farming Award, without initially telling anyone else.
But she says it was fun and not without its benefits, after they took the award. “It has raised our profile and we had good publicity though a variety of media.
There is no doubt it has brought us additional business.
“At the time I entered, we were only just embarking on some of the developments and improvements we have now carried out. For us, it is all about going forward and focusing on ‘local’.
“I believe in the role of family farms. We are inspiring the next generation to feed the world.” She acknowledges the financial rewards of dairy farming can be insufficient to attract people from a non-farming background, but sons Ted and Sam say for them, quality of life is all important.
Ted says: “All our work and everything we do is for the family’s benefit, and this is what drives us.”
The family recently obtained a raw milk licence, which has meant additional milk sampling and testing, and, although the farm is in a four-year TB test parish, a switch to annual herd tests.
This effectively increases the cost of production, but unpasteurised milk is sold at a straight £1/litre, which is more than the ‘whole’ and ‘semi-skimmed’ pasteurised price.
The latter, however, still account for the greater volume, and about half the farm’s own milk is retailed by the Fieldings to schools, care homes, factories and a host of other outlets, as well as doorstep sales. The other 50 per cent is bottled for local roundsmen.
There are four delivery vans, which are all driven and maintained by the family. On Mondays, it is an early start for Paul at 3.30am-4am, and only an hour later for the rest of the week. Becki’s run is from 6am until about 2pm.
Sally, Steve and Joe are also on the delivery rota. Collecting payment from milk customers can be time consuming, and a reasonably tight rein has to be kept on doorstep credit, although Becki says most customers are longstanding and it is not a problem.
She says: “We enjoy talking and interacting with our customers and they love to hear about what is currently happening on-farm.
“I maintain a credit limit and might occasionally take up-front payment from a new customer, while factories are all invoiced and mostly tend to pay by BACS.”
Eggs are bought-in as an added service for milk customers, but the BSE crisis 20 years ago also prompted another diversification for the Fieldings, and one which persists to a lesser extent today.
Sandra says: “When finished cattle prices were on the floor, we decided ‘we have many milk round customers, so why not sell them some beef and lamb as well?’ And so box-meat came into being.”
They are still selling beef and lamb hampers seasonally, depending on availability. Most lambs, however, which are born in January, are sold to Dunbia.
Colin says: “There is nothing wrong with selling deadweight if you can consistently produce the specification they want, so this is what we try to do with regular weighing and handling.”
Although there are plenty of hands on-farm, silaging and slurry spreading is normally left to contractors. As for the future, there are plenty of ideas on the drawing board, including a modest expansion of the dairy herd, possibly some new machinery and the development of a Facebook profile and website.
Colin says: “We could not do what we are doing without our family, but equally, we need to be doing all this to support the family.
“We all have our individual jobs, but there are always plenty of us here to cope with emergencies. It is all about teamwork.
“No two farms are the same, but there are many excellent family farms of all sizes, all doing their job in their own way and contributing to the British industry to secure food production for generations to come.”