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Innovation and investment behind couple's successful dairy business

An innovative approach, together with investment, has been central to success for first-generation dairy farmers Liam and Annie James. Barry Alston reports.

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Liam and Annie James have been farming at Hafod Farm since 2014.
Liam and Annie James have been farming at Hafod Farm since 2014.
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Innovation and investment behind couple building a successful dairy business

Dairy farming at Hafod Farm since 2014, Liam and Annie James are testament that sheer hard work, determination to succeed and investment in the right places pays off when starting from scratch.

 

The couple met when they were students at Aberystwyth University. Annie was studying geography with thoughts of becoming a teacher, while Liam was looking to be a marine biologist.

 

But lives can change direction. And though it has been a struggle at times, they have turned a 48-hectare (119-acre) holding at Bancyffordd, near Llandysul, desperately in need of fresh investment, into a productive 150-cow operation.

 

Growing up on a Devon dairy farm, milking cows was in Annie’s blood.

 

So much so she soon switched to an agricultural course and after graduating began working on dairy farms in Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire, while Liam joined the Environment Agency.

 

But as the pull to be farming in their own right became stronger, they began looking at holdings for sale on the open market stretching from Devon and Cornwall to South Wales.

 

With their savings and help from Annie’s father, Clive Lott, they were able to buy Hafod Farm.

 

Annie says: “Though it needed substantial investment into drainage, fencing and reseeding it was a case of buying a farm we could afford.

 

“It did come, however, with some advantages.

 

“It had once been run as a dairy farm, so there was a reasonably tidy milking parlour and the layout of the farm was good with all the land surrounding the house and buildings.

 

“That meant we could maximise the owned ground for grazing cows via paddocks and some strip grazing.

 

“Any grass growth that gets ahead of the cows here is made into big bales, while clamp silage is made on rented land.”


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British Friesian and Norwegian Red semen is used for the first six weeks of service.
British Friesian and Norwegian Red semen is used for the first six weeks of service.

“It might be that we graze for three hours then house or they may be out by day and in at night, whatever it takes to make the grass go further while not damaging the soil structure.”

Annie James

Substantial improvements to the structure of the ground by ploughing and reseeding have not been the only investment.

 

As well as refurbishing what is now a 16-32 herringbone parlour, a new 10,000-litre bulk tank and cubicles have gone in alongside increased slurry lagoon storage.

 

A wood chip and pellet biomass boiler also produces all the hot water and heating needs for the farm and the substantially renovated farmhouse.

 

Future plans include roofing the open-topped silage clamp.

 

The overriding philosophy throughout has been to keep the management simple, minimise labour needs and keep machinery costs as low as possible while concentrating on cow breeding and maximising output from grass.

Breeding

 

“We bought 50 black and white Jersey crosses when we moved in, but we do not use Jersey bulls. Instead British Friesians and Norwegian Reds are used for the first six weeks of service,” says Annie.

 

“We bought additional cows from farms in Carmarthenshire, Cornwall and Ireland, mainly as second or third calvers, some of which introduced us to the Norwegian Red.

 

“It seemed like a really good cross. Some of the black and whites were quite stocky and beefy, but the Norwegian introduced some dairy influence without the size of the Holstein.”

 

Also trialled has been the Fleckvieh, but the size of the heifers in comparison to their other breeds suggests they may be too big for the system’s aim of producing a mature cow weighing 500-550kg.

 

Though the farm buildings are situated at the 250 metres (820 feet) mark, the land rises to 305m (1,000ft) at its peak.

 

Soil is a mixture of clay, shale and medium loam, all of which means winter housing is usually from October, though exceptionally the cows have still been out in December.

 

“We use a range of measures to eke out the grass,” says Annie.

 

“It might be that we graze for three hours then house or they may be out by day and in at night, whatever it takes to make the grass go further while not damaging the soil structure.”

 

Housing is in cubicles on mats topped with sawdust, with grass silage made on 45ha (110 acres) of rented ground three miles away being self-fed directly from the clamp.

 

The average annual yield stands at 5,400 litres with butterfat at 4.2 per cent and 3.5 per cent protein, produced from less than one tonne per cow of concentrates through flat rate feeders in the parlour.

 

Milk goes to Arla, via a contract secured before the decision to buy the farm was made.

pic 1

The couple refurbished what is now a 16-32 herringbone parlour.

Spring calving is in a block, running ideally across six weeks from March 1 and fertility is an issue they are watching closely.

 

“Keeping the block tight allows everything else to flow and run as it should, otherwise the wheels could fall off the system,” says Annie.

 

“To that end we are very strict on anything that falls outside the block.”

 

A key part of building up cow numbers has been making sure that home-bred replacements have the best possible rearing routine from birth to first calving.

 

Converted IBCs

 

For the first week calves are individually housed in converted intermediate bulk containers which are universally used for the transportation and storage of liquids and powders.

 

Picked up for £30 apiece, by cutting out the bottom and one of the four sides and placing a wooden board along the front to retain the straw bedding, Liam says they are perfect for the job.

 

He adds: “We keep the calves in them until we are confident they are suckling well. Cleaning them out is just a case of lifting them up to leave a pad of dirty straw behind.”

 

For the first 48 hours calves are fed their own dam’s colostrum before going on to powdered milk replacer and in order to protect against Johnes there is no feeding of waste milk.

 

After a week the calves are penned in groups of 10 in an open-fronted, mono-pitched six 4.5m (15ft) bay building until weaning and then turned out to grass ahead of the cows.

 

Annie says: “We want them on the best grass so they grow well. Throughout the grazing season they will get a small amount of concentrates but do not receive any supplementary feed when they are winter housed.

 

“For the second grazing season a neighbour contract rears the heifers until they are 19 months old and returns them to us in-calf.

 

“With no suitable handling facilities on the rearing holding, they are served to Salers or Simmental stock bulls that have been fertility tested six weeks before and though we have been calving at 24 months we have been looking at switching to 21 months.

 

“We calved a few at that age after a bull broke in with the heifers and we were happy with their performance.

 

They were around 300kg when they were served by an Aberdeen-Angus.

 

“As long as they are big enough and strong enough to take the bull, we are seriously looking at calving others at this age.”

The couple share the farm work and with no direct family connections with farming it has meant a steep learning curve for Liam, but one he does not regret.

 

During the quieter periods of the year he also works off-farm in an events staging logistics capacity, which helps with the farm’s cashflow – although this is an activity on hold because of Covid-19 restrictions.

 

Looking ahead

 

“The aim now is to consolidate what we have and run a simple system that is sustainable for both our lives, our sanity and our bank balance,” says Annie.

 

“We have worked really hard to get where we are, improve the land and the buildings. Now that we have the key parts in order, we want to make the most of what we have.”

 

Both have also been involved in a number of other initiatives, including Farmers for Education, a group which aims to give positive information and education about farming practices.

 

Annie was also NFU Cymru’s representative on the Welsh Government’s Young People’s Forum, a group made up from across the industry established to make sure the voice of young people in agriculture is heard.

 

Another cause close to her heart is the DPJ Foundation charity and she is involved in an ambassadorial capacity as a regional champion in Carmarthenshire.

 

“Growing up in a rural area I saw a lot of isolation and depression and have had personal experience of suicide and the impact that has on others,” she says.

 

Every job can have its low points and for her it centred on a badly dislocated shoulder that prevented her from doing many of her normal day-to-day farming tasks.

 

“There was one morning during that period at 6am, when it was pouring with rain, sat in a bog treating a cow for milk fever and struggling to raise the bottle of magnesium for a brief moment I questioned why I was farming,” she says.

 

“It is not easy when you have health issues with the cows or spending a lot of time not sleeping and worrying about the financial side of the business but that is farming.

 

“When you feel like you are making progress, that is when it all falls into place.”

Farm facts

  • 48ha (119 acres) holding, plus 45ha (110 acres) of rented ground three miles away
  • Land rises to 305m (1,000ft), with an average annual rainfall at about 1,830mm
  • 150-cow spring block calving herd, with British Friesians and Norwegian Reds used for the first six weeks of service
  • Average annual yield is 5,400 litres at 4.2 per cent butterfat and 3.5 per cent protein
  • Milk sold to Arla
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