The Barber family are testament to the resilience needed to survive in today’s dairy sector. Danusia Osiowy meets the team who are striving for progression.
If ever a prefix was to reflect the ethos of a farming family, High Hopes Holsteins does just that.
It may be the name that established the Barber family at Manor Farm in Preston, Lancashire, but fast forward 10 years and the sentiment to achieve and succeed lies at the core of the business.
Heading it up is the formidable husband and wife team, Richard and Claire Barber, whose dream to farm in their own right came true when they secured a tenancy from estate owner Francis Fitzherbert Brockholes, who owns 17 farms in the rural area.
Today’s business is very much a family affair with son Billy, 20, and daughter Anna, 19 having an increasingly important role in the future development and profitability of the farm.
While the area may well be submerged heavily in traditional farming systems, the four-strong team are all keen to push for progression and create their own opportunities.
When Richard’s family farm was wiped out in the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth, the event brought everyone to a crossroads.
“It was the case of sitting down and asking what we wanted in life,” recalls Richard.
“I had always wanted to go on my own, as did Claire, but just never thought we could. But, armed with our youthful enthusiasm, we decided to bite the bullet.”
Richard worked at the family farm in Northumberland, before leaving to work for Genus as a salesman in the north of Scotland, just outside of Inverness. Claire was working for the Scottish Executive as an Agricultural Officer.
After gaining experience with Genus’s nucleus herd, Richard bought cows from MOET to rebuild his own, which he kept at his father’s farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall.
So, when the couple spotted the advert in Farmers Guardian in 2008, they put together a business plan and applied, never thinking they stood a chance.
“After 10 years of selling Genus’s products, I had ten minutes to sell myself,” says Richard.
“We wanted to put our stamp on the farm – which had a modern parlour and slurry system with 56 hectares (138 acres) in a ringfence.
“The great thing about this was that we had a blank canvas of which to create a system around a modern dairy cow. We started with £20,000 and 19 cows.”
Growth has evolved organically on the 61ha (150-acre) holding, which now manages a 300-strong pedigree Holstein herd, with 130 milking.
Their plan was two-fold. The first 10 years would be to build the dairy, and the next 10 would be to diversify.
“It’s like having children,” says Claire. “No matter how hard people tell you it’s going to be, it never prepares you for what lies ahead.”
Heifers and older cows were gradually bought from local farmers, with some of todays bloodlines going back to six original families.
After securing the financial support of their landlord to put up a new cow shed, the couple have also invested in updating the parlour and two young-stock buildings.
“Our landlord is very community orientated and didn’t leave us to survive on our own,” Richard adds.
“He helped us put up buildings and increased the tenancy from 10 to 20 years after listening to how we wanted to make the farm sustainable.”
Cow welfare has, and continues to be, a key focal point within the business.
The 132 cubicle shed houses the cows on sand, a move which has seen reductions in mastitis dropping from 20 cases per one-hundred cows to just four.
“The benefits have been huge, and we get an extra half lactation from them,” says Claire. “We don’t have any more involuntary culls.”
The couple make it clear having a strong support network has also been key to the development of the business. From the regular meetings with their consultant about cash flow, to the business development advisor, nutritionist and vet, the couple have explored a range of efficiencies.
“For farms like us who are small fishes in a big pond, you have to work out what your selling point is. For us, it’s balancing health alongside yields,” says Richard.
One of the biggest improvements has been the significant reduction in the use of antibiotics.
“We have gone from re-active use to a pro-active approach,” says Claire.
“Rather than waiting for an animal to become unwell, we now vaccinate against various health conditions, resulting in a 96 per cent percent reduction in antibiotic use.
“It’s a no-brainer. Reducing our antibiotic use reduces our cost of production, improves animal welfare and slows antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans.”
Operating in a loose autumn calving system, the cows are milked twice a day with yields in excess of just over a million litres each year.
The herd is now built to a scale where enough heifers are present to naturally replenish the herd with sexed semen on 80 per cent of all first-time heifers and 20 per cent milking animals, ranked on Profit Lifetime Index. The remainder of animals are bred to British Blue and Wagu or used as embryo recipients.
The Barbers are one of four farms which supply to Booths under their BritishMilk brand and the couple believe the contract helped save their future in dairying.
“We used to supply Arla and co-operatives are a great system but for us, we were not making enough money and couldn’t afford to do it at that stage in our business,” Claire adds.
In her typical pro-active approach, Claire took pictures of the farm and wrote a three-page document of their aims, objectives and philosophy as a farming family at Manor Farm.
It captured the attention of Booths and Müller, after six months, they secured their contract and began supplying to the North West supermarket in December 2013.
“Booths expect us to farm in line with their own business model, which supports local food, high animal welfare standards and respect for the environment,” says Claire.
“They pay a fair price and means we don’t have to compromise on any of the areas that are key to our own beliefs.
“If we were offered the farm now with the same capital and animals I honestly don’t think we could have done it. In today’s climate, it’s hard to find and secure a milk contract which can finance farm improvements and sustain a living.”
As part of the initiative, the four farms involved take turns to host a visit where they all share best practise and exchange ideas and information.
“It makes for a fresh way of working and allows us to get out and see what others are experiencing,” she adds.
The couple introduced genomic testing on their calves in 2014 in their bid to improve the data at their disposal which will ultimately improve profitability and efficiency within the herd, and have recently began testing everything from 12 months old.
“Genomics has given us so many benefits,” says Richard. “It’s improved udder health and functional type, which allows us to understand individual cow traits which helps us to make informed decisions on which animals to breed from.”
Genomics look set to feature heavily in the family’s future plans thanks to Billy’s ‘Halcyon Genetics’ developing elite animals with the aim to sell sires to AI.
In 2015 the family partnered with Cogent Breeding in a deal whereby Cogent used cows from Manor Farm as embryo recipients in a bid to speed up the process in getting male progeny to AI. As a result, any female offspring would remain on farm.
“Fortunately for both myself and Cogent, we had two confirmed pregnancies with a single female and a male,” says Billy, who is due to start Newcastle University to study Business Economics and Marketing.
“That female had been flushed twice which resulted in 11 pregnancies and put in calf again, resulting in a 1,000 per cent growth in just two years.
“Essentially, Halcyon Genetics is a herd within a herd. With the resources of the entire farm at our disposal, we can keep climbing the ladder towards producing truly world-class animals with unlimited potentials.”
Having achieved an average PLI of 587, it has placed the micro-herd in the top half per cent of herds with females.
“For context, the UK average for PLI is zero,” Billy adds.
“It compiles traits from the animal such as lifespan, fertility index, production statistics and health traits to create a quick way to determine how commercially viable the animal will be and how quickly it will repay the cost of rearing it.
“You strive to push that number higher and higher so you’re in a position to produce breed leaders, pushing the Holstein breed as a whole to become profitable, and ultimately, pushing for progression rather than waiting for it.”
His interest in numbers and producing such elite stock has placed Billy as an integral part of the future development of the business alongside Anna, who is studying agriculture at Reaseheath College and established her own herd of pedigree Ayrshires.
It’s an involvement that couldn’t be more warmly received from Richard and Claire, who listen to their children’s views and are excited that their future ambitions will be shared back at the farm.
“I am so proud of my children and their youthful enthusiasm and wish to move it forwards,” says Claire. “They want to go off and come back bringing new ideas and knowledge and we support that.”
While Richard and Claire focus on maximising efficiencies by producing the same yields of milk with less input, the couple are optimistic for their future.
“We have learnt so much over the last 10 years and we haven’t got everything right along the way,” says Claire.
“You have to be able to adapt and have that mindset to just keeping pushing on. It’s difficult in this sector because there are a lot of external factors beyond our control, but the biggest mistake you can make is to be afraid of making one.”