Often obtaining a work-life balance can be difficult and never is this truer than in farming, but Ian and Cath Ratcliffe have found a good formula on their dairy farm in north Devon. Melanie Jenkins pays them a visit.
Just over two years ago Ian and Cath Ratcliffe moved to Devon and they have not looked back, with Mr Ratcliffe calling it the best decision they ever made.
The couple, in their early 30s, now milk 350 cows on an intensive grazing system at West Webbery Farm, Bideford, and have already won Devon’s Best Young Farmers award.
Before moving to Devon, Mr and Mrs Ratcliffe had been milking 180 cows on his family farm in Cheshire, but they had a five-year plan to move away and expand to 350 autumn calving cows.
They had only been farming for 15 months when West Webbery Farm came onto the market and on visiting it they realised it was a real catch. The farm ticked lots of boxes for Mr and Mrs Ratcliffe, having had lots of investment leading up to the sale, with plenty of sheds and cow tracks. But the biggest factor was the large grazing platform on the farm.
“In Cheshire we only had 36ha and the rest was all down roads which was frustrating,” explains Mr Ratcliffe. “We have always been keen to graze our cows, so this farm allowed us to do that.” The farm is also not in an NVZ, meaning they can rear their youngstock; in Cheshire they had a flying herd.
In order to buy West Webbery Farm, Mr Racliffe had to sell the family farm in Cheshire and luckily this was something his family were happy to do. The cows in Cheshire were milked in the morning, loaded onto lorries and arrived in Devon to be milked in the afternoon of the same day, only dropping a litre over a period of a few days. Seven articulated lorries were used to move the cows, with 12 in total used for everything.
West Webbery Farm comprises 101ha (250 acres), 12ha (30 acres) of which are woodland. Mr and Mrs Ratcliffe also managed to acquire a 32ha (80 acre) farm business tenancy that adjoins the farm. This brought the grazing platform up to 132ha (326 acres) meaning they can graze all the heifers and cows to produce milk very cost effectively.
More recently they have managed to rent more land locally, which has removed the silage pressure from the farm. Now all of the farm acres are grazed, while the silage is produced off farm, but still within two miles. “We are always keen to keep landlords happy by farming the land well, which we think matters a lot, as well as paying on time,” says Mr Ratcliffe.
Milk price pressures mean the Ratcliffes are aiming to produce more from less. This year they have reduced the amount of maize from 56ha (138 acres) to 23ha (57 acres), and have a good amount of grass silage in store from last year. They would like to go to all grass but there are still some larger cows in the herd that benefit from maize in their diet.
“We want a smaller more consistent cow to suit our system, rather than the extremes we have now,” says Mrs Ratcliffe.
Since moving to the farm everything has been intensively reseeded. “It has been a good investment that pays back quickly in milk and weight gain,” says Mr Ratcliffe.
Mrs Ratcliffe measure the grass with a plate meter every week and it is then pre-mowed on the third round.
Though the farm is good for grass growing, it does need rain or it can dry up. “This was one of the reasons we wanted autumn block calving, because of the seasons and how we grow grass,” says Mrs Ratcliffe. Calving starts from 9 August, allowing for tight grazing in the spring, followed by drying off and some down-time in the summer. “In terms of being profitable we like that block calving forces you to get things right,” she adds.
From March the cows are intensively grazed and are supplemented with parlour cake, averaging 7,700 litres off 2.17t of concentrates, but the target is to hit 8,000 litres off 2t of cake. They are moved every 12 hours, getting fresh pasture after each milking.
Everything is over-wintered indoors and heifers are fed on silage and maize gluten at 3.5kg. “We push them hard at that point as we feel it is an efficient time for them to eat a lot of cake,” says Mr Ratcliffe. “We weigh them regularly and they grow at over a kilo a day. We only let them out to graze when we are happy we have enough grass for the cows. When there is a surplus the heifers go out too.
The heifers are strip grazed, moving to a new block each day on the higher quality pastures. Last year they grew at 0.9kg a day just on grass. The aim is a 350kg bulling weight and to calve at 24 months. It costs around £800 a head to rear the heifers but for Mr and Mrs Ratcliffe it is important they fit the block and calve at the right age.
Fertility has improved year-on-year and the block has tightened. High fertility and high PLI bulls are chosen to produce a three-way cross of Holstein, Friesian and Swedish Red, with a lot of the Swedish Red bull Gunnarstorp used this year. The first three-way heifers will be ready to serve this year. “We are not sure where to go then; it might be back to Holstein to keep the milk there,” says Mr Ratcliffe.
A six day CIDR programme is used to synchronise the heifers, with a 63 per cent conception rate, and they only get served once with conventional dairy semen. “We would like to see an improvement on that but we think it warrants the cost,” says Mr Ratcliffe. The repeats are all in one window of less than a week, making the management side easier.
Calves are reared on a strict colostrum policy of two feeds of four litres of colostrum in the first six hours after birth. The heifer calves are then weaned at eight weeks and reared as replacements unless they are surplus.
Beef calves and black and white bulls are kept in a separate shed and fed twice a day with powder and waste milk of eight to nine litres a day. These are then sold at Exeter market at three to four weeks of age. Last year the couple sold 248 calves which averaged £182 a head. “We use different coloured ear tags each year and buyers know to look out for our calves,” says Mr Ratcliffe.
Good communication has been key to the Ratcliffe’s success in Devon as it has enabled them to have good relationships with their contractor, neighbours, landlords and staff. “We work very closely with our contractor, so he understands what we are trying to do,” says Mr Ratcliffe.
The couple have four full-time staff with no relief milkers. “It is a lot of staff but we are very keen on having a work-life balance for us and the staff,” says Mr Ratcliffe. Staff get 35 days holiday which ties in with a 60 hour working week, plus they get every other weekend off as well as one afternoon or morning off a week. “We want them fresh and by having a lot of staff it allows us to get away as well, while still keeping the attention to detail,” he adds. It also allows them to plan their cost of production rather than getting bogged down in day-to-day operations.
In order to maintain good communication with the staff, Mrs Ratcliffe set up a WhatsApp group between everyone on the farm. “We are very open and like to give them all the figures, such as costings or grass reports. When you have that number of staff it is easy to tell one person and forget to tell everyone else, whereas on WhatsApp everyone has seen it,” says Mr Ratcliffe. “We feel we do not gain a lot by trying to keep everything in house. The more open you are, the more you gain.”
Mrs Ratcliffe has also set up a cost of production group with four local dairy farmers who are also trying to do as much as they can from forage. “Everyone is very open book and we have just hit 12 months of data so we are starting to get rolling figures month by month,” she says. “We see the milk price pressure as a challenge to do better.”
Looking forward, the couple are aiming to continue improving the herd and would be interested in taking on a second unit run as a spring block calving system in order to see the contrast.