By his own admission, Giles Bristol is a businessman and not a dairy farmer, and sees his cows as the best opportunity to convert grass into cash. Marie Claire Kidd discovers more about his journey as a new entrant into farming and the challenges he has faced along the way.
In what is a challenging time for the dairy sector, Giles Bristol is already scaling up his dairy herd and working towards his goal.
A new entrant to farming, he runs 25 hectares (61 acres) at Barnsfield Farm, Penkridge, keeping 95 rolling cattle. He has recently taken on a second farm in Stoke-on-Trent on the Staffordshire County Council estate, bringing the size of his enterprise to 57ha (140 acres).
He plans to keep about 130 cows and will continue to supply local cheesemaker Joseph Heler of Laurels Farm, Nantwich, Cheshire.
Last October, Giles was named the winner of the New Entrant Award at the British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
It recognised the ongoing challenges he faced as a first generation farmer with no security of a family farm. And it is fair to say he and wife Emily have had their fair share.
Although the award increased their profile, they were unable to secure a new dairy contract in their favoured area.
Giles says: “The whole reason for applying for the award was to build a bit of profile. We thought we were starting to outgrow the farm and the award helped us market ourselves to other potential landlords and farming businesses.
“Last October, as the award ceremony was taking place, we were applying for farms. We seemed to get on pretty well. We have had quite a good financial year which has helped us.
“On the back of the awards, we applied for several farms throughout the country and got down to the final two for a couple in Devon and Cornwall.
“We were in the mix with what we could offer these landlords, but due to the decline in milk price and oversupply in the market, we could not get a milk contract in the area. Dairies are already getting more than enough milk.”
Milking once-a-day, yield was 5,140 litres last year, with 3,200 litres from forage, at 4.8g of butterfat and 3.6g of protein per litre.
Instead, the Bristols took on their second farm in Staffordshire, which they are currently renovating. They applied for the tenancy in January and got the keys on March 25. The plan is to move in on August 1 when their cows start calving.
In the meantime, they are undertaking some building work and reseeding land.
Giles’ father was an agronomist and his three uncles were all dairy farmers and this, he says, is where his passion comes from.
After graduating from Harper Adams with a degree in agriculture, Giles worked on dairy farms milking cows before becoming a dairy consultant for Promar International.
But he always wanted to farm in his own right and, in 2012, he finally secured a 10-year farm business tenancy and relocated from Gloucestershire to Staffordshire.
“This place was a real springboard for us. The award was part of this in terms of building profile.”
Emily, who farms in partnership with Giles, took to agriculture during work experience and also studied to degree level. She has worked working off the farm in fresh fruit production, but will join Giles full-time when both farms are operational.
Giles says: “The plan is to have 200 cows by the time we are 40, in seven years time, and double this by the time we retire. When I am 65, my wife and I are going travelling to make up for all the the hard years.”
The past four years have been challenging, with extreme weather, TB and neospora conspiring to make life difficult. Early in his tenancy, he suffered a set back when he lost 12 of his 60 cows to TB.
Winning the award last year has helped Giles Bristol build his profile and he believes ti offers others a chance to see the positivity within the industry.
He sayd: "I have had consultants coming to me looking for young farmers who want to get into dhare farming.
"It is great to get those opportunities.
"It has helped us build out profile and get our name out there.
"There are some well-known names and hopefully one day we will be up there among them.
"This is a good start to our brand.
"People can now read about us and hear our story, and other young people can see it is possible to get into dairy today.
"This makes a change from all the negative press about the dairy industry."
To enter for the award, visit www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk
Then two years ago, he was forced to carry out a neospora abortion run.
He says: “This was probably the worst thing we have had to do. I felt bad about it and it was pretty nasty when it was kicking off.
“We have had all sorts of disease risks, but this is because we have gone out and bought cheap cows. Our disease status in the herd has not been great and it costs us in vaccinations and in culling animals.
“The neospora was dreadful, but we bought cheap cows to get going. It was a risk we acknowledged in the business plan. We have just had to adapt and change, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“It was a management decision to get started, but by taking opportunities as they came up, it has done us well.
“We will be relatively insulated from TB now because we are about to start rearing our own heifers. Previously, we were really restricted in terms of calf movement as a flying herd.”
Now the couple are focused on growing cow numbers. They have run a flying herd using a New Zealand grazing system and calve cows in summer. Their ethos is maximise grazing and minimise inputs.
Giles says: “Our costs are low. We have only fed cows 880kg of concentrate in the last 12 months and this is for 95 rolling cattle.
“We are utilising grazed forage and supplementing it with grass grown on-farm. We are not importing a lot of concentrates as we have already bought this winter’s concentrate and we will be clamping it with our own silage.”
Buying early has lowered the price from £190/tonne last winter to £140/t this winter and their concentrate of choice is wheat feed pellets, a waste product form the milling industry, which adds roughage and protein.
But cows will eat only grass from February 14 to the second or third week in November. They produce high milk solids through winter, which suits their customer, and despite a couple of milk price drops, their milk fetched 23.87ppl in April.
Giles says: “Switching to once-a-day milking, solids have gone up, but litres have gone down. The price is high because we are producing nothing but solids.”
A reseeding programme has been implemented and 8ha (20 acres) of the farm’s 10ha (25 acres) have benefitted from a high tetraploid mix.
He says: “It suits our dry ground conditions. We are prone to dry out, which is part of our reason for summer calving. This enables me to dry cows off and feed them with cheap hay and silage.”
Cows are Jersey and New Zealand Friesian and Giles has been using a beef bull. He artificially inseminates with Belgian Blue semen or uses an Aberdeen-Angus sweeper bull, which he keeps on-farm.
He is selling calves at 30 days to capitalise on his tight calving block, selling through Blade Farming. To renew the herd, cows were served with dairy semen last October, so dairy calves are expected during the first three weeks of August.
He says: “Our business mentality is to keep it as simple as possible. It is just me and Emily. We use contractors for everything. It means I have got a bill for everything, so I can easily work out out what everything has cost.
“Cows self-feed silage in winter. I only have one tractor, a Skid Steer, which allows me to scrape up and move bales with no money in a depreciating asset. This keeps our fixed costs low.
“Cows are the only investment we keep making. We are making a 12 per cent return on the investment, which is better than the 6-8 per cent we would make if we invested in property.
“I love working with animals and I love working outside. It is about the quality of life. I am paid in what I do.
“I have no control over the housing market. Now all my money is in cows, I have a lot more control over whether they are profitable or not. Every decision I make I try to make with that in mind.”
Giles is turning to his peers for help and support and is part of a New Zealand grazing discussion group, which meets face-to-face once a month at farms throughout Staffordshire and Cheshire, and share everything from feeding tips to financial information.
Sometimes they go further afield, linking up with a national network of farmers. Recently, they travelled to a farm in Cumbria and the couple will host a group of farmers from Sussex in July.
“The good thing is they pick holes in what you are doing and it is great to stimulate the thought process of what I could do better.
“It is important to constantly question what we do. There are too many people within this industry, especially in dairy, who say they have always done it that way or it is the way their grandparents did it, but we need to break down boundaries and evolve.”