Dairy farming new entrant George Brown has spent the last six years gaining experience in the sector. Now one year into a contract farming agreement, Hannah Park finds out more about his approach to successfully gaining a foothold on the farming ladder.
As a new entrant into dairy farming, George Brown breaks the mould. Having worked on sheep farms in his teens, he found himself drawn to the outdoors and working with animals.
At a crossroads after university, he began discussing career options with friends.
It was after speaking with two friends in particular who work in the dairy sector in North Wales that his interest piqued.
With both of their beginnings in farming not dissimilar from his own situation at the time, he was steered into considering what career options there might have been for him in dairying.
He knew gaining experience was a crucial first step and initially spent two years working on large-scale, grass-based spring calving dairy systems in New Zealand.
After returning to the UK six years ago, he knew dairy farming was what he wanted to do and began to set the wheels in motion to make it happen.
He continued to build his experience on systems in the UK, working on a farm in Cumbria for four years which was milking 440 cows by the time he left, followed by two years on a unit in the Midlands.
During this time, George also began trading his own stock as a means of building up capital.
He began with 20 heifer calves which he reared and sold in-calf and, after replicating the process several times, was in a position to lease out 70 in-calf heifers, which allowed him to retain equity while still having an income, allowing more stock to be bought and sold at the same time.
Under no illusions on how competitive the process of finding and applying for opportunities can be, George says he accepted that setback was par for the course.
“I was doing quite a lot of networking to try and find opportunities and I applied and failed for plenty,” he says.
When he saw the opportunity to be part of a large-scale contract farming agreement on a dairy unit near Ringwood, Hampshire, advertised in summer 2019, he did not hesitate to put himself forward.
Crucial to establishing a workable contract deal, he says, was successfully securing backing from Yorkshire and Clydesdale Bank, given the scale of the proposition.
With the advice of the agricultural business direct team, George dispersed all leased cows to facilitate buying into his new herd.
The bank granted a loan of £116,000 to secure the contract farming agreement, which sees George, together with five others he employs, provide all the machinery, contracting and labour requirements, while the landowner provides the fixed infrastructure and both parties own a proportion of the cows.
Divisible surplus is then split in George’s favour, the idea being that it is an incentive for him to work hard to take the business forward.
The dairy enterprise, within a wider arable operation, is run across 485 hectares (1,200 acres) of grassland, incorporating low input pastures and Higher Level Stewardship designated areas, alongside a 157ha (388-acre) grazing platform for milking cows. This is set to increase to 190ha (470 acres) this year.
Average annual rainfall is about 84cm per year, with soils predominantly sand over gravel making ground very free draining and prone to drying out during summer.
When George took on the agreement in autumn 2019, the herd consisted of a 550-cow spring calving herd.
The three-year plan now is to up numbers slightly to 600-head, while switching to a split spring and autumn calving system, weighted towards autumn calving in a two-third, one-third split. After this time, the system will be reviewed again.
A parlour redesign, updates to the farm’s water system, alongside building new silage pits and more cubical space, are among projects George has undertaken in the last year.
He says: “Dry conditions in summer are an issue here and we were trying to get cows back in-calf while grazing some fairly poor quality, stressed pasture in May and June.
“Looking into it, the farm was already making the silage it would need to be an autumn calving herd and feeding it back to cows in summer to supplement against dry conditions.
“Given that investment in infrastructure was needed anyway, we decided the most efficient way to go was to design that to work for an autumn calving herd, therefore allowing for cows to be dried off and taken off the platform in summer to ease grazing pressure here.”
Although it does have its challenges, dry conditions allow for a prolonged grazing season and this is taken advantage of, George says, particularly in the shoulders of the season with the right management. Ground conditions also allow for spring calving cows and heifers to be outwintered on fodder beet.
Cows are typically turned out on February 1 and can remain out right through into December.
Grass is measured weekly with a plate meter during the season, with the grazing platform split into paddocks according to dry matter (DM) availability. Cows are shifted onto fresh grass after each milking.
Once grass growth is in excess of demand, because ground is so dry, George says no more than one 30th of the platform will be grazed per day, effectively giving a 20-day round length with 10 surplus paddocks, which can be dropped out and baled or grazed as required.
The platform grew 10.5 tonnes of DM/ha (4.2t DM/acre) in 2020, up from 8t DM/ha (3.2t DM/acre) in 2019.
George is also working to improve the farm’s grassland performance, and over the last 15 months has reseeded 57% of the milking platform with perennial rye grass and white clovers leys.
He says: “Our hope is to be growing 12t DM/ha-plus in the future. Importantly, not all of the land is quite so productive, with much of the acreage growing half that amount.”
Cows are predominantly New Zealand Friesians, alongside some Irish Friesian genetics introduced more recently, which suit the farm’s grass-based system while delivering on fertility and longevity.
He says: “More recently we have been selecting heavily for udder traits, conscious that our change in calving pattern will likely facilitate an increase in yields.”
Milking is twice-daily through the refurbished 50-point rotary, in place since 2001, and rebuilt to include more automation last winter, with cows fed a flat rate through the parlour.
Average annual yield per cow historically was 4,600 litres per cow, or 400kg of milk solids, budgeted to be closer to 480kg milk solids in 2020 in-line with herd growth and system changes, including harder feeding for now to drive production.
George says: “In 2019 we were feeding 800-900kg of concentrate per cow, whereas last year it will have been closer to 1.3t.”
Milk is sold on an Arla Morrisons 360 contract. With the switch to a split calving system underway, a restricted mating period was implemented last spring to let a proportion of the herd slip to calve in autumn.
This saw a six-week mating period for synchronised heifers and five weeks for cows, with sexed semen AI for heifers before the bull was put in and five weeks of sexed semen AI for cows.
The same was replicated last autumn, using a bull on heifers and AI over cows.
The farm will target a 20% replacement rate, although in the short-term this will be allowed to lift while there is a drive on herd improvement.
Youngstock is reared on-site, with heifers calved at 24 months.
Looking ahead, George is enthusiastic about the future and the opportunities ahead, although is clear the positive working relationship established between him and the landowner is crucial to the contract farming arrangement working for both parties.
He says: “It was quite daunting at first to be involved with a big project like this, but as with any joint venture, its success relies on a successful working relationship and I am incredibly fortunate to be involved with a fantastic farm owner.
“I am also blessed to work alongside an energetic and hardworking team, which has been receptive to change and unerring in its enthusiasm for the journey we are on as a farm.”
Contract farming for individuals seeking to carve out a space for themselves in the sector without hereditary land ownership or fixed capital to rely on often requires financial support.
Agricultural relationship manager at Clydesdale Bank Justin Ellis, says: “Sometimes contract farming can be the only way to build up equity to make the ownership dream come true.
“For George, this agreement will go towards accumulating assets and capital, which will help him to establish his own farm in the future.
“As an energetic, up-and-coming dairy farmer, with an established reputation and a large amount of get up and go, the bank was confident in working with him.
“Knowing the industry and his financial plans inside out also bolsters the bank’s confidence in lending such a significant amount. Supporting these necessary cash injections are more critical to young UK farmers than ever before.”