It has been a busy few years for the Clear family – taking on a new tenancy, building a new dairy unit and switching to robots. Angela Calvert reports.
A passion for Jersey cows has led Mike Clear to work all around the world, but his ambition was always to run his own pedigree herd.
The dream became a reality when with his wife Beverley and children Zoe and Patrick, he took on the tenancy of Pierrepont Farm near Frensham, Surrey, seven years ago.
The farm had been left to the Countryside Restoration Trust in 2006 by its owner, Jo Baker, with the proviso it continued to be home to a Jersey herd and the Clear family became its first tenants.
Mr Clear says: “I have always loved Jerseys – they are very efficient little cows, which are usually very healthy and a pleasure to work with.
“We took the farm over lock, stock and barrel, including the existing Pierrepont herd of 55 cows and the herdsman Tony Timmis. It was fairly run down with an old parlour and traditional buildings.
“The challenge for us was to turn it round into a viable business which still enabled us to employ Tony. Fortunately, the Trust agreed to build a new dairy on a greenfield site just a few hundred yards from the existing farmstead which has made a massive difference.”
Mr Clear grew up with his family’s Kentucky Jersey herd in Suffolk, before working for Charles Reader’s Barnowl herd in Northamptonshire, as well as with several black and white herds.
He and Beverley met while studying at Sparsholt College and immediately prior to taking on Pierrepont Farm, the couple had been working for Andrew le Gallais on the island of Jersey, managing his Roseland herd of 150 pedigree cows.
Mr Clear says: “When we took the farm on, the Pierrepont cows were a good foundation and we bought some island cows back with us and began to establish our own herd under the Discovery prefix.
“We bought-in some stock from top herds, including from my sister Jenny Daw and her husband Barry’s Bluegrass herd, and the Wooton and Upgate herds. Maintaining a high health status has always been a priority.”
Initially, all the progeny was retained, but now with cow numbers reaching almost 140, some youngstock are being sold and a local Holstein herd takes on some of the older cows to help improve their butterfat.
A great deal of thought and planning went into the construction of the new dairy with cow comfort and welfare at the top of the agenda, while at the same time ensuring the building itself was as sustainable as possible.
Mr Clear says: “We were able to have a tremendous amount of input into what we wanted from the new build and spent a lot of time looking at other units, but we decided go down the robotic route, installing two units.
The building itself is timber framed with extra wide passageways and sand bedded cubicles and a new slurry lagoon was installed.
The move to the new unit was completed at the end of 2011 and the herd has not looked back since.
Mr Clear says: “We had very few problems with the cows getting used to the robots once they had worked it out and we did not introduce some of the late lactation cows to it until their next lactation.
“We operate with two day and two night paddocks and the cows come and go as they please, visiting the robots between two and six times a day. They choose where they want to be and tend to come inside on cold nights or hot afternoons. They are as close to free-range cows as you can get.”
Cows are buffer-fed in the shed night and morning, and because of the farm’s sandy soil, they are able to be out usually from the end of February into November with the dry cows wintering out.
A boost to production and an improvement in animal welfare have been the biggest gains since the move.
Mr Clear says: “There has been no massive reduction in labour, you still have to spend time with cows, but it can be used in different ways.
“Production is moving up from about 4,000 litres before the move to 7,000 litres and is still climbing. Cell counts have come down to 60-80 and although we only had a few cases of mastitis before, we have even less now.
Calving takes place in four six-week blocks which Mr Clear says gives calving some structure and helps with management while at the same time keeps robots working all year round and produces nice groups of calves. The calving interval is 400 days, influenced by the calving system in place.
AI is used across the herd and sometimes sexed semen with an Aberdeen-Angus bull is used as a sweeper for the heifers. The conception rate is around 55-60 per cent.
High type bulls are used with the emphasis on good production and good udders. The Clears also work closely with Peter Cade of BOCM on diets, and in winter, cows are fed a partial TMR based on maize silage, grass silage, fodder beet – which was grown for the first time this year – hay and concentrate plus minerals.
Mr Clear says: “We are looking to produce a good tidy working cow with good feet, legs and teats. Teat placement is even more important now we are using robots.”
The aim is to calve heifers at two to two-and-a-half years old and the herd is averaging around five lactations, but there are a couple of ten-lactation cows still milking.
Bull calves are sold to Jane Denley, Hampshire, for her Woodlands Jersey Beef business. Mr Clear says: “We feel you should take responsibility for bull calves and it is good to have such an outlet for them.”
Milk is sold to Arla Milk Link on a manufacturing contract which pays for butterfat and protein.
Mr Clear says: “There are peaks and troughs and it was difficult to start with, but the last year has been a welcome relief. As we go forward, we are able to start investing in other aspects of the farm, but we are operating in a global market so there is still uncertainty.
“We have a rolling milk price of 38p/litre but have been getting more than 40p/litre at times. However, the milk price is dropping again and it looks like the next six to nine months are going to be tricky, but we do have plenty of forage to see us through the winter so we should be able to sit it out.”
The Clears have a good relationship with their landlords, The Countryside Restoration Trust, who they say do not interfere with the day-to-day management of the farm, but yet the two parties work closely together in other ways.
Mr Clear says: “We work together to fulfil each other’s aims. One of the Trust’s roles is to educate the public about farming and the countryside and it employs an education officer to help with this. We host school visits and an open day which attracts 350-500 visitors. Trust members sometimes work as volunteers on the farm for things such as woodland management and ragwort pulling.”
The farm is in an Entry Level Stewardship and a Higher Level Stewardship and has 10 hectares (25 acres) of water meadows which are a site of special scientific interest.
Mr Clear says: “The schemes are not too difficult to work with and we can see the benefits they bring in terms of improved habitat for wildlife. We cannot cut some of the grass until June, which we make hay of, but this is not a problem as it is a good source of fibre for winter feed.”
Although the main focus of the business has to be producing milk, the Clears enjoy showing, particularly Zoe who now takes on much of the responsibility for choosing the calves, doing the entries and organising the show team.
This year, the fourth-calver, Pierrepont Perfectors Money Penny, was dairy champion at the New Forest Show and reserve at Bucks County. Zoe’s calf, Discovery Miles Jellybean, has won the maiden heifer class at all the shows she has been to this year, including being reserve champion calf at the Livestock Event.
Zoe won the handler’s classes at the New Forest, Bucks County and Alresford shows and was champion hander at the Jersey Youth Weekend. She is now concentrating on preparing a team of calves for the All Britain All Breeds Calf Show in October, so the family’s long involvement with the breed looks set to continue well into the next generation.