As the agriculture industry ponders over the uncertainty of British farming, is now the right time for farmers to consider diversifying? Alex Robinson looks at the livery yard as a potential business venture.
Horse riding remains a popular activity in the UK, with more than 1.3 million regular riders partaking in the sport, and as horses are kept for leisure purposes, the equine sector lacks the pressures of livelihood which constrain other livestock keepers.
A sound livery yard is a necessary investment for the equestrian owner, and sites in rural areas with off-road access can be the most sought after.
Horses do not come cheap, but this means those who own them are often willing to pay for the right facilities. Sites on farms can be ideal settlements for a few stables with grazing, or the foundation for a large-scale diversification.
Land and building renovations are a likely necessity for the diversifier, and Richard McGonigal from Equine Planning Solutions discusses how buildings require change of use from agricultural to equestrian, regardless of whether or not there are any practical alterations.
Mr McGonigal says: “Most farm buildings lend themselves to equestrian use, and facilities such as indoor arenas are often converted barns.
“To be successful, all potential constraints affecting a site and its capacity will need to be assessed, as this can directly affect the type and scale of the development.”
Planning permission will need to be obtained, and Mr McGonigal advises farmers to seek professional advice from an architect or planning consultant.
Making the venture could mean a risk of losing agricultural property relief. However, grants are sometimes available from the local council and business relief may apply to those starting out on a small-scale.
Sarah Phillips, director of participation at the British Horse Society discusses how livery yards on-farm can be extremely popular due to the access to off-road hacking they offer.
Ms Phillips says: “Many farmers with liveries provide grass headlands around their arable crops for clients to ride on and access to private and, very often, safe hacking is a bonus for most riders.”
Keeping equines on-farm will require consideration regarding placement of existing livestock and machinery, as Ms Phillips says, horses are flight animals and can easily be startled by farm equipment.
Like in the farming community, establishing a sound reputation in the equine world can rely heavily on word-of-mouth and good people management.
Flexibility will be of great importance, and as horses need strict schedules, owners may require to attend the yard at hours which do not suit the yard owners’ timetable.
Horses need considerably different management to other farm livestock, but the basic daily needs are similar in terms of meeting necessary animal welfare standards.
Ms Phillips says grazing requirements will differ, as horses are extremely selective grazers, and some, particularly ponies, may require restricted grazing during summer.
She says: “Some owners will request year-round turnout, which can be a problem as land can become poached, which farmers try to avoid by keeping livestock permanently housed in winter.”
Limited grazing access can be applied to manage the space by creating smaller sections of paddock to alternate grass using a suitable electric fencing.
Removing dung from the field will need to factored into the pasture management schedule.
Ms Philips says: “It is vital those considering diversification thoroughly look into the responsibilities involved, as many things need to be considered, including health and safety and fire regulations.”
Mr McGonigal continues: “Cost can vary dramatically depending on the specification of the livery yard. Some yards maximise the number of stables to keep livery costs down, whereas others choose a smaller setup with included features, such as WiFi or changing rooms, which clients are willing to pay more for.”
Farms can provide livery yards with potential to add value and reduce costs needed for buying-in bedding and feed supplies.
The premium paid for quality haylage is considerably more, making the extra costs spent on wrapping worth the money.
Providing fodder for livery clients is likely to be more lucrative than selling it privately and can be a good way to add profit to the business.
Mr McGonigal says: “Yards with security are highly sought after. If a residence is based on-site, this can provide owners with a necessary confidence in the service they are paying for. We regularly come across equestrian businesses which desperately require on-site accommodation to expand or sustain their operations, but are unable to obtain planning approval for it.”
Residing in Gressingham, Lancashire, ex-dairy farmer Leonard Metcalfe has managed to transform a childhood interest into a flourishing business.
Teamed with wife Corrine, an animal practitioner, their livery yard Fleets Farm Equestrian has become their sole source of income, after they sold their dairy herd and ceased milking in 2015.
The venture began 10 years ago, when Mr Metcalfe built a stable to keep a single livery client on-site, with the intention of using funds to assist with the keeping of his own horse.
He says: “I soon had interest from a few people in the area, so I decided to convert an old workshop into a small barn of seven stables in my spare time.
“The yard has gone from strength to strength over the past decade, and in a time when the dairy industry was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living in.
“We now have 20 purpose-built monarch stables in an American-style barn setup, an outdoor area, lunging pen and about 25 acres of post and rail grass paddocks.”
Most of the venture has been DIY-based for Mr Metcalfe.
He says: “We hired outside assistance for the larger scale building jobs, but we have been self-sufficient. We are continuously looking for new ways to improve the setup, striving to offer the best service in our area.
“When I first diversified, I was unaware I needed to apply to the council for a change of use on buildings, but when I did they were more than helpful.
“While the diversification was entirely self-funded, we do receive small business rates, which were a great hand in the beginning and must be something to consider if we continue to grow the business.
“While it is important to be competitive, I do not recommend cutting corners or skimping on costs. Spending a little bit extra on quality earlier on pays later in the game.
“It is vital for those looking into equine diversification to look thoroughly into the responsibilities involved. Insurance and contracts are vital, as well as good people management skills.”