A switch to organic and direct selling provides a new direction for a dairy farm in the Peak District.
Chloe Palmer finds out more...
Surviving as a small, tenanted dairy farm in the uplands has perhaps never been more challenging, but a recent expansion, coupled with a move to organic production and retailing, has proved an exciting move for the Dilks family.
Bob and Judy Dilks have farmed at Hassop, near Bakewell, for almost 30 years after moving from the family farm when they secured the tenancy at Home Farm.
The opportunity to rent land two miles further north, at Froggatt, came at an opportune moment and opened doors for the family business.
Mr Dilks says: “We thought about converting to organic five years after we moved to Hassop, but it did not stack up at the time because we did not have enough land.
“When we took on an additional 170 acres with the tenancy at Knouchley three years ago, it became a realistic option.
“Converting the two farms to organic has been far from easy, as the payments to support the difficult conversion period were severely delayed.
“The biggest challenge has been cashflow. We entered the Countryside Stewardship mid-tier scheme with organic options, but our payments have been very late, which has not helped.
“We still have only just received our 2018 payment.”
The milking herd is grazed on the grassland around Home Farm and cereals and silage are grown on fields too far away to graze. Land at Knouchley Farm is used for grazing the dry cows, heifers and youngstock, with the remainder of the land in the arable rotation.
“Knouchley is fantastic land for growing grass and animals, and because it is clean ground we can produce strong, weed-free crops there,” Mr Dilks adds.
The move to organic has necessitated a comprehensive review of the rotation, but also a fundamental change in breeding.
Mr Dilks acknowledges the performance of the Holstein Friesian served them well in the past, but with a shift in priorities, a change was required.
“We are now serving all our cows with either a Montebeliarde or a Norwegian Red for their first and second service, and we are using British Blue or Limousin semen for any third services,” he says.
“The Montebeliarde thrives outside and is much better on her feet than the Holstein.
“Our cows are out for between seven and eight months a year, so this is important.
“The Montebeliarde produces good, creamy milk and, because we are on a constituent contract with Arla, we are more interested in the quality than the quantity of the milk we produce.
“Longevity is important to us and we hope she will last an average of six lactations.”
Before going organic, bull calves were sold at Bakewell at two weeks old, but now everything is kept and sold as stores weighing between 350 and 400kg at about 12 months old.
“We have recently started crossing any cows showing outstanding production back to a Jersey, because we are looking for a small cow with good feet and udders. Larger cows will not work for us as they will not fit in the cubicles,” Mr Dilks says.
“All the heifers run with our Aberdeen-Angus bull and calve his progeny exceptionally easily, so we never have to assist anything.
“We are considering the option of establishing a small suckler herd in the future as this would fit in well with our system.”
Achieving an aim of being 80 per cent self-sufficient in feed is looking within reach now as the land at Knouchley has produced impressive crops of winter wheat, spring barley and spring oats this summer.
Undersowing all the cereals with white or red clover depending on the phase of the rotation provides fertility if the ground is to be returned to a grass ley the following year, which is the basis for a productive sward.
“We use a contractor to broadcast clover and grass seed across the winter wheat and barley after it is combi drilled and before everything is rolled,” Mr Dilks says.
They now also use contractors to apply slurry with a trailing shoe between the drilled rows of winter cereals and this has proved very successful, according to Mr Dilks.
He says: “The slurry is applied as 4in-wide rows and this works well because the weeds do not grow up through the slurry crust, but then when it rains, it gradually breaks down the slurry and feeds the plant.
“We use the same method for applying slurry to the silage ground.”
Mr Dilks admits they are ‘still experimenting’ with different approaches to the management of organic crops and describes the process as ‘a challenge’.
“But when you grow a successful crop it is really satisfying”, he says.
They feed home-grown cereals as wholecrop or rolled as part of a total mixed ration with grass silage.
They may add a blend to this, but hope to reduce their feed costs substantially as they dramatically reduce the amount of expensive bought-in organic feed.
This year, they will chop and incorporate much of the straw on the arable fields because the wet climate means good quality straw is rarely guaranteed.
“We are allowed to use conventionally produced straw for bedding and return it to the land as muck,” he says.
“Our own chopped straw is worth a lot to us in nutrients when returned to the land, but it would cost us to bale it and transport it back to the farm.
“We can buy-in better straw and increase fertility on-farm.”
Mr and Mrs Dilks only employ one full-time stockman, Jake Jones, alongside help from their three children – Ross, Charlotte and Megan – whose role Mr Dilks describes as ‘invaluable’.
A need to comply with a range of rules associated with their organic status has led to the Dilks making several changes to their system.
“Dry cows and in-calf heifers are kept together as a group with the yearlings at Knouchley,” he says.
“They calve outside in spring and summer and, whereas we used to remove the calf after two to three days, we now leave them on the cows for at least six days.
“This is less labour-intensive than tubing them, but ensures they obtain sufficient colostrum.
“We keep them in small, evenlyaged groups in a calf shed for up to 10 weeks when we then wean them and then put them in larger groups of between 15 and 20 calves.”
The calves are fed a weaner pellet from a week old and then rolled oats are gradually incorporated with this until they eventually move onto a full cereal ration at four weeks old.
The organic status stipulates specific animal health protocols, but this has necessitated little change for the Dilks, as they rarely used prophylactic antibiotics.
“I have never been a big user of vaccines and we have not tubed a cow in three years,” he says. “We have found no ill effects.
“We will milk them just once a day and then once every two days before drying them off and we use udder mint before they join the rest of the dry cows.”
One year ago, the family began selling organic raw milk directly to the public through a vending machine. Additional standards must be achieved to sell raw milk and testing regimes are rigorous.
The venture has proved to be a great success with locals and tourists alike, according to Mrs Dilks.
“We sell about 35 litres of milk from the vending machine each day in reusable glass bottles,” she says.
“The biggest buzz is the feedback from people and we like to take the opportunity to educate them about farming and how the milk is produced.”
Earlier in summer, a surprise promotional opportunity arose when one of the arable fields near to the farm hosted a stunning display of poppies.
While it might not have indicated a promising yield of wheat, it went viral on social media and Mr Dilks decided to turn the publicity to their advantage.
“Our poppy field made the national press after photos of it were posted on social media. We had people visiting from all over the country,” he says.
“One day, when I passed a large group of people in the middle of the field, I invited them to visit the farm afterwards to buy a milkshake.
“Our sales went up by 60 per cent after we posted this on our Facebook page.”