Business aspirations become a reality after upping sticks

DAIRY farmer Peter Joules of PHR Farms tells Jonathan Long why upping sticks from Wales to Kent was the catalyst in securing an Arla liquid milk contract and raising his milk price along the way.

Given the choice of the lush pastures of west Wales and the drier lands of Kent most dairy farmers would choose to head west.

But in autumn 2002 Peter Joules and his family defied conventional thinking and upped sticks from their 263-hectare (650-acre unit) in Wales and headed east to take on the tenancy of two units fewer than two miles apart totalling 328ha (812 acres).

“It was a move we had to make to take the business forward,” says Peter who farms in partnership with his wife, Hilary and son Robert, trading as PHR Farms.

“We had 650 acres in Wales and were running about 380 milkers, but we could only graze about 120 acres of the ground we had, so expansion was restricted.”

Moving to Bircholt and Hope farms at Brabourne, Ashford, was a mammoth task, with 13 lorry loads of cattle transported along with 15 lorry loads of machinery and other kit, including a new building which was due to be erected at the Welsh farm.

“We brought the herd with us and took on 350 cows which were already on the farms, along with the heifer calves which were here.”

But Peter admits both farms were in need of investment to get them where they wanted to be and so the last eight years has been a period of ongoing modernisation and improvement.

Such has been the turnaround that two new parlours have been installed, one a 24:48 swingover and the other a 22:44 swingover. “These were installed in the first 12 months or so and have done us well, although we’re now in the process of installing a 70-point rotary parlour for the autumn calving herd.”

On top of this countless miles of cow tracks and fencing have been installed, along with water laid on to all the paddocks and new cow housing installed at both farms. “We’ve invested heavily in the farms, but that’s what we had to do if we wanted to farm it and make a decent profit.

“Ploughing so much money into tenanted farms isn’t everyone’s choice, but with the support of our bank we’ve made these into two great dairy units and we’ve just been granted a 10-year extension to the original 15-year Farm Business Tenancy we took on.”

While some may have chosen to consolidate the two units into one larger herd, it is the way the farms are split which has been central to the management of the herds. Bircholt Farm carries a 650-cow autumn calving herd, whereas Hope Farm is run as a spring calving unit with 450 milkers. “This has enabled us to produce milk all year round, but with all the management advantages which block calving offers,” explains Peter.

The split system together with the farms’ location has been crucial in securing a Tesco contract through Arla. “One of the big drivers to moving here was the opportunity to get a liquid supply contract. We’re in a densely populated part of the country which is a massive market for milk.

“In west Wales we were always going to be on a manufacturing contract as there is plenty of milk there and not many people, here it’s the other way round and as a result we are currently receiving 30.3p a litre, a price we could never have dreamed of in Wales.”

Farm facts

  • Family partnership employing 11 staff
  • Two herds, both block calving
  • 329-hectare (812-acre) FBT, 324ha (800 acres) on other agreements
  • 650 autumn calvers, 450 spring calvers
  • Early silage cutting essential
  • Extensive cow track and fencing installed
  • Investment in equipment to keep operations as timely as possible
  • Tesco supplier farm
  • Switched to Friesian-type cow
  • Exporting muck and slurry to arable farmers

Fit cows

The aim with both herds is to make the most of the forage the farm can grow, so the spring herd is managed on a New Zealand style system and four cuts of grass silage are taken for winter feeding. A small area of maize is also grown, although this has diminished in recent years.

Key to this milk from forage production has been the breeding policy of the herds, with the Holstein-type cows, which the partnership inherited, being put to Friesian bulls to produce harder wearing, stronger, fitter cows.

“We wanted a cow which would last well, milk off grass and not need high levels of maintenance,” says Peter, whose spring herd currently averages about 6,200 litres and autumn calvers nearer 6,600 litres.

“We’ve got nothing against the Holstein, but she isn’t the sort of cow which would cope well on our system. The Friesians tend to be more robust and need fewer interventions,” he says.

Bulls used in the herd have included Ozzie, Rancher and Mr Frosty, with Friesian semen used for the first six weeks of the breeding season, followed by beef semen and finally beef sweeper bulls run with cows not holding to AI. “But we won’t be sweeping the autumn herd with bulls in over the winter housing period any more as we find managing bulls in cubicles troublesome.”

Instead, they will put AI to Friesians initially, then AI to British Blue semen and won’t turn the bulls in until the cows are out at grass again in spring. Any cows taking the bull will then be moved with the spring calving herd.

“We’ve got a good number of customers for our beef cross calves and Friesian bull calves as there are a good number of people locally wanting beef cattle to feed, but not wanting to run suckler cows. We tend to sell the Friesian bulls in batches of 15 or 20 straight off the farm and do the same with the beef crosses.

“No Friesian heifers are sold, but are instead run with Friesian bulls for five weeks before running with beef bulls - the aim being to calve them at two years old. Heifers are calved ahead of the main herds to maximise management time with them.”

“Calf management is kept simple with all calves in both herds receiving artificial colostrum within the first hour of birth and natural colostrums again in the first six hours. It may seem expensive to use artificial colostrum, but current calf prices more than justify it and it means our heifer calves have the best possible start,” says Peter.

Calves from the spring calving herd are then reared outside as soon as weather allows, while the autumn born calves are reared outside initially and then move inside once inclement weather forces them there.

The family have not rested on their laurels and are now farming a total of 657ha (1,600 acres), with the extra land taken on with a number of different agreements - much of it from local arable farmers keen for a break crop of grass. “We’ve been lucky to have the support of some great landlords locally, and we’re now providing a valuable service for a number of local arable farmers with blackgrass problems.

“They want a three-year break crop of grass to keep blackgrass under control and it provides us with land for silage production.”

Muck export

A significant quantity of muck is also being exported off the farm onto these arable farms with a number of arable units competing for it. “We have two large slurry lagoons, the crust on which can be anything up to two feet deep. A swing shovel is used to clear this crust off and this is taken by arable farmers as a soil conditioner.

“We then use the liquid portion on the grassland and take straw back in exchange for the muck the arable units take. It is highly possible though that as artificial fertiliser prices rise this muck could become a highly tradable commodity.”

Meanwhile an umbilical slurry spreader has been bought to spread the 4m gallons produced each year and a brace of 3,500 gallon tanker spreaders are also used to spread slurry on the off lying ground.

“As well as keeping slurry spreading timely it is also a big biosecurity advantage as we don’t run the risk of disease being brought in on contractors slurry kit from other farms.

“Herd health is a big issue and when we arrived we faced a big mastitis challenge from loose housed yards. It has taken a long time and a lot of hard culling to beat the problem and any repeat offenders are culled to limit the chances of them spreading infection to others.

“Lameness control and locomotion scoring are also important to cow management, with the foot trimmer visiting at least once a month to keep the cows feet in top condition. Cows are also foot bathed regularly for digital dermatitis.”

Looking to the future Peter fully anticipates developing the business further, with plans in mind to create a dedicated youngstock rearing unit for the herds. “I’m also still looking to establish another herd in the South East. Ideally it would be nice to have it close to the existing units, but if we have to go further afield then so be it.

“There is a strong future in milk production providing the costs can be kept under control. Despite what some may think, the South East is one of the best places in the UK to milk cows as the climate means we can use all the grass we can grow. Other areas may be able to grow more grass, but accessing it can be difficult. Here we can turn cows out in February and be making silage in mid-April, an ideal situation for milking cows.”

Grass management

A good grassland management policy has been at the core of the PHR Farms business in Kent from day one, with the aim being to keep grass growing all summer despite low rainfall.

“We do dry up in the summer, but the key to beating this is to keep the leys young and reseed regularly. The aim is for three-year leys wherever possible and to keep the grazing rotation tight all summer at about 17 days,” says Peter.

Management of the silage ground is similar, with the first cut taken early, generally in mid-April. “We do this to get the grass growing again quickly. It is never the bulkiest cut, but it means the second cut has a good start as we apply slurry immediately after the grass is picked up, although this year we’ve had to apply it at night to avoid scorching the grass in temperatures which have reached the mid 20s throughout April.

“If we let the grass get too dense early in the season then the regrowth would be much slower and in a dry year the second cut wouldn’t be worth speaking of. Doing it this way means we get four high quality cuts with every crop of silage analysing at above 11.5ME.”

Farming in an NVZ means slurry and fertiliser applications have to be balanced and thought out, but Peter finds this no problem as he is able to apply slurry in a timely manner and when the crops are able to make best use of it.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Fair play to this guy he has taken alot of risks and it seems to have paid of,i remember him when he was farming at llandysul,seems to have grown a hell of alot since then.Someone to aspire to.

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  • Its great to see this hard working family doing so well. A lot of hard work has gone into this farm and its nice to see this wonderful family achieve so much. All the very best. ian

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  • May sound good to other farmers but hell to live near. Our quiet country lanes have been decimated and noise from dawn til dusk

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  • I can't see it's wise selling your farm to go off to Kent to rent a farm! Cashing in his assets, not good business sense if you ask me.

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