Cows, health and wildlife come first on profitable dairy farm

THE Gassons, of Redlands Farm, Oxfordshire, are proud of what they do - as a dairy business, for their cows and for the environment. Alistair Driver finds out why. Pictures by Marcello Garbagnoli.

If there is a model modern British dairy farm, Redlands Farm could be it. Progressive, efficient, obsessive about the health and welfare of its cows, passionate about promoting wildlife and, above all, profitable, it has the feel of a farm with a firm grip on the present and an eye to the future.

Yet the family farm, which was shortlisted for this year’s NMR-RABDF Gold Cup award, is reassuringly built on foundations laid firmly in the past.

The farm was bought by Ray Gasson’s grandfather, Edward, in 1949, as a small mixed dairy, beef and arable enterprise, located in the centre of Hook Norton village, where the family home remains.

Reinvention

It was reinvented as dairy a farm and relocated to the edge of the village by Ray’s father, Leslie, in the late 1960s.

Ray, who joined the business in 1974 and his son, Chris, invested £1 million between 2001 and 2003 in doubling capacity to the current 400 cows and modernising the unit, such as replacing the 20:20 herringbone parlour with a 50-point Fullwood rotary.

The farm is now being progressively being handed over by Ray and his wife, Linda, to the next generation - and further investment is planned.

Ray, who for many years combined running the farm with a consultancy business carrying his name in the village, has ‘nearly’ retired, but he remains passionate about the farm - and farming.

He explains how the farm’s position as a dedicated supplier to Waitrose via Dairy Crest suits the aspirational business down to the ground.

“Waitrose has always been extremely fair to its dairy producers and the price has always been at the top end,” says Ray.

“They expect us jump through hoops, which we are fairly paid to do.”

These hoops include strict standards on health and welfare. Chris, who has been a partner in the business since 1996, is a qualified vet and combines his management role at the farm with working in a veterinary practice in Somerset. He carries out much of the herd’s routine veterinary work.

“Herd health is an absolute priority,” says Ray. “We are a closed herd, apart from the occasional bull, and that is a big advantage because the animals get resistance to what you have got. If you bring animals in, they succumb to what you have got and bring in new things you haven’t.”

The farm only buys from Johne’s-accredited sources and screens its milk for the disease. It has vaccination programmes for IBR, BVD and Leptospirosis and scores for lameness on a

bi-monthly basis. It is now on a one-year TB testing cycle, but prior to that Chris tested annually at the farm’s own expense.

The unit operates twice-a-day all-year round milking, which Ray says incurs ‘significant’ extra costs, but is an essential part of supplying retailers who require even supplies.

Even supplies

“All the retailers, and Waitrose is leading on this, realise they will have to pay a premium price if they want high quality, high welfare milk on an even basis,” he says.

Around 40 per cent of the cows graze between April and November, with the remainder - the high yielders - housed throughout the year, an arrangement Ray describes as ‘pretty typical’.

He is at his most animated defending the practice of permanent housing in light of the furore thrown up by the Nocton ‘mega dairy’ proposals. He insists the arguments against it have ‘no logical basis’.

“Why is intensive seen as bad? To me it is about the health and welfare of livestock and it is usually better in larger herds where cows are housed more because the standards of stockmanship and the facilities are better,” he says.

Ray cites the practical benefits for the farm of keeping cows indoors, including not having to walk them long distances to milking.

But the prime reason, he says, is ensuring these high-yielding animals receive the quantity of feed they need. Cows with big appetites kept on wearing grass can get very hungry, he says.

“We are feeding them and satisfying their needs. We bed on sand, which is very comfortable and good for hygiene - you can see the results in our cell and bacteria counts (see herd panel).

“We believe our cows are pretty happy. If you leave the gate open, they often stay in anyway.”

Ray puts the argument in its global context: “It would be nice to go back to where I started with cows producing 5,000 litres of milk from self-feed silage.

“The reality is we are competing with dairy products from New Zealand and the USA, where they have no problem with large-scale farming. If we insulate ourselves and end up limiting herd size, we are going to see our competitive basis damaged.”

The herd’s production figures are impressive (see panel) - the average lifetime daily yield figure of 15.69kg a day is among the highest in the country, according to Ray.

He attributes this to a combination of years of careful breeding and high quality management.

Bull selection

“We have been selecting for high genetic merit for a number of years and use sexed semen. The bull selection criteria are highest PIN with positive fat and negative cell count. It is acknowledged that we are right at the top end of Holstein genetics.”

With both Ray and Chris Gasson having held jobs outside the business over the years, Ray says good quality staff are ‘essential to the success of the business’.

“I can’t stress enough the key role played by my first class, excellent farm manager John Peck, who has been with the business for 25 years, and the two skilled and highly motivated full-time staff, Stan Peake and Ed Williams, plus part-timers.

Training is an important part of the business with key staff having recently visited the US on fact- finding missions.

The attention to detail of the management and staff is evident in all aspects of the business, from the orderly layout of the farmyard to the way inputs and costs are managed.

The farm seeks to be as self-contained as possible. The holding has grown over the years to 344 hectares (850 acres) in four blocks around the picturesque village on which all its bulk feed ingredients, including silage, maize, oats and straw, are grown.

Slurry facilities have been extended to provide six month’s storage, ensuring compliance with forthcoming NVZ regulations. Slurry is transported in enclosed tankers to the farm’s arable land and injected at the optimum time, meaning the farm now requires virtually no artificial fertiliser, savings which significantly outweigh the substantial cost of the transport.

No stone is left unturned when it comes to managing costs. Take the energy savings as an example, which are made by maximising use of night time electricity tariffs and small tweaks such as reducing the speed on the vacuum pump. “It doesn’t sound much, but it makes a real difference,” says Ray.

The farm has remained profitable as the industry has struggled, nationally, from a combination of low prices and high costs. “Our price is at the top end, but our costs are very competitive.”

“Part of the reason is that we put all our time and effort into managing the milking cows, so we haven’t gone to the expense of investing heavily in machinery grassland or arable. We have contractors to do that and that gives us a competitive cost base.”

Retailer’s role

At a time when some supermarkets have been ‘squeezing prices right down the supply chain’, Ray acknowledges Waitrose’s role in where the business stands today.

While there are no plans for expansion, due mainly to the proximity of the unit to the village and school, the business is about to embark on another major investment, replacing current cubicles with ‘roomier, airier and lighter’ versions, and erecting better youngstock buildings.

“The price we get gives us confidence to invest,” adds Ray.

The farm’s commercial performance may be impressive, but the aspect of the business Ray appears to be most proud of is its environmental work, carried out under Waitrose’s Wildcare environmental contract.

The scheme requires farmers to devote 10 per cent of their to wildlife-friendly habitats. Redland Farm has devoted 23 per cent.

He talks passionately and at length about what has been achieved in terms of the array, in some cases rare and endangered, of flora and fauna recorded on its land.

“We are interested in nature, but the Waitrose Wildcare scheme has been the trigger in all of this. It has generated massive interest among the participating farmers and it’s really what differentiates Waitrose from the other supermarkets.”

The Gassons are rightfully proud of what they do as a business, for the local community, for the health and welfare of their cows and for the environment.

They are happy to show it all off to the public through allowing access to the dairy unit and land, plus open days and school visits.

“The industry needs to explain to the public what it does a little a bit better. That is something we certainly try and do.”

Herd facts

  • 402 cows
  • 9,300 litres average yield
  • 3.95 per cent butterfat, protein
  • 3.26 per cent protein
  • Cell count of 118 , with bactoscans of 22
  • 21 per cent replacement rate

Environment

The 340ha (850-acre) farm operates under the Waitrose Wildcare scheme and is in Entry Level Stewardship. Work undertaken includes:

  • 12.6ha (31 acres) of woodland in 14 parcels
  • 11.5ha (28 acres) zero input permanent pasture
  • Around 8ha (20 acres) of environmental crops, e.g uncropped lapwing breeding area, wild flower strips, grass margins, bumble bee mix
  • Nesting boxes for owls, kestrels and swifts
  • Hedgerows cut every third year
  • Ponds with surrounding buffer areas and woodland
  • Tin sheets around the farm to encourage grass snakes, lizards and shrews
  • Spring cropping, where feasible, providing over-winter stubble for nesting lapwings
  • Grain provided on concrete hard standing in winter for birds

Wildlilfe sightings

Wildlife sightings are recorded, including:

  • 84 species of bird to the end of 2010, including 18 on red list and 21 on amber list. Red-listed birds spotted include lapwing (in consistent numbers at breeding sites each year), herring gull, turtle dove and yellow wagtail
  • Grey partridge and corn buntings spotted for first time this year
  • 23 species of butterfly, including Adonis Blue and Small Heath.
  • Three species of orchid - Bee, Common Spotted and Pyramidal
  • Bats, brown hares, common lizard and increasing numbers of shrews, voles deer and raptor

 

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