Taking control over price through direct selling and diversification
AS winners of the highest placed Jersey herd in this year’s Gold Cup competition, the Richardson brothers tell Wendy Short why they would never consider changing breeds, and how they have added value to their product.
The history of the pedigree Jersey milking herd at Wheelbirks Farm dates back to the mid-1920s, but the family’s latest venture into an ice-cream parlour is much more recent.
Tom and Hugh Richardson say their diversification project, which opened last year, has increased their confidence in the business. However, like all other UK dairy farmers, they need a significant milk price increase to fully secure the family’s future.
Wheelbirks has a long history - the 145-hectare (360-acre) Northumberland holding has been in the Richardson family for five generations.
Tom and Hugh now pay a commercial rent on the farm, which is part of an estate they own jointly with their two other siblings.
A further 64ha (160 acres) of land within the estate, but situated nine miles away from the main steading at Stocksfield, is used for rearing replacement dairy females and finishing beef cattle.
Some of the milk from the 120-strong herd is bottled and sold on-farm, as well as being turned into ice-cream.
Direct sales account for around 20,000 litres per year, while the remaining milk goes to West Yorkshire-based dairy product manufacturers J. and E. Dickinson of Longley Farm.
“Our current milk price is about the same as we were receiving a decade ago, but the cost of production has risen sharply,” says Tom.
“We get around 36p/litre, which may sound adequate, but the average Jersey will only achieve around half of the yield potential of a Holstein Friesian. The situation is very frustrating.”
For the past 15 years, the cows have been fed a total mixed ration in the cubicle housing, plus concentrates in the parlour.
The diet includes silage and wholecrop barley, as well as an 18 per cent protein blend.
In order to focus on milk from forage, the Richardsons have taken a long-term approach to grassland management.
The soil type ranges from free-draining to heavy clay, with around 25 per cent of the total grass acreage in permanent pasture and the rest in five to six year leys.
The grazing system is based on rotational paddocks and around 400-500 sheep are taken in to help manage the grassland over winter.
Following advice from Sean Lovegreen of Nickerson Direct, the brothers have moved away from rejuvenating old leys by slot-seeding and instead have started ploughing fields and starting afresh.
This has come with extra cost, say the brothers, but better results have been achieved.
Slot-seeding, however, has proved useful for gateways, and other areas which have been badly poached.
The main grassland policy is centred on an intensive grazing mix, designed to maximise volume by avoiding the periods of high and low production associated with grazed grass.
The mix is made up of late-heading perennial rye-grasses, Timothy and white clover.
Mr Lovegreen says the result is a comparatively drought-tolerant ley, with a flatter production curve, extending grass growth at both ends of the season. It also has a good D value and the ability to bulk up for silage, if needed.
The next stage in the programme is to introduce red clover into the cutting leys, in an attempt to reduce the quantity of bought-in protein in the ration.
The farm also grows around 52ha (130 acres) of winter barley each year, some of which is home-rolled. Oilseed rape is used as a break crop to control weeds.
“We prefer barley to wheat, because wheat is more expensive to grow, particularly when drying costs are taken into account,” says Tom.
“Barley makes a good feedstuff, and any excess is sold off-farm. We have found very little difference in the end price, compared with wheat, this year.”
The home-grown barley is also fed to the Jersey steers, which go to a local abattoir before being taken to a local butcher.
At present, Jersey AI is used across the entire herd and the Jersey beef is available as frozen cuts in the ice-cream parlour. The equivalent of one bullock is sold every 15-20 days during peak periods.
While Tom says Jersey beef has excellent flavour, he admits the breed is short on weight and slow to mature, finishing at around 30 months.
To speed up turnaround and generate greater demand for surplus beef cattle, the brothers intend to use sexed semen on 50 per cent of the herd to produce replacements. The remaining females will go to a British Blue bull.
Tom says the Jersey has proved itself to be a hard-wearing breed, with few health problems and mainly trouble-free calving, although calcium is administered routinely to prevent milk fever, which is common in Jerseys.
The herd calving index is 361 days, with each cow producing an average six calves over her lifetime.
Several females are still performing well at 12 years old, which is one of the reasons why the Richardsons have never considered keeping any other breed.
Surplus Jersey females of all ages find a ready market with other dairy farmers. Trade has picked up significantly following the trend towards buyers offering a quality premium.
“We have had discussions in the past about giving up dairy farming, but we would never switch breeds,” Tom stresses.
“Jerseys have many good attributes, as well as being nice to work with and looking attractive to the public.
“We are also finding a number of farms with black and whites are adding a couple of Jerseys to their herd as a way of increasing milk quality.”
The idea for the ice-cream parlour was conceived in the wake of foot-and-mouth and the venture was extensively researched, before opening in spring 2010. The project qualified for a government grant of 45 per cent towards total expenditure.
Adding value to the milk by making ice-cream is profitable, but Tom stresses it takes a lot of hard work to reap the benefits of direct selling.
The brothers take great pride in their ability to create virtually any flavour to order, but most sales come from the most popular varieties, such as vanilla, strawberry and chocolate brownie. More unusual flavours include plum sorbet and balsamic vinegar.
Visitor numbers fluctuate, and trade has been affected by the recession, but on a busy day, the farm will play host to several hundred people; the highest head count was 800.
Tom’s wife, Lucinda runs the ice-cream parlour, which is open throughout the year and also sells hot meals and snacks.
As the retail side of the business has grown, the brothers confess it has not been easy to devote sufficient time to running the farm.
Their solution was to take on Chris Shipley, a herdsman employed by a staffing agency. This option guarantees them a replacement member of staff if Chris cannot work due to ill health.
Around 36 people, mostly part-time, are employed across the site in total.
The brothers are keen to share their knowledge of the countryside and farming with the public.
Parties of schoolchildren are invited to tour the farm and visit the ice-cream parlour, and Hugh has received CEVAS (Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme) training, which means he is qualified to talk to children in the classroom.
Many pupils in nearby Newcastle still do not understand where their milk comes from, he says.
Future plans for Wheelbirks rule out any major changes to the farming system, but an additional building may be put up for the cows, freeing up the existing housing for conversion into an indoor children’s play area, assuming planning permission is granted.
“We’ve always been sociable people and we like to think we are willing to embrace change,” says Tom.
“Building up the business for our diversification project has not been easy, but I think we have made the right decision in getting involved in the end use of our product and taking a bit more control over pricing.”
- Awards - Wheelbirks Jerseys were the highest-placed Jersey herd in this year’s RABDF Gold Cup competition, winning the Lily Hill award for their achievements. The farm has also won a silver placing in the North East England regional tourism awards.
- Yields - calving is all year round, with yields averaging 5,700 litres, at just under 6 per cent butterfat and 4 per cent protein.