Derbyshire arable farmer John Laing decided to relocate to the Northumberland borders in 2006 and purchased Stickle Heaton Farm, near Cornhill-on-Tweed. The next step was to purchase another neighbouring 1,500 acre arable farm at East Learmouth. At that stage, John did not consider embarking on a career as a dairy farmer; however, fate would intervene.
A 700 acre dairy unit at neighbouring New Heaton Farm came on to the market in 2011 and John believed the farm would make a positive addition to his cereal enterprise. He considered his options and enlisted Jonathan Hill from Promar to provide a comprehensive analysis. John was surprised to learn that dairying provided a better return on capital invested.
He said: “New Heaton was well established with a range of modern farm buildings; a highly productive farm, well fenced and drained and fully operational as a dairy unit. Jonathan provided a full-range of options and in the end; we took the decision to purchase the farm; lock; stock and barrel.
“We purchased the 140 cow Holstein dairy herd, equipment, tractors and young stock. Overnight, I became a dairy farmer. However, I consider myself as a cereal farmer and wanted an experienced farm manager to take the business forward as a stand-alone dairy unit. One name kept cropping up, Mick Spears.”
Mick and wife, Bridget, were based in North Yorkshire and agreed to make the move 100 miles north. Since arriving in 2012, the business, which operates under the name of Dalbury Limited (this being John Laing’s former Derbyshire location) has resulted in a comprehensive development programme.
In total, New Heaton was purchased for £2.2m and this included two spacious, well-equipped farm houses. Since then, an estimated £1.5m has been invested in a new milking parlour, milk silo and increasing herd numbers. A further 240 cows were purchased from Northampton, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear areas, taking the herd to the 380 cow level.
The investment includes a £12,000 grain bin, a 28,000 litre milk silo costing £53,000, a new GEA 32/32 herringbone parlour costing £160,000 and a further £280,000 on a new housing facility and silage clamp. Other purchases include farm equipment, tractors and implements. The investment reflects John’s confidence in the future of the dairy industry.
“Farming is all about taking the long-term view and I am optimistic about the future of the UK dairy industry. In order to be successful, you have to invest in the future, increase cow numbers and develop an overall strategy for the business.
“I have two young sons, and in time, they may wish to be part of the business. We have to start now to ensure a solid future. However, part of the attraction in buying New Heaton relates to our arable business. We have an abundance of straw for the dairy unit and in return, we have an abundance of manure to spread on the arable land and help increase cereal yields and soil fertility. It’s a classic win-win situation,” he says.
Part of the successful development of New Heaton is the working relationship between John and Mick Spears. The pair buy into each other’s ideas and the dovetailing of mutual expertise and practical knowledge is evident. For Mick, the opportunity to take the project forward was too good to turn down.
He said: “At the time, I was not considering a move but agreed to meet John and visit the farm. The opportunity to develop the dairy herd is an irresistible challenge and Bridget’s involvement is essential; she is heavily involved in numerous on-farm management aspects including calf and young stock rearing. However, New Heaton now embarks on the next stage of development.
“The new buildings recently constructed include a 220ft x 100ft loose housing system. The facility is designed for 180 cows, with a central feed passage incorporating Jourdain self-locking yokes. The building sits adjacent to a new 3,000 tonnes silage clamp. In time, we aim to construct another building on the adjacent north side of the silage clamp for a further 180 cows.
“The new facilities are being constructed by Derbyshire-based Brian Gadsby Fabrication; an established contact of John, and we hope the cows moved into the new residence for the winter. The continued expansion allows for young stock to be housed in the current facilities. The herd is milked twice per day and we have a team of four in total operating the unit.
“The herd is averaging 9,400kgs at 4.28% fat and 3.27% protein, SCC of 90 and Bacto of 18. We are feeding 1.9 tonnes of concentrate per cow; have a margin of 21ppl and margin over purchased feed is £1,590. Calving interval is running at 420 days, and will continue to decline. Obviously, increasing herd size by over 100% resulted in settling down issues. We have used Genus RMS and sires currently being used include McCormick, Ponder, Ingenius and History,” Mick says.
New Heaton also changed supplier and started supplying milk to Durham-based Rock Dairies in October. Making inroads will take time, but by shopping around in early October, Mick achieved savings of over £30 per tonne of concentrate, resulting in total cost savings of over £35,000 in winter feed bills.
The farm takes three cuts of silage over 230 acres of grassland and also grows 100 acres of maize. The wet weather conditions did not help last year’s crop but 2013 has resulted in good growing conditions and this year maize yielded 15-16 tonne per acre.
Seed-bed cultivations was undertaken by farm staff and Stannington-based contractor J O Straughan, planted the maize crop under plastic according to Mick. “Increasingly, maize is an essential part of modern dairy cow nutrition and we are looking to capitalise on the crop within the herd diet. Over the next few years we are targeting yields of up to 10,000kgs and increasing our cow numbers to above 400 head,” he concluded.