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What if you could find the time to plan for the long term?

Published 18 May 09

When Richard Davies's father said he wanted to retire completely from their dairy farm it was time to take stock and look at what was really needed to help make the business run smoothly. 

But making plans for the future is hard when you're also trying to keep up with all the day to day tasks involved with running a farm.  Despite this, Mr Davies decided that if he was going to make the decisions he needed to make, a little time out was in order, and the DairyCo What If? course provided the perfect opportunity to step away from the farm, take stock, and find the best way forward for the business.

Mr Davies manages and part owns Woodbridge Farm Partnership, a 580 acre, family run dairy farm in Dorset.  The farm has 230 milkers with an average yield of 9000l, and 150 followers.  As well as liquid milk the farm also produces Dorset Blue Vinny cheese.

"My father took partial retirement from running the farm about five years ago, so I'd been managing things for some time when he said he wanted to retire fully," explains Mr Davies.  "I started to think seriously about what I needed to do to make sure we had enough labour, and how I was going to fund any changes that had to be made, and I also wanted to be sure that the mixed system we were using was right for us.

"With the possibility of increased labour costs I was also aware that I needed to maximise what I was getting from grazing.  I did the DairyCo What if? to help my decision-making - I needed to be sure in my mind that what I was doing was the best thing in terms of profitability and practicality, and I wanted to look at which areas I could improve. 

"I knew that the biggest problem I was facing was labour.  Not only was my father retiring, but our two employees were approaching retirement age, so wouldn't want to be taking on any more work.  I felt that what was needed was a full time dairyman, but I wasn't sure if the farm could afford the investment that would take.  I was at a crossroads, and wanted to make sure that whatever direction I took was going to be best and most profitable." 

The DairyCo What If? workshop is built around a revolutionary interactive computer program that offers farmers an opportunity to examine the impact of change on their own business - whether it be financial, feeding strategy, herd size or production system.

"The great thing about the course was that it gave me the opportunity to try out the different scenarios that I was considering for the farm," says Mr Davies.

"Being a 9000l herd I'm not running a high input high output system, but neither is it a low input low output one.  We are very much sitting in the middle of those two systems.  I like the flexibility this gives us, but wanted to be sure that it was the best place to be and that I wasn't compromising.

The computer program at the heart of the 'What If?' experience provides individual farm analysis at an unprecedented level and takes a fresh approach to cost calculations and nutrition in particular.

"Using the program I could try out different scenarios for the farm," explains Mr Davies. "I was able to see if I needed to increase cow numbers or yield in order to increase profitability, and if I was able to improve yield by improving my grazing.  I could also see if there were any other ways to find the income.

"The four consultants who run the course all all have different information and points of view and that meant we had great discussions and there was a real pool of knowledge.  It was great to be able to look at a whole raft of scenarios for your business, and at the potential effects of changes without actually having to do it."

"As a result of the course I learnt that there are significant benefits to profitability in using grazed grass and feeding carefully.  I have improved my grassland management, for example, through better grazing techniques.  I've also increased cow numbers, adding another 20 to the herd which has helped to maintain productivity. 

"The biggest change I made was to take on a dairyman, which has worked incredibly well.  Before I was basically in a position where I was fire-fighting, rushing round milking and tractor driving, I wasn't planning ahead or really concentrating on the figures, which is a really difficult situation to be in with the business.  With a dairyman my time is released to be more organised, and as a result I'm able to make longer term plans for the farm.  I also have a life, which is perhaps the best thing that doing the course has given me!"

Taking on a dairyman has also been good for the cows.  "They're much better managed because our dairyman is there to focus on the job.  It's been a commitment in terms of salary and house, but I will see a lot of that back through improved management and profitability.

"It's difficult to quantify the impact fully at this point as we only took our dairyman on in October, but the cows are looking and milking well, and getting into calf faster.  Their feet are better and they're in general good health, which is all really encouraging.

"The main difference that's been made is that I have time to be more organised and really plan and run the business, and that's something we all need."

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