Thursday, 28 November 2019

Case study: Behind the scenes at Kirkhouse Farm

Edward Dean, AHDB Strategic Farmer based in Cumbria
Cumbrian farmer Edward Dean and his son Ollie joined the Strategic Farm network in 2017, the year the initiative was launched for beef and lamb farmers. Their aim was to improve the overall efficiency of the farm business. Showing their innovative thinking, Edward has recently been praised on his addition of a new portable mast on his farm, which transfers valuable performance-monitoring data from his Limousin herd in the field back to the farm’s computer using a cloud storage facility.

Kirkhouse Farm is a 154ha farm in Cumbria with a flock of 200 commercial Texel ewes, 100 Cheviot, 20 pedigree Dutch Texels and a mix of nine rams. Edward’s father used to run the farm as a dairy enterprise until 2001, when foot and mouth ended dairy production and a decision was made to change the focus to meat. Now with 130 cows, and four Limousin bulls, Edward has spring and autumn calving and sells his cows as stores at 12 months old through auction.

What inspired you to join the Strategic Farmers network back in 2017?
We saw it as an opportunity to improve what we do on the farm and make it more sustainable, and ultimately improve profits. Self-sufficiency is key, especially without subsidy we knew it was going to be a challenging time moving forward.

How have you found the Strategic Farming community and events?
Everyone is very chatty and welcoming. At events there’s always lots of discussion and sharing of ideas. In our industry, people don’t tend to talk about problems they are having, but at the events everyone opens up a lot more and discusses what they are faced with and get lots of suggested solutions and ideas. 
I remember the first event we held, we were surprised at how many people turned up and how far they had travelled. As the events have gone on, I have noticed that the conversation has moved from a general discussion to more technical questions and deeper discussion. Everyone is more vocal about what they do and pointing out what they think we should do, and there have been some good suggestions which have really helped.

What changes have you made to your farming methods?
·       We have focused on herd health by using EBVs to select for AI
·       With our Texel flock, we have improved fertility by body condition scoring the ewes pre-lambing which has helped to control lamb size and improve ease of lambing
·    We have also started a screening and eradication scheme for Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) and Johne’s disease
·   The calving period has improved, we now have a distinct gap between spring and autumn calving
·       Following the soil analysis, which was done at the start of the process, we have started using a targeted fertiliser application which has reduced costs
·      We have also seen the benefits of using Farmbench to help calculate costs. Whilst it is not always an enjoyable task, it has proved imperative to the business and has helped us to prepare for the future.

Do you have any advice for new members starting in the Strategic Farming network?
Make full use of everything on offer, whether it’s the resources from AHDB, advice from others in the network or other events to attend. Try everything, some things will work and some things won’t. We have learnt quite a lot through the program, and we are still changing things now. It can take time to see the outputs from the changes you make, three years in and the changes are only just now taking effect. 

Ollie Dean, AHDB Strategic Farmer 
Ollie is 21-years-old and has been farming with his dad part-time since his early teens. This year he graduated from Newcastle University having studied agriculture and is now working full time on the farm with Edward.

Do you face resistance when it comes to suggesting change?
We quite often disagree on things but bringing a difference of opinion prompts discussion and makes you question the way you are doing things, which can only be a good thing. It’s good to change and improve what we do. Often when I’d come home from university, dad would generally be happy to make changes as long as I could explain and justify why I think it should be done. I’ve predominantly taken on the sheep side of the business more, which has involved looking at body condition scoring throughout the year as this was the focus of my dissertation. I now BCS at several time points; pre-tupping, weaning and just before scanning when I treat them for fluke and this has helped to keep them at the right weight. 

Where/who do you go to for knowledge?
Everywhere really. I’ve learnt a lot from my dad and obviously a lot through university. We have an independent consultation, Debbie Brown, who visits regularly and is extremely helpful. We also go on farm visits and conferences such as the recent sheep breeders round table event. There is always something going on and we are both open to suggestions.   

Do you have much involvement with the financial aspects of the business?
Yes, I have done pretty much all the way through, although I still haven’t got my hands on the cheque book! We go through the Farmbench figures together and although I found it difficult at first, I can see the benefits of doing it and it has proved really useful knowing where we can cut costs.

How do you feel about the future of the business in the current economic climate?
There is concern about the unknown with regards to Brexit; whether there will be an increase of cheaper imports from America, which will impact the market. It’s out of our control though so all we can really do is keep improving efficiency throughout the business. The recent bad press around the red meat industry as a whole is a challenge, whether it be for health reasons or environmental reasons, and it is disappointing to see us all being tarred with the same brush. Whilst this may be an ongoing topic, at least it has provided a platform for us to promote and shout about how our farming methods are different and more sustainable here in the UK, now all we need is for more people to listen and understand.