Dairy family invests £1.5m in the future of its growing British Friesian herd
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Despite the decline of the region's milk industry, the UK's most easterly dairy has "future-proofed" itself with a £1.5m modernisation - and a renewed focus on its animal assets.
The last two years have brought financial difficulties for many dairy farmers as low milk prices took their toll on profits.
But while many were forced to sell their herds or explore ways to diversify, a family firm in the Waveney Valley has taken the opposite strategy – focusing all its energy on its dairy operation to drive down costs and streamline the business for the future.
Oaklands Farm at Aldeby, near Beccles, trading as ES Burroughs and Son, has installed a 54-point rotary parlour and a new cubicle building to accommodate the expansion of its award-winning Oakalby British Friesian herd.
The arable portion of the 1,000-acre farm is now contracted out, enabling the family to concentrate on the dairy business, and about 100 acres of land was sold to help fund the £1.5m dairy investment.
As part of the two-year project, the farm has also switched to an autumn-calving system, with the cows grazing on the farm’s grassland and marshes during the summer.
David Burroughs, who runs the farm with his sister Margaret Vale, said the more efficient parlour meant the farm is now milking 330 cows in 90 minutes, twice a day. Before, it would take five hours to milk 250 cows, using the same amount of labour.
“We have got to drive costs down,” he said. “If you cannot produce milk for 25p-28p a litre, you are better off out of it.
“Four years ago, we were a mixed farm with arable land, 150 cows, free-range chickens and holiday homes. We sat down with the family and asked: ‘Where do we want to go?’ Everyone loved cows, and when you look at the area we are in we are heavily marshed, with low-lying land growing grass. “The arable unit on lighter land was never breaking record yields, so we said we would let the arable side out and let someone else worry about that, and we will put all our concentration into dairy cows, which the farm suited.
“Margaret and myself have looked to the next generation with the parlour and the land, so they can drive forward where we are leaving off.”
The farm’s next generation is represented by Mr Burroughs’ son Jamie, who runs the milking herd, daughter Lindsay Millar, who handles administration, and Mrs Vale’s daughter Andrea, who looks after the calf-rearing.
Jamie Burroughs, 29, said: “We are trying to trim the fat and look for opportunities. It has allowed us to hone in on the detail and spend more time with the cows.
“We are definitely more efficient for it. The parlour is no longer the limiting factor on the farm. It was a 150-cow unit before but now with the rotary parlour we can go up to 600, so we have future-proofed ourselves.”
Mrs Vale, 61, admitted the collapse in milk prices had not been anticipated before the investment plan was put into action, but no-one in the family had any regrets.
“We started when the milk prices were right, but you cannot suddenly put the brakes on. We’ve got no regrets. Things will come right.
“The main thing is that they (the younger generation) are doing what they want to do. They have not been pushed – it was their choice. If they had not wanted the cows, they would have gone.”
Future plans for the parlour include creating a meeting space in the upper floor of the building to generate extra income – as well as using the viewing platform to encourage school groups and public visits, including the farm’s first Open Farm Sunday event in June.
Lindsay Miller said: “It provides a safe environment with a viewing platform where children can go and watch the milking and not get in the way of anyone. It is scary how little children know, so we want to get more schools round to educate them.”
HOW A ROTARY PARLOUR WORKS
In a rotary parlour, the cow walks into a stall on a circular platform, allowing the operator to attach the milking machinery to the animal’s udders.
The carousel rotates very slowly, allowing cows to enter and exit the platform at regular intervals, while the operators remain in the same place, making milking more efficient than in more traditional herringbone parlours, especially for large farms with big herds.
The Oakalby herd’s new rotary parlour means a two-man team can milk 50 cows at a time, with the carousel taking about 10 minutes to complete its rotation.
The farm is now milking 330 cows in 90 minutes, twice a day.
The farm’s change to autumn calving was inspired by talking to other farmers at knowledge-sharing events organised in partnership with levy organisation AHDB Dairy.
David Burroughs said: “We have a discussion group with local farmers every month. We put all our figures on the table. We don’t hide anything and we just discuss how we can reduce costs. We go through everyone’s businesses to see how we can drive costs down.
“In the summer time the cows will be on a paddock grazing system, like a New Zealand system. With cows eating grass we can produce milk far more cheaper than we can by carting feed to them as concentrate.”