Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mixed farm has sustainable recipe for success in Norfolk

December 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Crops, Livestock

Making the most of all assets – including muck – is helping a small dairy and arable farm support three families.

A 160ha Norfolk dairy and arable business is achieving growing success. – supporting three families despite being little more than 160ha in size.

On a scale that some farmers would consider insufficient to support a single couple, Church and Brek Farms in Frettenham provide a living for three families – as well as significant local employment just to the north of Norwich.

What’s more, the Norton family plans to bring another generation into the business within the next five years and provide for senior partners Philip and Rona as and when they wish to retire from running the farm day-to-day.

While this will almost certainly mean expanding the 55-cow dairy herd, their success is based on making the most of closely-interlinked enterprises, which support each other as well as spreading business risk.

This recipe saw the family named finalists in last year’s Farmers Weekly Mixed Farmer of the Year Award. Central to their success is close partnership with neighbouring farmers and trusted business advisers.

Productivity

“We’ve always been a mixed farm,” says Philip Norton. “It makes things more complicated. Rona and I have long believed in having our eggs in several baskets; especially when these work as well for each other as ours do.

“Bedding our dairy cows on straw, for instance, gives us the continual supply of muck that makes all the difference to the productivity of our soils and adds extra value to our cropping.”

It’s also invaluable to the health and productivity of the 9500-litre Brown Swiss herd – managed by Philip and Rona’s nephew David and wife Ruth. Meanwhile, daughter Emily is developing the Nortons’ Dairy processing business.

With low rainfall a constant worry, muck is particularly important in the arable rotation. It supports heavy crops of sugar beet, solid yields from the late-sown Dickens that follows it and good brewing premiums from Maris Otter barley.

All this is achieved with modest levels of fertilisation. It is equally appreciated here for the forage maize – grown in both the arable rotation and between silage leys – that forms a key element of the winter dairy ration.

If anything, muck is even more valuable on poorer, more drought prone land on the other side of the village where maize and winter rye are produced for local AD plants through Aylsham Growers along with Concerto spring barley for malting.

“We started with energy rye three years ago because we’d been growing maize after maize in many cases and were concerned about eyespot build-up,” says Agrii agronomist Steve Sayce who has worked with the Nortons for over 30 years.

“The Helltop has generally done us well. But brown rust really ate into its profitability last season and weed control can also be a costly challenge. So the jury is still out on whether we stick with it going forward.

“Around 35-40 tonnes/ha of muck applied each spring ahead of the sugar beet and maize makes a huge difference on both farms. Ploughed-in every two or three years –  depending on the rotation – it keeps the soils in really good heart.”

Switching to liquid nitrogen three years ago has made a major difference too. “It means even fertilisation right up to crop edges in relatively small fields and reliable crop  utilisation when it’s needed if the weather turns dry.”

Fertilisation and crop protection is as timely as possible. Equal priority is  given to the timing of sugar beet and maize harvesting and muck spreading to minimise the risk of soil damage – about which Philip is very particular.

The installation of one of the first robotic milkers in the county 10 years ago has been central to improvements which have resulted in most cows giving 10-11,000 litres – as well as impressive increases in grassland productivity.

Extra income

“We’ve been concentrating on Brown Swiss breeding for udders that are much more suitable for the machine. The bull calves also generate a reasonable extra income for us [for] a neighbouring farm which rears and finishes them.”

Not having to milk twice a day has enabled the family to devote much more time to managing grazing. Cows are given access to fresh grass every eight hours throughout the grazing season on a paddock system.

Alongside their nicely dove-tailed food and energy crop production and dairying enterprises, Nortons’ Dairy is giving the family an increasingly valuable extra string to their farming bow.

Since returning to the farm in 2006, Emily has worked with Ruth to develop the business into a thriving dairy processor marketing award-winning soft cheeses and slow-matured yoghurt further alongside fresh milk, cream and butter.

“It was only when I was studying for my masters [degree] in sustainable agriculture that I began to appreciate just how sustainable our family business really was,” she says.

Family support

“But to continue to be so and support further family members, I also came to realise we’d have to diversify beyond the holiday, residential and commercial lets we’d also been running.”

Emily started soft cheese-making in 2011 after she attended a specialist course. Her skills were soon rewarded with two gold medals in the 2012 British Cheese Awards.

From this base, Nortons’ Dairy has grown to utilise around a third of the herd’s milk and employ eight part-time staff, extending both the range and the reach of its soft cheeses.

In 2016 the family added a novel pourable yoghurt which is attracting a growing following, and last year the business took a coveted Best in Category title at the British Cheese Awards.

“We’re still small-scale but the demand we’re seeing for our offering of tasty, environmentally-sustainable dairy products from seriously pampered cows means we’ve lots of room to grow,” says Emily.

“We provide the dairy herd with an attractive milk price which has far less volatility than the external market while generating another livelihood for the family.”

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