A dramatic change in farm system has led to the revival of a family business in Tiverton, Devon. Neil Weston tells us his inspirational story.
Neil’s great-great-grandfather, who was a tailor in the village of Bampton, bought Kersdown Barnton for his son in 1904 and started with a few sheep and some Devon cattle.
Fast forward to the 1960’s, Neil’s dad, William, who was in his teens, had seven milking cows, sheep, beef, chickens and an orchard of apples from which they made cider and sold locally in Taunton.
William began his journey with seven Jersey cows, by 1984 he grew the herd to 30 Jerseys, 300 ewes and 20 pedigree Devon cows and built a six-point abreast parlour. For the next 20 years they made a living selling meat, milk and cream on a round they established themselves.
Neil’s mum oversaw the retail side of this business but sadly passed away in 2000. William then needed to find staff to cover the extra labour, but financial struggles led to the decline of the business.
Meanwhile, Neil was at university in Reading. After he gained a degree in Rural Resource Management, he began working on the university farm, which was running Holsteins on an indoor system, calving all year round.
Changing to once-a-day saves the family business
In 2004, Neil wanted to expand his knowledge and asked the university for three months leave to go to New Zealand. They agreed and he found himself working on a grazing farm in Matamata, Waikato, during their busy spring calving period.
At the time of Neil’s trip, a lot of research was being done into once-a-day milking and Neil quickly realised this could be what the struggling family farm needed.
By 2011, with a £50,000 overdraft, the family decided change was needed and costs had to be cut. William took a step back in 2015, leaving Neil to manage the family farm, milking 80 Jerseys twice a day and keeping the pedigree Devons and sheep.
Neil says: “The workload became too much as dad was getting older and increasingly, I was having to do more and more on my own. I realised something had to give.”
Neil decided to implement what he learned in New Zealand, milking once-a-day, spring calving, utilising the grass and removing all concentrate from the cows’ diet to cut costs.
“In the first year we took a little bit of a hit but I already knew this was going to happen. After this the cows responded and after three years of milking once-a-day, we were better off than we had ever been financially,” he says.
Jersey cows best suit the system
On the farm today they have 100 Jersey cows milked through their new parlour which was built in 2017 and calve two thirds of the herd in the first three weeks. They have a grazing platform of 88 acres (36 ha).
Neil says “We stuck to Jersey because they are best suited for once-a-day milking and as the cows have to walk up to 1.2km per day in the hills, it is important we have no problems with lameness.”
The cows are yielding 3,000 litres at 5.5% fat and 4.5% protein, resulting in 300kg of milk solids which is achieved with no concentrate.
William began by buying in Jersey replacements and used beef on the whole herd, however this meant they were not breeding their own replacements. Buying in cows came with a host of disease issues and other problems, so Neil switched to using AI with conventional Jersey semen for six weeks, then Jersey bulls for the remaining six weeks.
“We picked LIC for our Jersey genetics because not only do they have the index for once-a-day cows, but they also focus on feeding a grass diet”.
Jersey veal product solves a problem
However, producing their own replacements using conventional semen posed the challenge of producing Jersey bull calves. Neil did not want
to euthanise the bull calves as he felt this was a waste and saw the potential value they possessed. He wrote to River Cottage and every Michelin Star restaurant in the country to find a market for his Jersey veal.
He also visited local farmers markets and made a website to help promote the product. They began supplying a restaurant chain in London which gave their product extensive exposure.
“Pre Covid, we had some of our best times in this market, we even had to buy extra veal calves to keep up with orders.
“Unfortunately, with 90% of our customers being restaurants, during the pandemic we lost this market, and trying to get it back was unviable given the economic situation post pandemic,” he says. Their veal now goes to butchers in London, online sales and some to local restaurants.
Neil has secured the future of the family business, his determination, open-mindedness and willingness to try something new has brought the family business back from the brink.
“I wanted to make sure this farm only ever relies on one person, due to labour being hard to find and expensive, but still want to maintain a profitable business. We have also converted two barns that needed attention on the farm, which we rent out to future proof the business if the day comes where I can’t milk cows – I will still have an income,” he says.