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Farm reaps rewards of pioneering dairy

Few business folk like the V word. Indeed, when it comes to putting together a long-term strategy for growth, volatility is positively avoided. 

James Thompson knew that milk was a volatile commodity when he poured £3 million into pedigree stock and a state-of-the-art dairy parlour at the Sansaw Estate in Shrewsbury in 2012. It came at a time when scores of dairy farmers were throwing in the towel each week, broken by the slump in price which had nearly halved within a six month period. 

But his meticulous attention to detail and forensic planning on a ‘worst case scenario’ basis meant Sansaw was able to cope with the crushing troughs and then celebrate with the dizzying peaks. 

His vote of confidence in the industry was based on running his new enterprise on a New Zealand management system.  

James, managing director of Sansaw Estates, near Shrewsbury, brought in 1,500 cows at the start and plans for a further 200 new arrivals over the next 12 months. Most unusually, the majority graze outside all year round. 

Previously, Sansaw was home to a mixed farm rearing pigs and heifers and growing vegetables and cereals. Under James’ tenure as managing director, he also oversaw the creation of the RIBA Award-winning Sansaw Business Park, now home to more than a dozen firms. 

A former Royal Marine with command experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, James carried out there years of detailed research into what was best for the location before choosing dairy. 

“We have very good grass growth here,” he explains. “It’s a huge asset to our operation and the New Zealand system enables us to make the most of it. There are a lot of milk buyers in the region, too, so that was another huge factor.” 

The investment, with the next 25 years in mind, has transformed the farm, which now boasts a 70-bail Waikato milking parlour, running seven hours a day, cow tracks and underpasses, a collecting yard and a feeding area.  

The cows are based on the New Zealand Friesian-Jersey crossbreed, but there are also Holsteins and shorthorn crosses in what James calls a United Nations of cattle.  

He sourced his stock from around the British Isles – from Cornwall to Dumfries and Galloway to Ireland. 

“I visited other spring calving herds to find what I wanted and it involved lot of travelling and also some tough negotiations,” he says. “Doing it the New Zealand way has been crucial to success because the running costs would be too high otherwise. 

“Our aim is to keep the cows outside for as much of the year as possible – hopefully from February to early December if we manage the grass right.  

“We block calve so they can go straight to the spring grass, which also contributes to keeping down our feed costs. Grazed grass is the simplest and most profitable way to produce milk.”  

More than 1,800 acres are put down to pasture with other land for silage making and crops, such as beet and kale, for when the cows are housed and not milking during the darkest days of winter. They spend the rest of the year on grass with just a little concentrate in their diet to prevent bloating when it’s wet.” 

It has attracted the interest of Harper Adams University for research on the benefits of keeping cows outside for most of the year and helped Sansaw investigate 10 offshoot routes to market, such as cheese. 

James believes that the long-term view allows the business to withstand the fluctuations of the dairy industry because of his low input costs, pointing out that is more about the cost of production than the milk price.  

“Yes, of course I look at the milk price each and every day, but while we want it to go higher - not just for us but for all the dairy farmers who break their backs in this profession - we have created a system which can cope if it hits rock bottom.” 

Investments have also included a heat recovery system with total electricity costs down to £1,500 a month and further scope for savings. 

Cows average around 5,000 litres a year and are likely to complete 5 to 10 lactations during their time at Sansaw. 

Although not from a historic farming background, James’ approach has brought about more jobs and more investment at a time when others have crumbled, highlighting the success of his project.

“There’s still a long way to go,” he reminds. “The picture is constantly moving and we have to be quick to adapt, but the foundations we have put in place have served us well.”


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