Farming for tomorrow by focusing on longevity and profitability

The threat of building work on their tenanted farm meant the future for Bellfield Farm in Willerby was uncertain for some eight years. While others might have battened down the hatches fearing the worst, Dave and Moyra Collinson who farm with son Philip, committed to run their business with a long-term future in mind.

Dairy Nutrition
Collinsons cows 720

They held off any thoughts of expansion or building work until the outcome of their landlord’s decision was clear, but at the same time wanted to show commitment to their business.

“A lot of farmland around here has already gone for building,” explains Dave. “Over the past eight years it has been hanging over our heads and we didn’t know what was going to happen. It’s only in the last year that we learned the landlord decided to withdraw from the process.” Moyra says: “We are now looking more to the future because that has been lifted off our shoulders.”

During that time of uncertainty they made investments in farm machinery to enable them to work independently. “It’s a major thing for us to be able to do that,” says Moyra. “It means we don’t have to rely on anyone else and when the weather is right we can get on and do the work without having to wait for a contractor.”

As well as their dairy herd they have a small arable unit producing wheat, barley and for the first time this year, beans. Some is sold off-farm and the remainder milled and mixed as part of the diet for their 80 cows in-milk plus followers.

Conformation and longevity are the focus of breeding decisions

They also continued to work on the improvement of the herd. Founded by Dave’s grandfather in 1928 their ‘Botanic’ pedigree herd was originally entirely British Friesian. However they introduced Holstein genetics around 30 years ago. The herd is now completely Holstein with a handful of Jerseys the family introduced to lift milk solids.

The family don’t milk record, but instead their approach is to score each animal individually which helps with breeding decisions. Conformation and longevity are the focus, rather than maximising yield explains Dave. “It’s important to us that we keep them for a long time.” They talk fondly of one particular cow which spent more than two decades in the herd. “She had her last calf at 20 and then lived for another three years after that!” says Moyra.

Their 10-unit abreast parlour suits them well, says Dave. He likes the simplicity of the set-up and not having to worry about repair bills as parts are easier to get hold of. “The parlour used to be just five units,but we have increased it to 10 and added in-parlour feeders to bring it up to date.”

Grazing and silaging

With 200 acres there is plenty of grass for both grazing and silage production. Some of the grazing is permanent pasture and while this makes good grazing it is not the best for silage, explains Dave. “Over the years we have found that the older grasses are not as popular with the cows. They much prefer the more modern higher sugar varieties.

We have a mixture of some five-year leys and some three-year red clover leys, with seed sourced from ForFarmers. Including silage and grazing leys in the arable rotation helps with managing soil fertility and any blackgrass issues that crop up, says Moyra. “It all helps keep the balance we want.”

Educating local people and Open Farm Sunday

They take two or three cuts for silage each year from outlying fields, choosing to graze the areas closest to home. This is particularly pertinent given their location between two villages on the edge of Hull. Their urban location has its challenges with plenty of interest from their neighbours. With a park and school opposite there are often families watching the cows. “We try to educate people where we can,” says Dave. They host visits from infant and primary schools and use other opportunities to talk to people about what they do on the farm. “People talk about Open Farm Sunday, but it feels like we are open nearly every day of the week here!”

Targeting resources to increase the farm's profitability

The cows are out at grass as much as possible during the warmer months and in straw bedded loose housing in the winter. The Collinsons have been increasingly aware of the requirements to be able to justify applications of farmyard manure on their land.

They enlisted ForFarmers account manager Philip Hayes and forage technical manager Gary Sanderson to carry out a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP). This involves extensive soil sampling and analysis. Gary explains: “Through the NMP we help farmers to better target resources where they are needed. This is especially important with the price of fertiliser at the moment – it needs to be really targeted where it will make a difference to the farm’s overall profit – plus of course we want as much quality home grown forage as possible.”

Information from the NMP helps ensure that ‘every hectare counts’ he continues. “It’s a win win all-round for the environment, soil health and the farm’s bottom line.”

Philip Hayes their account manager is also responsible for analysing their silage and calculating the necessary cake to ensure the herd’s nutritional requirements are met. “It’s a nice family farming business and a pleasure to work with them,” says Philip. “The family has coped really well with the challenges, continues to do well and I am enjoying working with them on their future plans.”

Future viability and efficiency

Farming on the urban fringe means the family is limited in terms of future expansion. “We’re not in an area where we can get bigger and bigger,” says Dave. “If anything we want to go the other way, but make it more viable by making use of our location. We’re not sure exactly what that means yet.”

Being a family farm is central to everything, they say. Dave and Moyra continue to enjoy working with son Philip and happy that their daughter Debbie is also involved when possible around her other commitments. Both Philip and Debbie have families and their own children are also keen to spend time on the farm too.

“Our approach is still very much that we live for today and farm for tomorrow,” says Dave.