Farm Profile: 'It’s a fine balance between what you are feeding in the robots and what you are feeding in the field' by Emily Ashworth, Farmers Guardian
The Lowe family have had a few tough years, but after investing half a million pounds in a new shed and two robotic milkers, their business is looking better than ever. Emily Ashworth reports.
At just 29 years old, Katy Lowe has had a somewhat emotional journey back into the family dairy business, returning home to School Farm, Sandbach, Cheshire, in 2014, after deciding London life was no longer for her.
Given both her sisters, Clare and Sarah, had no interest in taking over the farm, the idea was to work in partnership with her dad, David, who had run the business organically since 1999.
She had always known, says Katy, that she would probably end up back there, but the circumstances she found herself in were anything but predicted.
After having worked back at School Farm for only a couple of weeks, Katy’s dad sadly and unexpectedly passed away, leaving Katy to take the reins and look at carrying out some of the plans her dad had been putting together, including designs for a new cubicle shed and introducing robots.
“Dad had a few minor health issues and I got to the point where I thought, what am I waiting for?” says Katy.
“I wanted to come home eventually and if the farm was about to change, I may as well be involved with that from the start.
“I paid for my parents to have a weekend away, as they hadn’t had a break and dad died in his sleep, having suffered a gastric bleed.
“We weren’t expecting it at all.”
Katy and her mum, Caroline, admit there was never any talk of selling the farm after David’s passing and they continued to develop what has become an investment of close to £500,000.
The Lowe family owns 60 hectares (150 acres) and rents a further 40, running 130 Friesians and crossbreeds, yet is working towards breeding pure British Friesians.
Katy says: “When dad expanded the business in 2006, organic cows were difficult to buy in, so we ended up with some Jerseys from Cornwall and some Holsteins from Glasgow. He also bought in some Swedish reds and shorthorns.”
They currently calve all year, but have altered their breeding policy over the years.
“After dad passed away, we changed to a Genus RMS programme because there was only me and it wasn’t easy to catch the cows bulling,” she says.
“It worked, the cows were in calf and we had no issues with fertility, but it just didn’t work because you have to have all the cows in the shed at one time of day, which the robotic grazing system does not allow for.
“I’ve just done an AI course and will be doing it myself going forward, along with some support from my Mum’s partner, John, who is a farmer himself.”
They’re currently using sexed Friesian semen on the heifers with a Hereford bull to sweep and a mix of Friesian and Aberdeen Angus semen on the cows.
Having switched to organic status in 1999, Katy has never farmed any other way and is keen to carry on the way her dad who, says Katy, ‘always liked to do something a bit different,’ did before her.
Caroline, formerly a nurse, says: “We were never keen on antibiotic tubes and there were a couple of years we grew corn and never got to spray due to the weather. It did well regardless and we liked the ethos. Financially it suited us too.”
It doesn’t come without its own problems, though.
Katy says: “The challenges are, for example, if you get a bad cell count problem, you are a lot more limited in how you can treat it and you have to be mindful of that, using a more holistic approach.
“We’ve never blanket treated our cows at dry off anyway and, if you do have a seriously ill cow that needs treating you can, of course, with the right vet advice.”
Katy installed two Lely robots in 2016, which can milk up to 140. The cows are free to graze and independently make their way to the cubicle shed to be milked, monitored by electronic collars which then push them back into different fields.
She says: “Dad had been looking anyway, as the old parlour was over 25 years old and only eight a side.
“The cubicle shed wasn’t big enough and I think dad thought I wasn’t going to come home, so he had to make a decision.”
Now the farm boasts a new cubicle shed with a slurry pit running underneath, robotic scrapers, an automated footbath, a grazeway gate and new bulk tank.
The herd is lower yielding due to the organic system and, although the robots suit the farm, there have been various issues, especially with grazing.
“This year, we have really put our all into getting the cows to graze properly,” says Katy.
“When you’re grazing outside, it’s such a fine balance between what you are feeding in the robots and what you are feeding in the field, and how much grass you are allocating to make them come back at the right times.
“If you give them too much they’ll just sit down in the field and if you don’t give them enough they’ll come back too soon. Because they’ve not got milking permission, it will then send them back to the same field.”
Milking average differs between summer and winter, milking on average 3.2 times a day in winter and 2.2 in summer, averaging 6,591 litres per year.
All milk is sold to Belton Cheese at Whitchurch, a family-run cheese business the Lowes have always been in contract with, since their organic conversion.
After losing her dad, Katy says she can’t remember the end of 2014 and a lot of 2015, but the situation led her and her mum to talk more openly about future succession plans.
“We’ve spoken about it a lot – it gave us the impetus to. We have short, medium- and long-term plans in place now,” she says.
“At first, we couldn’t find dad’s will, so we did have a panic.
“But you should try to plan for the unexpected because you can’t expect that everyone is going to live to 80.
“You need to think about every generation on the farm too, because they’ve all got their part to play and what happens if any one of them is removed?”
And for Caroline, it has spurred her on to look at the way she deals with such documents.
“I’ll re-do my will again in five years, but it’s easy to think that and then all of a sudden, 10 years have gone by.”
The next major project for Katy is turning one of the old cubicle sheds into a calf rearing shed.
Katy sells all bull and beef calves through Market Drayton or Beeston market and rears all her own replacements. This is something she really enjoys, gaining great satisfaction when they join the herd.
She also wants to work towards autumn calving, partly due to the land conditions but also to work more in tune with the robots.
She says: “We have a really dry, sandy farm, so growing grass in the height of summer is normally problematic. It seems easier to manage fresh cows on the robots when they’re inside and to train the heifers when they’re in the shed.”
And although Katy was dealt a devastating hand when she made her comeback, the system she now has in place would certainly be something her dad would be proud of.
She says: “In hindsight, I am so glad I came home early because I had made the decision to come home for myself and not in the midst of tragedy because I had to.
“Mum and I are so glad we’ve been able to achieve what we have in the last five years and are looking forward to what the future holds. With three daughters, I am sure there were many times when Dad doubted the future of School Farm, but I haven’t let gender be a barrier, something that has become easier, even over the last couple of years.
“I’m sure Dad would be thrilled to know we have continued with all his plans, despite it being an uphill struggle at times, and I hope he would be proud to know that his legacy at School Farm lives on.”
- Owns 61 hecatres (150 acres) and rents a further 40 ha (100 acres)
- Calves all year but looking to switch to autumn calving
- Sells all milk to Belton Cheese
- Uses two Lely Astronaut robotic milkers, milking twice a day
- All cows are grass fed and grazed outdoors February to October