Young farmer’s aspirations change direction of family farm

Niall Tewson is a second-generation farmer who wanted to put his stamp on his family farm near Ipplepen in Devon. A trip to New Zealand persuaded him a dairy unit on the family’s beef and sheep farm might be the way to do it.

Niall’s father Mike is a first-generation farmer, taking over the tenancy of 300-acre Crokers Grange Farm in 1993 before subsequently buying the farm and establishing a successful beef and sheep enterprise.

Niall has always got on well with his father and views their relationship as being one of close friends as well as father and son. “There had always been this feeling between us I would want to make my own mark on the farm,” said Niall. “My father was open to the idea, so with me having the ambition and being known to be stubborn, I suppose it was inevitable!”

Following a trip to New Zealand, Niall became sold on the idea of establishing a dairy unit, and the decision to turn this into a reality was taken in early 2021. “It was always an appealing option, due to its potential for optimal cash flow and business progression,” he commented.

Niall opted for Jersey cows due to the need for good milk solids content to secure a contract, but soon realised they were also better suited to the farm than Holsteins due to the dry climate and their emphasis on grazing. Looking for good health traits and genetics to enable the sale of heifers as another potential revenue stream, they sourced 130 cows from a single Danish farm, which also helped reduce their disease risk.

Fortuitously, in 2019, they had established a new greenfield site for beef and sheep which became ideal location for the dairy unit. There was, however, a lot of work to be done.

“The area underwent a massive overhaul as we didn’t have any dairy infrastructure, the land having been tailored to sheep husbandry,” explained Niall. “We had to build everything from scratch - tracks, feed troughs, milking parlour - as well as retraining our staff.”

Despite these challenges, the transition was an overwhelming success with just a 73-day turnaround between lambing sheep in April 2021 to milking cows by July. The dairy unit, operating as South Devon Dairy, has now completely replaced their beef enterprise and the number of ewes has reduced from 2000 to 800.

“We were fortunate to do this when we did as the inflated energy prices and other costs hadn’t crept in by then,” said Niall. “We also gained a very good price for our livestock which helped fund the parlour and building work. It would have been very costly otherwise, so we recognise we were lucky.”

“We are seeing many more challenges now, 18 months in, than when we started, mostly around cost,” he continued. “To mitigate this, we are looking to install solar panels, but also other means of keeping the cost of production down, such as bringing foot trimming and artificial insemination in-house and increasing our milk from forage, relying less on imported feed.”

About the venture, Niall concluded: “I have loved every second. Stepping out of my dad’s shadow has been great for self-development and has pushed me into different areas, allowing me to direct my own future.”