Chris Webb

A new dairy entrant

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Farming 2012-12-11

This post is one of a series featured in Farmers Guardian while I took part in the Fresh Start Dairy Academy, a farm business training and mentoring course for new entrants into dairy farming.

A newcomer to the dairy farming world, it’s quite daunting to write about my experiences in front of seasoned and battle-hardened farmers, particularly when I’ve struggled to explain my interest and motivation to my friends. Nonetheless, I’ve promised to give it my best shot.

I first set out along this road a little over four years ago, offering to help a dairy farmer friend for an afternoon. I don’t come from a farming background so must have cut a rather comic figure trying to make myself useful around the farm.

Chris Webb

Despite the steep learning curve, I quickly discovered how much I loved working with the cows, and stayed on into the evening to help milk. Within a week or two I was totally hooked and starting to learn the ropes.

Looking back, I hope my new mentor’s patience wasn’t tried too badly by the antics of his eager but inexperienced trainee! Days off were now synchronised to the dairy farming timetable, leaving home at 4:15am to be there in time for morning milking, and rolling back late at night, grubby and knackered, but ever keener to milk my own herd one day.

Each milestone was a proud moment, from mastering simple jobs like putting out straw with the loader or filling a mix in the diet feeder, to big firsts like calving a cow or milking on my own. As time went on, I started going to local talks and events, got trained-up in foot-trimming and AI, and began thinking about more full-time courses.

My non-farming background probably makes me a fairly unusual new entrant. The truth is, I chose to head into farming because I enjoy the job so much and have a strong gut feeling I can make a go of it. To some extent, I’m following my heart rather than a logical, sensible career plan building on what I’ve done before.

That said, I try not to view farming through rose-tinted spectacles. Since university, I’ve jointly founded and run several internet companies, and somewhat unfashionably for the high-tech sector, we’ve grown them as genuine, profitable businesses. Despite my enthusiasm, I have to look at dairying with the same business eye, and recognise that it’s a highly skilled, capital-intensive enterprise with tight margins, severe exposure to market fluctuations on both input and output sides, and shamefully one-sided contracts between farmers and processors.

It would be madness to assume I’ll find it easy to make a good living when so many experienced farmers are struggling to stay afloat. However, many profitable dairy units do exist, and if I’m not too impatient and make the most of chances to work with and learn from experienced farmers, herdsmen and other experts, hopefully I can try to follow in their footsteps.

The few non-farming friends I’ve told about my intentions look at me like I’ve lost what few marbles I had to begin with, so for now I mostly keep my head down, work as hard as I can at making myself useful and building my skills, and enjoy the contrast of leading a double life!