RABDF chairman Robert Craig tells Wendy Short about how he re-evaluated his life after a personal development course.

A personal development course was the catalyst for Robert Craig to re-evaluate his lifestyle and take steps to increase farming income. Today, he oversees the management of 1,500 dairy cows across three units and has recently been made chairman of the RABDF (Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers), as well as being a director of the co-operative, First Milk.

Robert still runs the family dairy unit near Carlisle where he grew up, but his farming business looks very different.

“Our ‘Sharpthorne’ British Friesian herd bloodlines date back to the 1940s, when my grandfather moved up to Cumbria from Sussex, taking just 20 cows with him,” explained Robert, who farms with his wife, Jackie. “My father, James, was a very good teacher and like all farmers, he could turn his hand to almost anything. I could change the clutch on my car by the time I was 17.

“I wanted to study agriculture at college, but a full-time course was out of the question because there were just the two of us on the farm, so I attended on a day-release basis for five years. We had moved up to 210 cows by the mid-2000s, when we had the chance to buy the neighbouring farm. This gave us 330 acres owned with a further 40 rented.

“I had benefited from a course that drew my attention to the New Zealand dairy system, which is based on low input rotational grazing, with a focus on milk from forage. It also delved deep into more spiritual issues, like life goals and how the individual perceives success. That resonated because at the time I was 30 years old and was working ridiculous hours, seven days a week, and free time was very limited.”

By 2007, father and son were milking 380 cows at Cairnhead, Armathwaite, and producing an annual 2.3m litres of milk. The business was extremely efficient, in terms of milk per labour unit, he commented, but the workload became difficult to manage and the first full-time employee was taken on.

In 2013, he embarked on a Nuffield Farming scholarship on ‘The True Cost of Cheap Food.’

“It was another wonderful experience and I learned about sustainable local agriculture in this country and abroad. My study highlighted the nonsense of shipping food all round the world, only for 40-50 per cent to be wasted by the time it has been purchased and stored by the consumer. Travel is amazing and starting while you are young allows more time to benefit from your experiences.”

Robert had “an amazing year” in 2012, when he went into partnership with his good friend, Steve Brandon.

The Northern Farmer: Robert Craig

“We set up a dairy unit at Dolphenby Farm, near Penrith, just down the road from the home farm. Steve has just left the original partnership, creating the opportunity for the farm manager to buy in – the unit is milking 550 cows on the 270-hectare tenanted holding.”

Added to the business in 2018, the third farm is also tenanted and is sited about 40 miles from the home base, with the manager milking 500 cows on 263-hectares. All the breeding programmes are based on New Zealand or Irish genetics, with low-cost, pasture-based milk production and all but one of the herds is exclusively spring calving (the drier farm has an autumn-calving group).

“Feed is by far the largest cost to the business, so making the most of our ability to grow and manage grass is a priority,” he said. “Spring calving requires a tight calving pattern and grass must be managed with a high level of precision; we use a rotational paddock system.

“Fertiliser is another significant expense, but rates are being reduced and we have moved from 250kgs of chemical nitrogen/hectare to below 100kgs. Herbal leys and the ability of clover to ‘fix’ nitrogen are major factors and there is a set target to further reduce the figure to 50-60kgs/hectare.”

The effect of the personal development course on Robert’s career path cannot be underestimated.

“The focus was mainly on understanding yourself and what drives you as an individual. Building a clear life and business plan around my true goals has enabled me to extend my horizons beyond the family farm.

"It helped me to grow the business, maintain greater control over my time and participate in activities away from the core business. I would like to see the RABDF becoming more involved in developing our industry entrepreneurs course, offering life and business planning, and even coaching or mentoring programmes.

“My three farm managers have little to no background in farming, but they all share my passion for dairy farming and for that I count myself very fortunate. There are no current plans to take on other dairy farms, but the aim is to offer our managers their own equity stake in the business in the future,” said Robert.