Reducing the gap between producers and the public perception of farming, was the main outline of the LEAF open farm Sunday held at Hillhead of Covington, on behalf of the Baillie family, at Thankerton, Biggar.

The 400-cow Holstein herd is in the capable hands of William and Jennifer Baillie, and William’s mother, Janet, as well as the next generation already coming through – Abbie, Eva and Finlay – who have all had their hands on deck on the run up to the event.

Opting into the LEAF open farm Sunday format ensured the family were able to explain the story behind their food, how farming affects everyday lives and to get these messages across to the public.

After the success of the challenge the Baillies had with the virtual open farm Sunday format last year – which consisted of videos of the everyday routines on the farm throughout the week as opposed to a virtual farm tour like many others – the team were able to welcome actual visitors on farm this year.

“We couldn’t believe how well it went down and the number of hits we were getting per video created a floor for discussion and we loved to see the public engaging so much with it,” said Jennifer.

“Our aim of the day was to educate and link with the public to share where our produce comes from and how much work is really involved in supplying milk to the shop shelf. Welcoming consumers onto our farm makes us aware that we are not very good at marketing what we do well as an industry.

“Some people ask questions that you don’t even realise exist and it is important we engage with them to reduce the gap between the public and the industry,” said William.

Jennifer added: “The feedback was all positive at the open day, people were just asking questions and understanding the process of the milk and the ones we spoke to seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed it. We didn’t realise how little they knew about farming and the value and work involved in all dairy products.”

This year, a one-way route was in place through the farm, passing via the calves, milking cows, parlour and sheds, to finish off in the food barn to get their hands on some of the family’s own milk and milkshakes, home reared beef burgers and sausages were available on the BBQ hosted by Biggar YFC. If visitors wished, they could also have gone a 3.5km Clyde walk and a ‘meet the agronomist’ feature.

There was something for everyone of all age groups and backgrounds, with a bus load of people with learning disabilities attending as well as young children, all to boost their knowledge in agriculture.

“There was something for everyone and the public could do it at their own pace, we wanted them to have their own freedom on our farm to take it all in,” said Jennifer, who added that they had 260 attendees throughout the day, even when following the government guidelines in regard to Covid-19.

There was a member of staff at each station to answer any questions that arose and to ensure social distance was obeyed at all times.

“Restrictions of numbers was probably our biggest challenge, although we had plenty of space and no issues of overcrowding, we would have loved to welcome even more people into our home. Tickets sold fast through our social media audience before even getting in contact with schools,” said Jennifer.

William added: “Although we were restricted, having tickets gave us an estimated number as to what to expect, which helped with the planning and preparation of the event.

“Overall, we were delighted how the event went and hope that everyone who did attend took some more knowledge away with them to share how the cows are happy here at Hillhead of Covington. We couldn’t have done it without all of our family and friends that have given us help and support, it has been greatly appreciated.”

After the busy run up to the event, the Baillies will still be kept on their toes running 400 cows – predominately Holsteins – across 400 acres at Hillhead of Covington, now onto their second cut of four of silage.

For the past three years, cows have been kept inside all year round on a zero-grazing system, however this year the team made the decision to trial the low yielders outside this summer to see how they thrive, to help reduce costs and everyone likes to see cows outside.

Calving takes place all year round with one third of the cows using same sexed semen, with heifer calves retained in the herd for breeding, whilst the remainder of the cows will go to either the British Blue, Limousin or Aberdeen-Angus for adding value to the calves. Beef calves will be sold at four weeks old with the majority going through Lawrie and Symington’s Lanark centre.

“Selling the beef calves adds value to the enterprise and it is important we don’t have our eggs all in one basket. This year especially, trade has been a flyer, calves have done well and will have averaged more than £300 at four weeks of age,” said William.

The main enterprise of the business lies in the milk contract with Yew Tree Dairy, which the family supplies most of their milk to. And there’s plenty of it as the cows are averaging 11,500 litres annually at 4.1% BF and 3.3% P. All of which comes via the 24 x 24 Boumatic fast exit parlour, where the cows are milked three times a day.

The latest innovation was adding two milk vending machines to the mix, which are located at Tinto Tea Rooms at the bottom of Tinto Hill, Thankerton, and in the local shop, Brownlies, in Biggar.

Supplying the whole milk, as well as three flavours of milkshake – strawberry, banana and chocolate – and their weekly special flavour, are all available in either the 1-litre, or 250ml reusable glass bottles.

“It is great to see the age group of late teens and into early 20s enjoying the milk-based products and increasing the popularity of milk. The main purpose behind it was for local consumers to buy their everyday milk from us, which has certainly been the case for many,” said William.

“During lockdown, it was busier than ever with consumers looking for something different, which was great to see. It has begun to slacken off a little now, however it is much more manageable for us,” he added.

“We underestimated the amount of work involved in the vending machines, so it has been a challenge, but we seem to thrive on stress,” said Jennifer. “Although this is a very small part of our business, we would love to expand this side of the enterprise, but it is a large investment to start up and is a totally different process for us – from the added workload, to complying with the food hygiene and testing. You don’t realise the work behind the face of it.

“We have expanded production by quite a bit over the last 25 years and we are beginning to get to full capacity for what the farm can carry, however we can never stand still we always need to be thinking about future proofing our business,” commented William.

Jennifer added: “Ultimately, we need to be cost efficient and at the end of the day that is continuing to produce milk and looking into how we can add value to what we produce.

“The dairy industry should have a strong future, producers will continue to shrink, and the volume of milk will increase, considering the UK is not self sufficient in dairy products there should still be room for expansion. However, that lack of processing capacity in the country remains an issue.

“The public perception of farming is an ongoing challenge and as farmers we must all make a conscious effort to promote what we do well,” agreed William and Jennifer.

Farm Facts:

Involved: William and Jennifer, and William’s mother, Jan.

History: Purchased the farm in 1996.

Livestock: 400 Holstein cows.

Acres: 400 acres, majority grass to be fed silage with some cereals for whole crop.

Milk: Contact with Yew Tree Dairy as well as the expansion of the milk vending machines.

On the spot questions:

What are you most looking forward to with the easing of restrictions? It would be great to catch up properly with friends and family. As well as the worry of a member of staff testing positive for Covid-19 and the team would have to self-isolate, it is a real risk and we have been lucky so far and look forward to not having to worry about it.

Best investment? Coming to Hillhead of Covington.

If you could change one thing, what would it be? Control and management of the weather.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time? Still here and working hard. We are always looking for a new challenge, that has got to constantly change and progress the farm.