By Debbie James

The journey to running a large-scale dairy herd has been an unconventional one for James Evans.

As a teenager, James dreamed of becoming an actor, honing that talent on stage with the YFC.

But, having failed to secure a university place to study drama, he took umbrage and set off for Canada, where he spent a year working as a skiing instructor at Whistler.

He describes that period as a “good life experience’’ but the interest in farming he thought he didn’t have surfaced so he headed home and enrolled at Harper Adams where he studied agriculture.

“I went there knowing nothing and perhaps left knowing even less because I failed the degree!’’ he laughs.

But what he did gain from the course was an excellent industry placement with a feed company in Nantwich, where he developed an interest in feed rationing and gained a good understanding of the materials fed to dairy cows.

James also milked every other weekend, at his family’s 385 hectare (ha) mixed farming business at Llangedwyn, Oswestry.

His ‘lightbulb moment’ – when he first realised that he genuinely wanted to farm – came in August 2013.

“We sat down as a family and discussed the future and I decided then that I wanted to give farming a go,’’ recalls James, who was given responsibility for the dairying side of the business.

Now aged 28, he has grown the herd from the 275 Holsteins milked in 2013 to the 630 in the herd today, aiming to expand cow numbers to 750-800 in the next 18 months.

Cows are fully housed and milked three times a day – at 5am, 1pm and 9pm – producing an average milk yield per lactation of 12,200 litres at 3.7 per cent butterfat and 3.3 per cent protein.

One of James’ first decisions was to introduce three-times-a-day milking – that resulted in an immediate and big improvement in milk yield.

As the business is seeking to drive up cow numbers, 45 per cent of the herd consists of first lactation heifers.

James is using genetics to improve the herd. “We want animals with better fertility and longevity and genetics can help us to achieve that,’’ he believes.

All heifers are genomically tested as a means of assessing traits such as health, type, milk and constituents, to inform decisions on which animals to breed herd replacements from.

Cows are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) twice a day, with 55 per cent of the ration coming from homegrown silage and maize, topped up with a high-quality protein blend, rolled wheat, liquid feeds, protected fats and a bespoke mineral blend to create a balanced ration.

For the last two years, a multicut silage system has been in place in an attempt to improve forage quality and drive cow intakes to 12-12.5kg a head a day.

About 25 per cent of the 162ha silage platform is reseeded annually using a 50/50 mixture of diploid and tetraploid varieties with narrow heading dates, from May 28 to June 4, to ensure everything grows at the same rate.

Another key focus for James has been developing staff to create a strong workforce; this includes varying the responsibilities for the herdsman and the dairying team, such as including foot trimming and fertility work.

“It is motivational and it is also beneficial to the business,’’ he says.

James is a former winner of the NFU Cymru/NFU Mutual Welsh Dairy Stockperson of the Year Award, a competition which recognises the important contribution a good dairy stockperson can make to a dairy enterprise, as well as the wider Welsh dairy industry.

For James, protocols are key to getting the best from the herd.

“We have consistency in our day to day jobs, for instance we have a specific day of the week for a vet visit and another for drying off. We also have protocols for footbathing and generally keeping stock neat and tidy.’’

James farms with his father, Martin, and brother Josh. As well as the dairy herd, the business, known as the Martin Evans Group, also has a contracting business, a broiler unit and an agricultural construction company.

Martin, James and Josh have responsibility for different areas of the business but they work well as a team.

“There is a little bit of something for everyone, we work well together but we all have our own areas of responsibility,’’ says James.