An Introduction to Farming Solutions Ltd

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Alan Hughes

Meet Alan from Farming Solutions Ltd and winner of the Eagle Labs and University of Lincoln AgriTech Accelerator Pitch Day earlier this year, with their Universal Creep Feeder.

Can you tell us more about yourself and your journey so far?

My name is Alan Hughes, I am the Director of Farming Solutions LTD and a 5th generation farmer, engineer and inventor, who put his family herd TB free within 6 months of a TB breakdown, with homemade biosecurity in 2010. 

Since then, I have strived to improve farm biosecurity to reduce the spread of TB in cattle, with quality proven biosecurity products. 

In 2014 The TB Buster was successfully, scientifically tested by The Royal Agricultural University (RAU) of Cirencester.

(Throughout the duration of the three-month trial, badgers were found to be unable to access the mineral lick holder held by the TB Buster, whereas badgers regularly accessed a conventional mineral lick bucket. Additionally, the trial established that once secured, the TB Buster can withhold substantial interaction from cattle, including cattle leaning against the stand and using it as a scratching post. Dr Rhiannon Fisher, project leader and lecturer in Rural Land Use and Management at the RAU, said “This was a very interesting study and provides evidence of an effective measure that can be used by farmers to reduce contact between badgers and cattle on grazing land.”)

In 2014 after the RAU trial, Hartpury college contacted me because their farm went down with TB and requested a TB Buster, a Rumenco Badger Beater and a IAE Badger Defence Feed Trough for a trail and study of TB Biosecurity.  James Papworth was the man in charge of the testing with night vision cameras and monitoring the badger activity. His tests concluded that the TB Buster was badger proof and easy to move, while cattle could not damage it. 

With regards to the other Mineral Bucket Stands, the Rumenco Badger Beater was badger proof, but easily tipped over by cattle which removed the badger proof element, and was very difficult to move without machinery and multiple people due to its weight around 100kg. 

Lastly, that the IAE Badger Proof Trough was mostly badger proof at purchase, but badgers learned to climb over the corner of the feeder where there were no rollers and the cattle bent one roller that had to be replaced, as the badgers were getting into the feeder over the bent roller. After a year of use, the bearings rusted and stopped all the rollers turning easily and the feeder was then not badger proof at all. 

In 2016, I started manufacturing the Quick Pullers Staple Puller that can remove 6 staples in 20 seconds. So far, we have sold over 8000 Quick Pullers in the UK, to over 80 companies including Mole Valley and Wynnstay.

As a result of noticing the poor quality of creep feeders on the market and that none were badger proof, in 2016 I started work on a Badger Proof Creep Feeder that actually works.

The Quick puller got first place in The 2017 Farmers Weekly, Innovation Awards and the TB Busters Badger Proof Mineral Bucket Stand had second place at The 2017 Farmers Weekly, Innovation Awards and is the only proven biosecurity measure to stop badgers eating mineral buckets, that cattle can easily eat out of, but cannot push over. 

Our new Universal Creep Feeder was placed runner up in The 2021 Farmers Weekly Innovation Awards and second place at the 2020 TB Advisory Service Awards for innovation, with its ability to change height to feed any type or age of livestock, while reducing the spread of TB.   

I won The University of Lincoln AgriTech Accelerator powered by Barclays Eagle Labs with our new Universal Creep Feeder design, which was a huge honour and a big surprise, since there was stiff competition from 11 other innovative companies. 

All our products are internationally patented or patent pending and we are constantly developing new products in R&D to improve livestock’s health at pasture.

Why did you join the University of Lincoln AgriTech Accelerator?

I joined the University of Lincoln AgriTech Accelerator Programme as I had never had any business training, I had learned everything by doing it and I felt that my company would benefit from training on how to set my company up in a professional structure to help its future growth and profitability, while increasing my professional network.

Which entrepreneur inspires you the most and why?

I was inspired by my father, he is no entrepreneur, but he started his own small farm from scratch with very little capital, so if we needed something he had to make it himself.  I have learnt a lot from him, I was welding from 6 years of age and repairing local machinery and contracting from a young age.  When I went to college, I could already repair the machinery and do all the fabricating better than most of the teachers, which lead to several disagreements with so called engineers which had to read the manuals to know how to fix equipment, instead of knowing the fundamentals of how the equipment worked and using their own brain to fix it, as my father taught me.  It soon became apparent that going to college was just a paper exercise to get recognised qualifications.

And why did you want to start your own business?

When we went down with TB in 2010, at the time I was concentrating on agricultural contracting and making tools to make fencing easier for myself. When I could not find anything to help us go TB-free, I started researching everything I could find on how TB was spread.  I have always liked problem solving and a challenge, and the more I looked into TB, the more determined I became to do something about it.  This is when I started making equipment to help us go TB-free, and stay that way.  Since then, I have worked to help other farmers go TB-free and stay free of TB.  

It soon became apparent that I was quite good at problem solving and making not only badger proof equipment, but tools that saved a considerable amount of time for farmers.  We soon got a well-known slogan given to us by our customers, “Quality Kit which Lasts, Made by a Farmer, For Farmers”.  Since then we have gone from selling to local farmers and contractors, to wholesaling our products to agricultural merchants all over the UK, and have started licencing some for international sale.

What drives you to make your business a success? 

I want to help to make TB in livestock a thing of the past, so future generations are not losing livestock to this disease and If I am not prepared to work to rid this country of TB, why should anyone else. I have always had the attitude of if you want something done, do it yourself, so I will do all I can to reduce the spread of TB and other diseases to British livestock and if I can help international herds stay healthier, I will.

What’s been your biggest win in your entrepreneurial journey so far and why?

My biggest win was getting our Quick Puller Staple Puller stocked by 80+ companies, which has made it easier to bring new products like our Universal Creep Feeder and TB Buster to market, as they now know we make quality kit that lasts, so are happy to try the new products we make.  When using our products, the farmers can tell that they are made by a farmer, because they are well built and easy to use in a practical working environment, when lots of products aren’t up to the job.

And your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge is DEFRA’s TB strategy, they state that farmers need to know what biosecurity products work, but they do not provide adequate information to farmers to either know what works or where to get the products from.  Although I have carried out and paid for all the tests that they have requested to prove my products are badger proof, they still won’t name our products so they are easily accessible to farmers, but still use our case studies and trials, and photographs on government websites and advice, while refusing to name that we own the information they are using or that the products featured in the advice are ours. 

This makes marketing a real challenge, further hindered by the fact that farmers feel that they have both hands tied behind their back and that DEFRA should be solving TB on its own, if they are not going to let them control the wildlife on their own property themselves.  Plus, you are not allowed to use their logo on your marketing, which makes it hard to get farmers to invest in Biosecurity, which is why we show the production saving of using our products before even mentioning the Biosecurity benefits. A lot of farmers still believe that there are no forms of TB biosecurity and that there is nothing they can do about a TB breakdown.  We sell to a lot of farmers due to our production saving aspect of the products, without them even realising that its badger proof, until I show them why its badger proof.

What advice would you give to other founder thinking about starting their own business?

If I was to give any advice it would be to always know your numbers, especially your production costs and the costs and prices of your competitors, as there is no point going into business unless you know you can make money.  

I would also say you are better off making better quality products that you can sell for more money, than trying to beat your competition in a price war, as that is just a quick way to go bankrupt. You may not get every customer, but if you keep the ones, you have happy and have a good reputation, you will always get more business in the future and be able to sell products at a higher price than your competitors.

What do you think the future of AgriFood looks like and why?

Farming is changing into two types of farms, one is purely production minded where you need to produce as much food as you can in order to be profitable.  The other is ECO only, where you produce very little food, but survive of greening subsidy’s paid by the government and selling carbon off setting credits. But just how this will work is hard to say, but by changing to this style of farming I worry we are only encouraging other countries to produce more food in unsustainable ways, which will cause deforestation and worsen climate change.  

Where did you go for business advice and how did it help you?

Farmers always talk, and I listened to what they had to say! I thought about what things I needed as a farmer, products which could work better or weren’t made strong enough and started making products just for my farm.  Whenever farmers started asking where I had got the things I had made from, I ended up making more for them as well.  I sought some advice on starting up a business from the NFU, who said “there is no current biosecurity products so there can’t be any money in it”, which did put me off for several years.  Eventually I decided that this problem is too big not to try and tackle at a larger level than just my family farm, and local farmers.  I started selling the staple pullers to an independent Agri merchants as an easy starter product to get my foot in the door.

Once I started selling to the Agri shops I asked them what products weren’t very functional and needed improving, and if there was anything specific that they would like designed.  The majority complained about current creep feeders, farmers were always moaning that they didn’t last and they were poorly made.  They had to have multiple feeders to feed an animal through its life cycle, and there was nothing that was badger proof, so cattle were taking longer to fatten and were growing more slowly without creep.

This is when I started to market the TB Busters to the shops and start designing the Universal Creep Feeder, as a well-built, quality feeder that would last and feed any livestock at any age.

We have now got multiple companies placing pre-orders for our feeders, which will be launched at the end of July 2021.

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