Joining Silostop Agri: A Journey into the Future of Agriculture Sales

Joining Silostop Agri: A Journey into the Future of Agriculture Sales
My name is Sean O'Toole, I recently started with Silostop Agri in January 2023, having recently worked for a dairy hygiene company covering the Northern part of the UK. I was approached by a former colleague, Tim Brewer, the Managing Director of Silostop who wanted to expand the team.

Silostop supplied industry leading High Oxygen Barrier Silage films to help preserve more silage and use less plastic. He explained that the original Silostop business had recently been bought by Ark Agriculture a division of the family held group of Milbank companies. Ark Agriculture was involved in the manufacture and design of the unique ‘Sloping Wall’ silage clamps and the supply of Secure Covers and Windbreaks. By bringing both businesses together to form a re branded Silostop Agri team. I was excited by this opportunity to use my sales and marketing expertise within agriculture with a company who had an eye on the future.

After an initial meeting at the Silostop office in London (Shepherds Bush) to meet the team, no sheep near either! I asked the question why an office in central London? The answer was simply because of the International status of the company – all foreign customers and prospect knew where London was!

My induction period was very full on, once I had my car, phone and laptop I then flew down to Bristol to start the serious part of textbook learning and direct farm experiences.

My mentor was Lucy Johnson who had been with Silostop for some time covering the whole of the UK, just for Silostop films. The country had now been split, me doing the North and Lucy the South for all products. In addition to the North of the UK I have also been given the responsibility for some European Countries – Ireland, Italy, Iceland plus a few more.

My task was to understand the way in which all products were sold and to whom. Using a comprehensive distributor network, who I knew mostly, made the task quite easy.

I had the car, mobile phone, product literature and samples, so I was ready to go. My priority was to visit as many customers on the database in my trading area and introduce myself as the new person for the combined business.

The first show was LAMMA, held at the NEC in January, where I had the chance to meet more of the team, distributors, and farmers. This was a large machinery show, where our product was a bit lost amongst the huge and expensive shiny machinery. I learnt a lot very quickly, but again a long few days.

The next show was Dairy Tech at Stoneleigh, a very focused sector event. We were extremely busy and had some very good leads and positive feedback from existing customers, which was great.

We talked about Oxygen barrier films, the ease of using one sheet, less wastage and more usable silage. Typical waste on a silage pit can be more than 20%. That’s like one trailer in every five being dumped as waste. If we can get the waste down to single figures, then we have done a good job.

Our business has seen a big rise in the building of Anaerobic Digester (AD) Biogas plants in the last few years. These plants use a lot of forage and are industrial scale units. Whilst taking land out of food production could be seen as controversial, it can also be seen as a circular farming ecosystem too. The biosolids waste can be used as a fertiliser so no artificial fertiliser is used. The country must look for alternative power/energy sources and this is one part of the jigsaw.

We get a lot of data from AD plants, which is extremely useful when trying to convince a dairy farmer to change his silage sheet system. The data can include Dry Matter Loss, wastage on the top. Best material for weighting down silage sheets. Etc

As someone said to me before I started with Silostop ‘Preserved forage is the most important feed that goes into a dairy/beef cow’ it is something all farms grow. The use of a good silage additive to help speed up the fermentation, good ensiling techniques and good silage sheets (HOB) make the forage go further.

There is a lot of plastic still used on farms, if we can demonstrate there is a way of reducing plastic use and help the customers make better silage, then the Silostop way, has to be the way forward.

I get called to look at silage clamps, the customer thinks has more waste than they would like. When inspecting the clamps, the farmer might not have changed anything from the previous year, but the weather conditions at the ensiling time might be completely different. Last year a lot of the UK, Scotland included had some form of drought. For ensiling grass the DM can range from 20% very wet to over 30% very dry. Too dry and the grass can come in warm and dry, which makes it very difficult to compress and squeeze all the air out to encourage fermentation.

With HOB sheets we can only influence the top 1m of the clamp, but that 1m over a 20 x 50m clamp can be equivalent to 600 tonnes of silage. Evidence has shown that by using a HOB sheet, there is less DM loss (total weight) and up to 95 tonnes of silage can be saved. Silage at £45/t x 95 tonnes =£4275. This is a 6:1 return on investment, well worth a look.

As part of the business, we sell Silage Covers and Windbreaks. We use two different types of material, which are high quality and have a lifespan of 10 years + depending on how they are used.

The Windbreaks have many uses and can be a cost-effective way of protecting buildings and livestock from the extremes of the weather.

Silage Covers are in two forms Anti UV (block the sunlight and protect the silage sheet) and Secure Covers to protect the top from wind, birds, and vermin. Both products work extremely well.

My job would involve advising customers how many sheets and what sizes they need to complete their query.

All business change and evolve and we have to be able to adapt. Staff change, some businesses merge, some get taken over. Having boots on the ground helps and we can respond better to customer needs and enquiries. Having dealt with quite a few farmers with my previous company has helped me introduce Silostop and Secure Covers directly to them. Ina few instances I have sold the concept and taken an order to the distributor. This in turn, helps the distributor have confidence in the product and in turn demonstrates that this is a team effort.

I was asked to attend an open evening for one customer, where several suppliers had also been invited. It was great to interact with farmers on a less formal basis and several leads were taken.

My first trip abroad was to fly from Edinburgh to Cork to visit a potential new distributor in Eire. That went well and I was able to fly in and out in one day, all bit it, a very long one!

A few weeks later I returned to Cork to spend some time in the field with my new distributor. I spent several days going from farm to farm having the same conversation regarding lack of silage this year. All the pits seemed pretty empty, and spring couldn’t come soon enough. Irish farmers have not used HOB silage films before, and the excuse was that they wouldn’t pay the extra and that grass was coming out of there ears. How things have changed, drought, high fertilizer prices, a resurgence in dairy numbers and empty pits. Whilst I cannot control the weather, I can help them utilise more of their ensiled grass. The response was extremely positive, and we look forward to building the business in Southern Ireland.

Back in March, Tim Brewer and I were asked to visit our Italian distributor, to help with a presentation to their sales staff and help kick start their spring silage product campaign. Flying into Bologna, doing a sales meeting, travelling North to Brescia. Next day on farm, meet a new dealer and down to Rome for a second meeting and on farm. What was interesting about Italian farmers is that they had similar issues to UK/ Irish farmers. Drought, high energy costs, labour issues. They always asked the price too! Because of the drought, they were looking at planting Sorghum a leafy, nutritious fast-growing crop. Adapting to climate change is ever evolving.

Back over in Scotland, the distributors are beginning to place their orders again for the coming season, this is somewhat slower than the Southern part of the UK, who start a lot earlier. We do have some farmers in SW Scotland who can go early, but it is all weather dependant and if the grass growth is there.

A recent report showed that Scotland had 179,000 recorded dairy cows on 882 farms. Average herd size has increased to 216 and its not uncommon to see herds of 500-1000 cows anymore.

Robotics/automation is becoming more popular, which makes it easier to look after more cows with less labour. This also means that cows are housed all year round and will have more demand for silage. Silostop have the products to help.

Labour continues to be a major issue since Brexit and before. Young people don’t want to work on smelly farms, working all hours in the middle of nowhere it seems. However, for those wanting a career, agriculture has a lot to give. I have made my living involved in an industry I love working in. Farmers need to buy good products they can rely on and get sound advice. Whilst I have seen many supply companies disappear, the industry is constantly evolving. There are a lot less salesman calling on farmers, but one to one advice will always be crucial.

I am looking forward to what comes next, ‘Every day is a school day’ you never stop learning.