Four years on from embarking on an expansion plan to double dairy cow numbers at Hesket Farm, Dacre, on the edge of the Lake District, Matt and Sue Bland have achieved most of their objectives while at the same time have maintained milk yields.
The couple who farm 277 acres of mixed soil type, running from 600ft to 920ft above sea level, one of the few remaining dairy units in the Lake District National Park, became one of six RDPE Livestock Northwest Programme monitor farms in Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire in 2009 and they have had input from both experts and farmers on how to improve their farm’s profitability.
The programme comes to a close in July, and Matt and Sue have expanded the herd from 150 to 300 cows by buying in mostly fresh heifers from France, Germany and Denmark.
As part of the programme, they set business and performance targets with Promar’s Paul Henderson, vet Victor Oudhuis of Paragon and SAC senior dairy and nutrition consultant Jimmy Goldie, based at Crichton Royal, Dumfries.
Key areas targeted have included making better use of home grown grazed grass, conserved grass and wholecrop which has reduced concentrate use without compromising yield or fertility.
Managing herd health, paying particular attention to transition cows and cow mobility, has also been a major focus.
The exercise has also given Matt and Sue added confidence to manage and expand the business and to employ a full time member of staff, cowman Marcus Fox.
Prior to joining the programme, the Blands installed a new parlour with computerised feeding system and shedding gates. A new dry cow building was also erected and more recently the cubicle housing was extended with a new building.
The Blands decided to sell off their youngstock to help fund the expansion and maximise acreage.
Jimmy Goldie said Matt and Sue had managed their expansion plan well. “It will always take longer than you anticipate. Matt and Sue with the help of Promar devised a business plan and they have stuck to it with some modifications as it progressed,” he said.
“It’s a difficult decision when expanding as to what comes first - a new parlour or cows - but avoid overstocking a building. I believe a building has a ‘capacity for milk’ and this has been proven recently when producers have been culling cows because of shortages of feed but their milk production has not been reduced.”
Matt and Sue have maintained yields at around 8,200 litres over the last two years, despite buying in cows for the flying herd.
Milk from forage has increased dramatically over the period rising from 1,868 litres a cow in February 2011 to 2,677 litres in February this year.
One of the first meetings held at Hesket Farm in 2010 looked at getting more from grass. New paddocks have since been created and smaller grazing areas allow the cows to be moved more regularly. Grass is also monitored by a plate meter.
Cows are now split into four groups by yield and fed accordingly. Dry cows are now fed a dedicated ration form the Keenan feeder. Early lactation cows and dry cows are not grazed - only low yielders are turned out.
Spending time and money on transition cows and cow mobility under the guidance of Victor Oudhuis has helped to improve the cows’ ability to graze and utilise feed better.
As a result, more than half the herd now has the highest mobility score of 0-1 with only a few still at score 3.
Management of transition cows has also been a target. The new dry cow building at Hesket Farm now needs further expansion to house the 60 dry cows in the herd of 300, allowing nine to 12 square metres of space per cow and a feed space of 70cm per cow.
Victor said the target calving index was 390 - significant reductions have been made since 2011 when was running at 436 days and it is now at 407 days. A simple assessment of which transition cows were not doing well was to monitor which were not eating, he said.
Significant improvements had also been made in mastitis by adopting a proper drying off protocol. Improved parlour hygiene had also reduced environmental mastitis to keep cell counts running at below 200,000.
The Blands’ ultimate aim is to consolidate the herd to achieve optimum production, increase the slurry storage and then invest in cow tracks. In the long term, the aim is to expand to a 400 cow herd, with an additional 100 cubicles and loose boxes and expand the transition housing.
With experience over the expansion period so far, Matt said: “If we were starting again, we would increase cow numbers in one go rather than staging it over an 18 month period. This would aid cash flow by increasing income and reducing some of the financial pressures sooner. Managing cash flow has been one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.
The monitor farm programme has been delivered in Cumbria by Cumbria Farmer Network, with Myerscough and Reaseheath colleges managing the farms in Lancashire and Cheshire respectively.
Kendal milk producer David Martin has gained invaluable knowledge from the farmer meetings he has attended and, in particular, the DairyCo Milkbench+ meetings.
“I have been using the benchmarking system for three years and receiving the data to compare the farm’s performance,” said David, who has been expanding the pedigree Holstein herd at Lords Plain, Levens, to 225 cows over the last couple of years.
“Since I have been attending the meetings over the last two years organised by the Farmer Networkå it has been much easier to see my business’s strengths and weaknesses in discussion with other producers.
“As a result, I have looked closely at variable costs and improved herd profitability.”
It is hoped that the Milkbench+ producer meetings can continue after the programme ends.