Sustainable dairy at Hightown of Craigs


Finding a family with enough optimism to invest significantly in a new dairy set up, against a backdrop of declining herd and cow numbers, is far from easy, but brothers Tom and Edward Martin also have the vision to develop a sustainable system on their parents’ Alastair and Susan Hightown of Craigs farm near Dumfries .

It was Tom and Edward Martin returning to the family farm that provided the catalyst to move into dairy farming.

“With the boys joining the business, we knew we would have to look closely at the system to ensure we were sustainable and I had always had the idea at the back of my mind about running a dairy herd,” said Alastair.

The farm comprises 175 hectares of owned land with an additional 260ha rented nearby. The system had been based on suckler beef and cereals, with 160 Limousin and Aberdeen Angus crosses put to Charolais or Limousin bulls, with two thirds calving in the spring with the balance in the autumn. Heifers are sold as stores with bulls being finished at 14-months-old. In 2018, they made the decision to move into dairying to run alongside the suckler herd.

Dairy farming is not totally new to the family. Alastair had milked cows when he was younger while both sons had more recent hands-on experience of dairying while at college. Tom worked on the Langhill herd while at Edinburgh University while Edward spent time with the dairy cows at Crichton Farm and Barony College.

A well thought out plan

Every detail of the dairy system was carefully planned with a clear view on future expansion. It is based on block-calved dual-purpose cows with milk produced for a constituent-based contract with First Milk. The unit has been designed to make the most of the attributes of the farm while allowing an efficient and well-managed herd. Technology and data are at the heart of the system.

“With a clean sheet we could look long and hard at system and the type of cow we wanted to suit the system,” Alastair explains. “The farm lends itself to a grazing-based approach. We can grow grass well and soil conditions mean we can aim for a March turn-out.

“We needed a breed that is easily managed and would graze well. At the same time, we wanted a breed that would dovetail with our beef enterprise, which led us to look at a dual-purpose breed and eventually we decided on Fleckviehs. As well as suiting the system, we know more producers are looking to dual purpose cows so we think there could be a good market for selling breeding cattle once we hit our target herd size.

“To exploit the potential of grazing, the cows calve in August and September which also means we maximise the seasonality bonus included in our contract which can be worth around £17,000 per year. We plan to keep the calving block as tight as we can, ideally 10-12 weeks. We know the Fleckvieh has good fertility and breeding is managed by Genus RMS to ensure good pregnancy rates.

From an initial 33 heifers imported from Holland which calved in August 2019, the family is currently milking 135 cows, but the plan is to increase cow numbers to 200 within seven years with a 20% replacement rate. Cows will mainly be home reared but this year 17 pure-bred purchased heifers will calve down. The target is to average 7000-7500 litres at 4.7%BF and 3.5%P.

A parlour to match their plans

The unit has been developed to match the system and allow an efficient operation, and in total they have invested £450,000 in the dairy buildings, a calving shed and the parlour and equipment.

At the heart of the unit is a 160ft by 40ft building which houses the parlour, dairy, collecting and handling pens plus the dairy office. Cows are cubicle housed with a central feed passage. A new calving shed has also been built.

Making the right choice about how to milk the cows was a fundamental decision. They decided to opt for a conventional parlour because they felt that robots did not suit a summer-grazing herd well enough.

Following research, they chose a Fullwood rapid exit parallel parlour which was installed by Longtown-based MTS Dairy Services and have been delighted with their decision as Tom Martin explains.

“The parallel stalls allow easy access for efficient milking with the 90-degree positioning giving good udder presentation. The wide exit passage ensures speedy cow entry and dispersal.

“It takes Edward and I under an hour to milk the 135 cows and cleaning down is straightforward too. Dung shields help keep the equipment, and us clean. Milk hygiene has been consistently good and with cell counts around 90 we are consistently achieving all the hygiene bonuses available in the contract.”

The parlour is also fitted with the Fullstart system which automatically switches on the cluster as it is lifted towards the udder. Clusters have square liners to improve teat health. The installation also includes direct-to-line meters and variable speed vacuum.

Herd data at the fingertips

The parlour is at the heart of data collection about the herd. It is fitted with auto ID which helps with feeding to yield and automatic segregation. Linking to the AfiFarm software allows health and fertility information to be gathered alongside yield data. A simple traffic light system alerts the Martins to any cow needing attention, speeding up intervention.

“The AfiFarm software is a full herd management system which allows the recording and analysis of all aspects of herd health management, “comments Richard Hooson from Afimilk. “On the fertility side it simplifies the interrogation of all fertility KPI’s including bull and AI technician relative performance.

“The data collected from the parlour means the Martins have individual cow data to assess efficiency of milking including milkflow rates, kick offs and manual attachment. This system allows comparison of different milkers and routines to ensure optimum performance.

“Slow milking cows can be set up with their own pulsation stimulation to increase efficiency. Data can be retrieved on the farm computer or via the ‘Afi2go Pro’ app which also allows data entry for vet records, service information and any sort gate commands giving an exceptional level of management information,” Mr Hooson summarises.

Alistair Martin says the data is already having a big impact on management. “We wanted to make sure that we had a good grip on management of the cows from day one,” he comments. “We are not milk recording yet but we have all the data to hand that recording would give us except sampling and it means we have got a good level of control.

“With feeders in the parlour we can feed to yield accurately helping to keep a close check on feed costs.

“Maintaining a tight calving block of 10-12 weeks is a key performance objective and the Afifarm system linked to the RMS data means we are confident of a tight calving window.”

The results

The system is settling down well. Cows were turned out in early March onto 50 hectares of easily accessible grazing ground which is paddock grazed with the cows moving every two or three days depending on growth rates. The focus is on maximising grazing intakes with the only supplementation being a 16% compound fed through the parlour.

If all goes well, there will be a fortnight in July when no cows will be milking, giving a time window for maintenance and a deeper clean down. As cows calve in again, they will be buffer fed while at grass and housed at night. Ideally, and if the season allows, full housing will be in mid-October. Once housed the cows will be fed twice a day with a diet comprising big bale silage, home-grown propcorn barley and a protein blend, with and 18% concentrate fed to yield through the parlour.

Alastair Martin is pleased with their progress so far but accepts they need to keep focussed. “We still have plenty to learn as we fine-tune the system, but the early signs are encouraging. We have a system that suits the farm and a unit which is working well. On-going the data provided by RMS and AfiFarm will help keep us on track.”
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