Improving cow comfort and health, as well as feeding management, has been pivotal in increasing profitability and yields at Mason House Farm, Bashall Eaves, near Clitheroe.
John and Sarah Hartley and son Ben have achieved their objectives set four years ago on the 325-acre tenanted farm to increase cow numbers in the pedigree Roughwood herd, increase milk yield and improve dry cow facilities.
Ben Hartley returned to work at home after university more than five years ago and a primary objective of the family has been to maintain and increase farm profit to allow for future capital expenditure over the next decade.
It is one of six monitor farms established in the Northwest through the RDPE Northwest Livestock Programme managed by Myerscough College and delivered in Lancashire by Myerscough with Cumbria Farmer Network and Reaseheath College managing the farms in Cumbria and Cheshire respectively.
Herd numbers have increased from 140 cows in 2011 to 171 cows in May this year. The milking cows are housed year round and milked through three Lely robots.
Out of parlour feeders, which were used prior to the installation of the first two Astronaut A3 robots four years ago and replaced an old abreast parlour, have been kept as part of the feeding system and since replaced with Lely feeders to fit in with the computerised system.
Milk yields have steadily risen to approach the Hartleys’ target of 10,000 litres a cow - from 7,500 litres four years ago to a rolling annual yield in May this year of 9,538 litres for 152 cows in milk and margins have been maintained, despite the challenging year for forage production.
With the help of Kite Consulting’s Ros Hughes, the Hartleys began by setting targets to improve the business as well as using monthly costings with bi-monthly meetings to help pay more attention to detail.
“Together we identified ‘bottlenecks’ which were holding the herd back and one of the key areas we focused on was dry cow management,” said Ros.
“Previously, the dry cows were run with the milkers so separate dry cow housing was a priority,” she said.
A new dry cow building was erected in autumn 2010 which was initially tried as a composted bed but this was abandoned because of the damp climate. Other materials tried included straw and sawdust but it was found to be too expensive to maintain long term, lime ash bedding was also trialled.
However, since the installation of 28 cow comfort cubicles in October 2011, deep sand bedding has been used to manage the dry cows more effectively.
“Improvements in dry cow housing were also coupled with targeting dry matter intake in their diet with a more fibrous diet of silage, straw to keep potassium levels down and a high quality dry cow nut. That is working well and we’re seeing improvements in the early lactation as well as reduced incidence of milk fever and metritis,” said Ros.
Another area targeted was feed management for the milking cows. Silage and brewers grains are fed through a trough while concentrates are fed through the out of parlour feeders and robots at a rate of 0.33kg per litre.
A weigh cell has also been fitted to the loading shovel to monitor forage intakes.
The previous size of the feed trough allowed less than one foot of space per cow. By doubling the length of the trough to allow two feet per cow, this has improved dry matter intakes, giving cows a more balanced diet, particularly in early lactation.
Overall dry matter intakes have increased from 21kg a head a day to 23kg. The long term aim is to increase intakes to 24kg/ head/day.
This area has since been roofed over to increase the number of cubicles by 20. The open ridge also improves ventilation.
Cow movement and flow in the buildings was also analysed and re-siting the out of parlour feeders, extending the feed trough and installing a third robot in March 2012 reduced standing time and negative behaviour, such as bullying, and improved lying down and cudding time.
Foot treatments have been reduced by 20% with the majority of the improvement being a reduction in sole ulcers.
Ben Hartley said: “Having access to a large network of knowledge from industry specialists to farmers who were willing to share ideas and information has been the biggest benefit of being a monitor farmer. The whole process has been very worthwhile.
“A number of specialists at meetings and Kite’s Ros Hughes, all emphasised the importance of feeding consistent high quality forage and increasing access to feed. We have extended the feed trough and moved from two to three cuts of silage which has lifted yields, while maintaining concentrate feed levels.
Grassland is a mixture of permanent pasture and short-medium term leys, including 25 acres of rough grazing. Sheep are taken on short term keep in the winter.
To improve grassland, a limited amount of reseeding and overseeding was undertaken from 2010 to 2012. All fields were soil tested and as a result pH levels were found to be low so lime was applied as required. P and K levels were good so mainly straight N is now applied and compound fertiliser used only when necessary.
With the move from two to three cuts of silage, the fertiliser policy was changed to allow earlier cutting dates.
For the future, investment may be made in zero grazing equipment. During June, employing a contactor on a daily basis, grass was zero grazed to help reduce feed costs.
Rubber matting could be an option to further reduce lameness and out of parlour feeders will probably be re-sited to a better position in the building.
Continued improvement of grassland and a third silage clamp are also long term objectives.
“We won’t change anything dramatically but we will continue to work with our vet and nutritionist to monitor cows and push constant improvement,” said Ben.
“Next year we plan to erect another building to house all the youngstock at Mason House. Long term we may be milking 200 cows through four robots,” he added.
Monitor farm facilitator Robert Burrow, of Myerscough College, said there were 70 farms on the database for meetings and half had attended at least three of the meetings.
“Many of the farmers will have taken away ideas from the meetings and adapted them to their own systems. It has been a good experience to witness the changes made at Mason House and we have had very positive feedback.”
* Malcolm Leeming, of Wycongill Farm, Bolton by Bowland decided to put his milking herd on sand cubicles when he put up a new shed for 200 cows last year, having discussed ideas at the monitor farm. He’s also soil tested all his fields and done a lot more liming than he has ever done before. “Soil testing / liming, and putting in sand cubicles are the two biggest things I’ve picked up from the meetings. “John was just putting his dry cows on sand at the time when we came to a couple of meetings, we swapped a few ideas and discussed the benefits and decided to put sand beds in. The cows are very clean, cell counts have dropped and mastitis has improved. “We use silica sand and it doesn’t separate. We mix it up well and we haven’t had any problems spreading it. I believe it’s good for the land too and improves the pH. ”
* Fellow robotic milker Chris Halhead, of Newland Home Farm, Bay Horse, Lancaster, took on board advice from the grassland improvement meetings held in 2010. He said: “I knew about soil structure, subsoiling and aerating, but I didn’t realise just how important it was until I came to these meetings and saw I might have a problem. “We tried a slitter but ended up buying a subsoiler as we had quite deep compaction. We no longer have any standing water. We’ve used it for a couple of years now and the fields are doing a lot better.” “We’ve had a good group coming over the years, opening up and getting good discussion going. People say what works and what doesn’t.”
* Roger Vickery of Hall House Farm, Whalley has learnt from John’s experiences how important space is around the feeding trough. “We’re looking at more feeding area for the milking herd and by coming to these meetings it’s helped me plan a new building we’ve put in for planning. We’re looking at 2ft per cow for 100 cows rather than 1.5ft. It’s helped me think about pressure points and reducing bullying. “Another meeting looked at the benefits of growing whole crop, and although it was discussed it wouldn’t suit John and Ben’s system, it’s something we’re going to start doing.”
|Production goals and achievements|
|KPI||Oct 2009||Mar 2010||Mar 2011||Mar 2012||Mar 2013||Target|
Annual av yield/cow (litres)
|Conc cost ppl||10.07||8.17||6.9||7.57||8.55||8|
Feed rate kg/litre
|Rolling annual totals (Kite Milk Monitor)|
|May 2013||May 2012|
|Cows in herd||165||141|
|Cows in milk||146||114|
|Cow calvings||112 (68%/year)||99 (70%/year)|
|Annual yield/cow forage||907||2,736|
|Marg all feeds/litre||19.70p||20.31p|
|Marg all feeds/cow||£1,833||£1,833|