Before they changed their farming system, the Henderson family admits it was hard to make a margin. Now they have made the switch they have used the better finances to set up another farm. Ann Hardy reports.
Everything looked well on the surface at the Henderson family’s Cumbrian farm. Physical performance was good, production topped 9,000 litres, calving interval was 385 days and the cows experienced a comfortable indoor environment. But by their own admission, Richard Henderson, his brother Michael and their parents, Chris and Mandy, were struggling to make a margin.
Farming 100 hectares (250 acres) and milking 180 cows at The Gill Farm in Dalston, near Carlisle, Mr Henderson says: “We had drifted away from the traditional Cumbrian, part-grazing system as we felt that was the right way to go.
“By housing the herd for 24 hours we had control over their diet, put good enough silage in front of them, had little metabolic disease, no collecting cows or fencing to worry about, and just found it a relatively easy and simple system.”
However, he adds: “Unless the planets were aligned – with reasonable feed costs, a decent milk price and a favourable year for making silage – we would struggle to make a margin.”
By the time the family agreed upon the need for change, he says they were putting 10 ingredients in the mixer wagon and feeding three tonnes of concentrates per cow per year.
“There were also large contracting costs for making silage, vet checks and scanning every fortnight and a heck of a lot of money going into feed and just keeping the wheels on the wagon,” he says.
The last straw came with the disastrous weather of 2012 when silage quality plummeted and the team struggled to lift the energy and protein of the overall diet.
“It was a fraught time and we knew we had to do something, so we took the advice of our consultant to make more use of grazed grass,” he says.
Splitting larger fields into paddocks and introducing a plate meter were part of the process, although Mr Henderson admits to concerns over grazing his Holsteins.
“Fortunately, they were not large animals as we had been breeding functional cows with bloodlines like Oman and their production responded really well to the better quality grass after a winter of poor silage,” he says.
Buoyed by the success of the grazing and the farm’s ability to grow large crops of grass, the next logical progression was to move to spring calving. It was at this point that the whole herd was bred to the New Zealand Jersey.
“We started with a split calving block in the first year and by 2015 we had a decent spring block calving herd,” he says.
“The block moved from 16 weeks at the start to 12 weeks the following year and has now settled at 10 weeks.”
The first cross Jerseys were hardy and confident grazers, although Mr Henderson had no idea of where to take his breeding next.
“Taking the first step in cross-breeding is easy but it becomes harder down the line,” he says.
“The advice at the time was to use a Kiwi cross bull [Holstein cross Jersey] but with the benefit of hindsight, that probably was not the right decision.
“Some were great, but generally I was quite disappointed,” he adds.
“The biggest issue was low production and the sting in the tail was somatic cell count.
“I found it hard to choose bulls with low enough SCC scores and saw this reflected in the herd. We had been in the low 100s with the Holsteins but this started creeping up.”
Temporarily reverting to the security of the Holstein, for fear of losing the breed’s many desirable traits – including body depth and width and udder conformation – he admits that a downside was the continued inconsistency in the size of the animals.
“For a while, there were feet of difference between the cows’ heights, as some Holsteins weighed 800kg alongside some 480kg Jersey cross heifers,” he says.
However, a neighbour milking Danish Jerseys enlightened him of the breed’s capabilities, which led to a trip to Denmark.
“That is where I learnt that Jerseys are not particularly small and are capable of high production, especially when you consider energy-corrected milk,” he says.
“The trip also highlighted the depth of the health and management information collected across the Viking countries [Denmark, Sweden and Finland] which is light years ahead of what we are doing in the UK,” he adds.
“Many Danish Jerseys had daughter averages of 7,500 litres, although I still had nagging doubts about what they would do off grazed grass,” he says.
“Eventually, I thought that if they were doing this from 2t of concentrates, they would still do well on a lower input system. I felt we would end up with a more productive Jersey than we had before, with the addition of excellent management traits.”
Switching the breeding to Danish Jersey, he chose top bulls at the time, such as Hilario, Broiler and Link. Today, he describes their daughters as ‘bulletproof’, citing excellent health and performance from 900-1100kg concentrates/cow/year.
“Our Holsteins tend to be culled for fertility, lameness or mastitis, but we find few reasons for the Danish crosses to leave the herd,” he says.
“We still do a pre-dry off foot trim and have second and third calf Danish Jerseys which need absolutely nothing done.”
However, the idea of three-breed crossing appealed to Mr Henderson, as he felt he could achieve greater hybrid vigour and more consistency with three compatible breeds.
Today he says he has settled on a three-way cross alternating Jersey, VikingRed and black and whites. For the latter he is choosing a combination of VikingHolstein and British Friesian, finding bloodlines including VH Ramsey and Praser, which maintain strength, health and fertility without adding too much stature.
Also using sexed semen for the first two-and-a-half weeks of breeding, he says individual corrective mating will help achieve more consistency across the herd.
“The VikingReds have not yet been born but I have seen and heard enough to have confidence in the decision,” he says.
The all-important margins have made substantial gains, with a 12-month rolling average of 24p/litre, for margin over all purchased feed.
Yield has levelled over the same period at 5,100 litres at 5 per cent fat and 3.7 per cent protein from the expanded herd of 230-head. Of this, 3,800 litres comes from forage, although Mr Henderson is confident this will reach 4,000 litres on the strength of genetic gain.
The success of the business has been such that the family has also been able to take on a second farm. Praising his parents for giving him freedom to ‘make mistakes along the way’, he says the family will not return to a year-round calving herd.
“We will be sharemilkers on the new farm and will block calve again with the same three breeds,” he says.
“Finances are now enabling us to suck up the set-up costs based on the strength of the home farm.”
Once the second herd is established, one will calve in autumn, the other in spring, to spread the workload and drive greater efficiencies.
“For block-calving herds, a whole year is condensed into just a few weeks and everything is based on calendar dates,” he says.
“Yes, it is hard work, but the benefits far outweigh the effort.”
“Years ago, I would look for excuses, blaming the land or the milk price, but now I realise it had more to do with the way we were farming,” he adds.
Candidly describing his former self as a ‘busy fool’, he says he now looks forward to the challenges ahead.