Despite being encouraged to train as an agricultural engineer, Andrew Neilson was never in any doubt that he would come back home to the family dairy farm. Lynsey Clarke reports.
Recent recipient of Holstein UK’s President’s Medal – awarded to a member who has made an outstanding contribution to the breed and their club – Andrew Neilson is well aware of the challenges facing the agricultural industry.
But, as a young dairy producer, who is passionate about his business, he is prepared to face them head-on.
In the essay that cemented his win, Andrew said he believed that ‘transparency is key’ when it comes to combating the trend of consumers choosing alternatives to cow’s milk.
He wrote: “We need to listen to what the people want and try our hardest to deliver that.
“We must reduce our carbon footprint, reduce our antibiotic usage, continue to improve and maintain our high animal welfare standards and ensure that our farms are cleaner, tidier and ready to welcome visitors or inspections at any time.”
On his own family’s farm, East Brackenridge, in Strathaven, South Lanarkshire, the Neilson family has made a number of management changes in recent years, focusing on making the business as productive and efficient as possible.
Andrew farms with his parents, Hugh and Liz, and two full-time staff on the farm which has been in the family for four generations.
One of three boys, each were encouraged to learn a different trade before deciding if farming was for them.
Andrew trained as an agricultural engineer, but says he never had any doubt what his ultimate career path would be.
“I always wanted to come home to work, but it is definitely worthwhile gaining experience elsewhere before doing that,” he says.
“After my apprenticeship, I worked at Coopon Carse Farm, at Newton Stewart. The farm manager there, Alex Robertson, recommended I go to America to the Alta U school, a week-long intensive dairy manager’s school in Wisconsin.
“It was an amazing course, with world-class speakers and I learned so much about herd and staff management, which has been worth a huge amount to our business.
“I went to the World Dairy Expo and visited some farms when I was out there too, seeing a mixture of small and large and all different types of management styles. I came home with loads of ideas for our own herd.”
Aiming to increase yields and enhance cow comfort, Andrew says the first improvement they made at home was to upgrade the old cubicle shed, making it more ‘cow friendly’, by adjusting cubicles, improving mattresses, and fitting fans, to help with airflow. More recently , they have attached pedometers to the cows, to aid heat detection and for early lameness indication.
“One of the most significant improvements we have made is installing LED lighting in the shed, an expensive investment, but well worth it, as it has definitely improved cow fertility and production.” he says.
“Realising the cow is number one has had a huge impact on our business and made us look at things we can change to make a difference. A happy, healthy cow is a profitable cow and there is so much attention to detail that goes into cow welfare.
“We have changed our recording programme to a more farmer friendly one, allowing us to make best use of the information we have.
“We also have a much better understanding of nutrition now and have changed our dry cow ration.
“It is all driven by dry matter intakes, and we monitor it regularly, with help from our nutritionist, Hugh Kerr.”
Currently, there are 300 milking Holsteins in the Overside herd, which are housed all year-round, allowing for better management of the high yielding herd.
On a Muller Tesco contract, they are milked three times a day, with each milking taking around two hours from start to finish, with an average yield of 12,000kg at 4.04 per cent butterfat and 3.3 per cent protein.
“With the cows averaging just short of 40 litres per day, milking three times a day is far better for their welfare,” Andrew says.
“Each cow spends no more than 1.5 hours a day going through the milking routine.”
Calving takes place all year-round, with a current calving interval of 400 days and heifers now being calved at 22 months. They are all AI’d through Genus’ Reproductive Management System.
“Dad and I are both pedigree enthusiasts and love good show cows, but we have always bred primarily for production – aiming for functional cubicle cows that will last a long time,” Andrew says.
“When it comes to selecting bulls, genomics makes it easier to select the ones with the traits we are looking for.
“They need to be a functional type, from a good cow family and we particularly look at production, with emphasis on components, plus fertility.”
Bulls which have had a particularly good impact on the herd include Numero Uno, Seagull Bay Silver, Wilder Daliance, Lancrest Cayle and Seagull Bay MVP.
With this emphasis on type, there have been a few home-bred Overside bulls which have gone to AI studs over the past few years.
The most prominent female lines in the herd are the Amanda, Dellia/Delight, Mae, Ruby, Crimson, Fleur, Rolls and Robin families.
The family has always enjoyed showing the best cows and secured the reserve championship at AgriScot in 2017 with the Excellent 93 Overside Alimar Amanda.
They have also had two calves qualify for the All Breeds All Britain calf show every year for the past four years.
“We have always been keen on showing, but it is not a main priority for us,” Andrew says. “It is a good shop window and helps us to sell bulls privately, but mainly it is a hobby with a great social side to it.”
Andrew’s love of pedigree breeding extends to his Brackenridge Texel flock too, which he established 12 years ago.
A flock of 13 pure ewes are boosted in numbers by flushing the best females and using embryo transfer.
Last year was the best yet in terms of sales, achieving 15,000gns at the Solway and Tyne sale at Carlisle, with the ram lamb Brackenridge Crown Royal selling at that money to Myfr Evans’ Rhaeadr flock.
Also last year, another lamb, Brackenridge Cancun, was sold privately to the Curries’ Carlinside flock
Going forward, it is the dairy, however, that is at the forefront of Andrew’s mind, as the family strives to become more efficient.
“As food producers, we need to have a better relationship with the consumer and to do that, we need to provide what they want,” he says.
“If that is becoming more environmentally friendly and cutting back on antibiotic usage, then that is what we need to do – that will have huge long-term financial and health benefits for the herd anyway.
“We cannot just rely on public farming bodies such as NFU or ADHB to get the message across. Individual farmers need to play their part and tell their own story.”