Although unconventional, a summer-block calving system looks to maximise milk from forage as well as milk price at Whitley Court Farm, Gloucestershire.
Gaining milk from forage is usually associated with spring or autumn block calving systems but, for Rob Seex and family, this takes place in the summer months.
The system sees the 140-head cross-bred herd at Whitley Court calve outside from mid-June to the end of September.
Mr Seex, who farms with wife, Enid, and son, Oscar, in Nuthill, Upton St Leonards, outlined his system as part of this year’s British Grassland Society’s summer meeting tour.
He is the second generation of his family to farm at the site, after moving to the farm as a community in 1952.
After this was disbanded 10 years later, his father took over the farm before he went on to take over from him in 1980.
Mr Seex explained that the summer calving system had allowed the family to capitalise on the bonus offered by their milk contract, but the more reasonable weather at this time of year also suited the farm’s outdoor calving system and the shed space available on the farm.
Speaking during the tour, Mr Seex said: “With minor tweaks, it is a system we have stuck with and it continues to work for us.
“Our current milk contract pays a bonus from August to November and means we are pushing the cows in the summer more than we used to, with a view to benefiting from the bonus offered by our milk buyers.”
The herd achieved an average yield of 6,000 litres last year, 75 per cent of which came from forage [4,600 litres] at 4.22 per cent butterfat and 3.31 per cent protein and milk is sold to Wyke Farms.
“Alongside grass, the milking herd is currently getting 12 to 15kg of maize silage alongside 1kg of blend.
“The more favourable weather is another reason for calving in the summer months, with cows calving outside and calves moved indoors when there is plenty of shed space.”
Within the farm’s 100ha (250-acre) platform, the size of grazing block varies through the year depending on milking cow numbers, but sees allocated ground generally split into 1.2 to 1.6ha (three- to four-acre) paddocks for grazing.
These are pre-mowed ahead of the cows, which Mr Seex says is to maximise intakes and promote cover re-growth.
March this year also saw an upgrade to the grazing platform infrastructure, with sleepers installed on to the cow track formerly made up of stone to prevent run-off taking place in steeper areas during wet weather in the winter.
The farm’s steeper, more uneven ground is made up of predominantly permeant pasture, of which most will receive slurry application post-grazing using the farm’s own umbilical system.
Re-seeding takes place on more accessible land according to performance and weed burden, of which docks continue to be one of the main issues on the farm.
The farm has taken various approaches to this, including re-seeding after wholecrop, incorporating a bastard fallow and using ‘clover safe sprays’ post re-seed.
But after limited success, the decision was taken to switch to re-seeding with a no clover ley for the most recent re-seed.
This was established followed a two-year wheat crop and is likely to be over-seeded with clover.
Turn-out will generally take place anytime from January onwards.
Mr Seex explained: “Depending on grass growth, we will turn cows out anytime from the beginning of the year.
“This is managed in line with the weather to start with, so it could be they go out for just a few days to start before being brought in if it turns and so on.
“Last year, cows went out for nine days in January, before being turned out full-time from mid-February.”
Despite the perceived benefits, the summer calving system lends itself to potentially higher instances of health issues such as summer mastitis.
This is monitored closely and mitigated against with routine management.
Mr Seex explained: “Summer mastitis is a problem we have to keep a close eye on.
“Every Friday from April until the end of calving, dry cows are brought in and treated with stock tar alongside a fly pour-on when we feel it is needed.
“Cases of milk fever are virtually none and any cow we feel is susceptible will get a bolus.”
The herd’s breeding policy moved away from pure Holstein Friesians to a three-way-cross four years ago and now incorporates Norwegian and Swedish Red as well as Ayrshire genetics.
“The cross is well-suited to our system and provides us with a hassle-free animal which gives a decent yield.
“Calving problems were never a big issue, but these have all but disappeared since these genetics were introduced.
The farm has advocated use of sexed semen for many years; this is used on about 50 animals, including all of the heifers and earlier cycling cows to produce herd replacements each year, with an Angus or British Blue sire used thereafter. Beef sired calves are sold through Cirencester market.
“We run a strict serving policy and will stop serving to dairy bulls towards mid-October.
“This keeps our calving window for replacements in a tight, six-week window and means we can efficiently run these animals as one batch, which makes for easier management through the year, specifically around health treatments.”