Exceptional feed efficiency and fertility drive the success of one family dairy farm on the edge of the Peak District.
Nestled among the western slopes of the Peak District hills is Higher Blakelow Farm and the Pearson family’s herd of Friesians.
Despite the traditional appearance of the farm and the cows, it is in the top quartile of all milk recorded herds with fertility figures coveted by most herdsman.
Jarl Pearson has been farming here since 1967 after his parents bought the farm in 1959.
He has masterminded the gradual expansion from the initial 50 hectares (125 acres) to the current 97ha (240 acres), with an additional 61ha (150 acres) rented.
This growth in area has been mirrored by both an increase in herd size and improvements in milk yield to the current herd average of 7,000 litres per annum.
All-year-round calving necessitates a continual focus on fertility and this effort has been rewarded by an enviable calving interval of 355 days.
Jarl says: “We supply a Muller Coop contract and we are constantly investing to improve and keep one step ahead.” Jarl embraces progress and after attending a farmer meeting with Muller Coop almost two years ago, he approached his feed company, Massey Feeds, to see if it could help him stay one step ahead.
“The topic of achieving net zero carbon by 2040 was discussed at the meeting.
The impact of soya and palm oil in feed on a farm’s carbon footprint was raised and I realised in the future we would need to consider how we could replace this constituent in the cows’ diet, even though no restrictions are in place currently.
“We were already feeding a no soya and no palm oil nut to our beef animals because they are sold to Dovecote Park for Waitrose, so this is a condition of our contract.
I asked our nutritionist Dai Lewis if Massey could provide us with a soya and palm oil free feed for our dairy cows.
“We care about the environment and making this change to our feed is essential if we are serious about our dairy farm achieving carbon neutral in 20 years,” Jarl adds.
Dai describes this move as a ‘challenge’, but it was one he was willing to take on.
He soon formulated a soya and palm oil free feed which he was confident would not adversely affect the performance of the cows.
“When the soya and palm oil was removed, we added a fat product to ensure adequate levels of rumen-protected methionine and choline and to maintain quantities of bypass proteins.
This included Novatan plus a rumen buffer to improve rumen function and increase the conversion of nitrogen into bypass protein.
“Other changes to the diet included removing all the sulphates from the pre-mixes to aid fibre digestion because I was concerned copper sulphate could have a negative impact on vitamin E levels.
The cows have now been on this diet for at least 18 months and there has been no drop in performance,” Dai says.
Jarl’s son, Richard, is now responsible for the day-to-day management of the herd and he shares his father’s absolute commitment to the business and his passion for the cows and their grass-based system.
“We are not pushing for big yields. It simply would not work here. We are not looking for an extreme cow, we want something which can graze and can cope with our hills.
We farm at almost 275 metres and it is all on a slope, so we need something solid and not too leggy,” Richard adds.
The milking herd is out at grass from as early as March if conditions allow and rarely come in before the end of October.
“We introduced a paddock grazing system seven years ago and we have invested in providing water to all the paddocks.
Because of the layout of the farm and the steepness of the fields we cannot have evensized paddocks, so the time cows spend in each paddock has to be adapted accordingly.
“We try to take a first cut of silage from some of the ground around the farm and then we mow all the land which we own away from the farm.
We usually take our first cut at the end of May as spring grass growth starts quite late up here.
“We reseeded much of our mowing land recently and this has improved the quality of the silage we make significantly.
We feed a total mixed ration comprising the grass silage and some hay and the Massey blend.”
The cows are buffer fed throughout summer and Dai will monitor the milk records so he picks up if anything needs tweaking to maintain butterfat and protein levels in the milk.
Richard says: “We invested in a new parlour five years ago and the investment has paid dividends.
It means Dai can adjust the parlour ration just by logging on to our system from home.” The installation of the new parlour was to coincide with an expansion in herd numbers.
The family’s best laid plans were in tatters when the farm suffered a TB outbreak and lost 68 cows in a month.
Richard adds: “Most of the cows lost were our sexed semen heifers and it took us over two years to recover from this.
We now have higher numbers of youngstock on the farm than we would normally need because our aim is to get herd numbers back to the 200-head we were at before TB.
We dare not cull some of the lower end cows to improve the herd because we are always worried we will lose some to TB.” Sexed semen is only used for first service on the heifers and they usually calve down at between 26 and 27 months.
No conventional semen is used as they have a pedigree Holstein Friesian bull which is used on the cows and an Aberdeen-Angus bull which is used on heifers not conceiving to the first service and the lower yielding cows.
After receiving colostrum the calves are kept in individual pens and as soon as possible, they go into group pens where Richard says they ‘do better’.
They are fed a Massey 23% protein milk replacer twice-a-day and given ad lib hay plus a Massey 19% soya and palm oil free rearing nut from a few days old.
Calves are weaned at between eight and 10 weeks old, with the precise date dictated by when they are eating enough corn.
They are turned out to grass at between three and four months old and will stay out until late autumn if the weather and ground conditions permit.
Richard’s partner Gina is responsible for the calves and youngstock and their two boys Harry and Liam, who are nine and seven years old respectively, help out by mucking out the sheds and feeding.
The permanent smile on the boys’ faces when they are around the cows is proof enough that they want to follow in their father’s footsteps.
“We are doing this 100% for our boys.
With the pressure of the job these days I am not sure we would still be here, working as hard as this, if it wasn’t for them,” Richard says.
Dai adds their hard work and commitment has paid off and the performance of the farm stands out.
“It is the exceptional fertility and impressive feed efficiency which is driving the profitability on this farm.
The Pearson family recognise they need to take on the challenges posed by their buyer to achieve the best price and the business is thriving as a consequence.”
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