Running a profitable and resilient grass-based dairy business with high quality, healthy cows at the core, is the philosophy driving the Ratcliffe family.
When the family farm in Cheshire no longer provided the scope for Ian and Cath Ratcliffe to farm how they wanted to, they had little hesitation in uprooting themselves to their ‘dream farm’ in Devon.
A shortage of accessible grazing land and little opportunity to buy or rent more grassland, plus the limitations of being in an NVZ meant the Ratcliffes were unable to rear their own replacements.
Ian says: “We had a flying herd but were struggling to find the sort of animals we were looking for.
We don’t like buying-in cows because of the disease risk and we were looking for crossbreds, but it was really difficult to source consistent, high quality cows to suit our system.
“We are looking for a compact but milky cow with good solids, which can walk a kilometre to grazing twice-a-day and get in-calf.
“So when the farm came up in Devon we jumped at the chance, even though the move came up sooner in our farming career than planned.
We were able to more than double cow numbers and can now graze harder and breed the cow we need,” he says.
In the six years since the move, Ian and Cath have worked hard to make their business more resilient.
Focus on herd fertility and a robust approach to achieving a tight autumn block calving pattern has paid dividends this year.
The herd achieved a six-week in-calf rate of 92 per cent which strengthened the business to cope with the challenges which followed.
Ian says: “We had a TB breakdown last autumn after the drought and lost 40 animals in six months.
We bought-in some fantastic young cows to replace them in the autumn, where on paper, herd health appeared second to none.
“Unfortunately, since this purchase we have had a salmonella outbreak.
Twenty cows aborted late in pregnancy, rendering them barren.
It is a credit to our herd fertility that we have been able to withstand this sixty cow loss.”
“Until this year, fertility has been our main focus, but now we feel our performance is good enough to really challenge ourselves and we are trying to put more milk into our replacements.
As a consequence, we have moved away from a three-way cross between the Holstein, Norwegian Red and Friesian, to a two-way cross without the Friesian,” Ian says.
The herd average is currently 7,436 litres and 618kg solids, but the Ratcliffes are looking to increase this to 8,000 litres with a continued emphasis on milk from forage, particularly grazed grass.
Ian says: “We are looking for a compact, long lasting, ‘easy-care’ cow, with excellent production traits, fertility and confirmation to suit grazing.
We are selecting low stature, high ACI Genus ABS bulls, including Holsteins Atrium, Jaguar and Appeal and Norwegian Reds Smaagarda and Knaphollen.
Cath says: “Last year we used SexcelTM sexed semen on the maiden heifers to natural heats and, as anticipated, achieved 90 per cent conception of what we got with conventional previously, but gained the heifer calves.
This year with the growing bull calf issue and challenging beef market, we plan to serve selected cows to sexed semen to meet heifer numbers.”
Use of the Genus ABS Heifer Optimisation Tool has helped plan their replacement strategy, maximising genetic progress and beef calf value.
When deciding which cows to serve with SexcelTM, Cath is targeting first, second and third calvers which have historically achieved highest conception rates.
She is limiting sexed services to those which calved in the first cycle of the calving period so are inherently most fertile and have had most time to recover from calving.
Within these constraints, low producers have also been selected out as well as any with a Johne’s concern.
She says: “We have tailored a cow grade system and have 30 straws of Genus ABS conventional semen, so any outstanding cows which come bulling in the first cycle but who may be older or calved to the second cycle, still have the chance of a dairy heifer calf.
We feel these selection parameters allow us to breed to our best genetics while minimising bull calf numbers.
“Any cow which does not meet these criteria is served with beef semen.
We use Angus on the first and second calvers and any small cows to avoid calving problems which may impair production and future fertility.
“The third calvers and upwards are served with Genus ABS British Blue bulls to maximise calf value.”
As a former dairy consultant, Cath is a big fan of data, but she insists it is important to focus on useful figures because looking at too much data can be counterproductive.
She says: “I analysed our calf mortality and found although losses were 4 per cent for the entire herd, losses were heavily weighted towards stillborns from maiden heifers.
This illustrates the importance of using easy calving sires and having heifers.
“Five years ago I set up a cost of production group because I believe knowing the numbers is vital in order to make the right decisions for the business.
There is value in comparing figures and having an open book attitude.
Through farm walks we try to promote this transparency to other dairy farmers.”
Cath points to extremes in weather and volatility in the milk price in the six years since they moved to Devon as evidence of the importance of achieving resilience within their business.
She says: “Knowing and understanding our costs of production has been an extremely powerful tool for monitoring our business and aiding strategic planning.
Last year we had the confidence to invest in a new 44-point rotary parlour because our data demonstrated the efficiencies it would give us.
“After two years with significant spells of drought in June and July, we are realising the value of maize as winter forage.
“Drier summers are becoming more common place and so growing more maize and being slightly less reliant on grass seems a sensible insurance policy.”
Cath says they aim to maximise margin per cow rather than increasing numbers because quality of life is the priority for their family and staff: “The last increase of 20 cows was lucrative because most overheads remained the same.
These marginal litres have been achieved by hitting the sweet spot between cow type, resources and farming system.
“We aim to have a profitable autumn calving dairy business and offer our staff and our sons, Josh and Freddie, a promising future in the industry we are so passionate about,” Cath says.
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