A location on the edge of a steep hill on the western fringe of the Peak District may not appear to be ideal for a grass-based system, but one farmer is making it work.
Expanding on the back of his success at Midgley Farm, Paul Dean now runs three farms, and each is very different.
Choosing the approach which best suits the farm has paid dividends and allows Mr Dean to capitalise on each farm’s assets.
He says: “At Midgley, we have been once-a-day milking for nine years because the grazing land is quite spread out, so the cows have to walk up to a mile on difficult terrain to come into the parlour.
“We have been cross- breeding here since 2000 because even though the cows were Friesian, they were becoming too big.
We are looking for a smaller cow, weighing no more than 500kg, which suits the farm.
“We started using New Zealand genetics to introduce some Jersey and now we are introducing more Friesian genetics again because we find they can cope better with the climate here,” Mr Dean adds.
Milk from the 200 cows at Midgley Farm goes to Arla on a constituent contract, with a bonus for butterfat and protein and a penalty for volume.
By the middle of the lactation, cows will typically be giving 5.44% butterfat and 4.3% protein, totalling 300kg of milk solids over the lactation.
The cows calve from mid-March onwards and are turned out within 24 hours of calving.
They are then outside until November, when they are housed and dried off in time for Christmas.
“We aim to calve six weeks before the day we calculate the grass can grow faster than the cows can eat it, which on average is April 23.
The cows are initially on a 60-day grazing rotation and this will be reduced to 24 days at the end of April, by which time we aim to have the entire farm grazed once.
“The farm is split into 32 2.5-hectare paddocks and we graze one paddock each day.
We reseed when we need to and sometimes stitch in some ryegrass and white clover if the sward is becoming a little tired,” Mr Dean says.
Although grass is the mainstay of the diet at Midgley, Mr Dean feeds 0.5kg of concentrate to all the cows in the parlour throughout summer.
“It is much harder to achieve consistency within the diet when grazing.
Through careful grassland management, we aim to achieve metabolisable energy [ME] values of 12-12.5 and about 24-25% protein across the grazing platform.
“Masseys analyse our grass and the results show we are achieving mid to high 20s for protein, so the cows are getting plenty from the grass alone.
“Masseys were quick to come on board with our strategy and supplied a low protein (12%) high energy concentrate with a Fimlac mineral pack which has organic copper, selenium, zinc and manganese, which is designed to fully mineralise the cows at lower feed rates.
“We find rumen health is better and the cows get back in-calf more easily on this diet,” Mr Dean adds.
“Just prior to calving we feed dry hay and a low protein dry cow roll from Masseys.
Due to forage shortages, we have also been feeding straw in the diet.
“We have had the easiest calvings since feeding this way.
We see very little milk fever, mastitis or displaced abomasum post-calving,” Mr Dean says.
After taking sufficient colostrum from their dams, the black and white calves are kept in groups of eight or nine and fed milk replacer from teat feeders, but Mr Dean will encourage them to eat some hard feed as soon as possible.
They are weaned and turned out to grass, although the slower growing calves will be fed up to a kilo of concentrate a day.
“We are aiming for all calves to be roughly the same size by the time we house them at eight months old.
The ones on target will be on grass alone.
We tend to graze calves on the rough, steep or more inaccessible ground which is in a stewardship scheme,” he adds.
Mr Dean works with his neighbour, who now houses the calves and then grazes them the following summer.
Working with other farmers in the area has paid dividends for Mr Dean as he looks to make the most of the opportunities available to him.
“Seven years ago we approached two brothers at Hammerton Farm in the village who were looking to wind down.
We now contract farm for them and have 180 cows which are spring and autumn block calving.
“These cows are slightly bigger than at Midgley, weighing about 550-600kg, but it is a flatter, kinder farm.
We supply a volume contract with Muller for Sainsbury’s from there,” he says.
The most recent opportunity to expand came two years ago when a farmer near Macclesfield wanted his farm to be home to a milking herd again.
Mr Dean now rents 72ha (178 acres) at Symondley Farm and milks his 170 cows there, with the owner helping to manage the forage production and feeding.
Mr Dean step feeds up to a maximum of 6kg/cow/day in the first 100 days of lactation.
He says: “The herd is all-year- round calving and we supply Arla on a manufacturing contract.”
Symondley Farm is all grass and is largely self-sufficient except for some wholecrop from the ‘support land’ Mr Dean rents near Congleton.
“We grow wheat and barley on this lower ground and follow it with a three- to four- year grass ley which we silage.
It means we are hauling forage a long way but find the ground down there makes far better quality silage than up here.
“The grass at Midgley is fine for grazing but the silage we make is never more than 10.5ME and we are looking for at least 11ME if possible,” Mr Dean adds.
Mr Dean insists the system at each farm is ‘simple’ and this is his secret to ensure it all works well.
He has no immediate plans for further growth, but admits he is ‘open to opportunities’.
“Expansion has been the biggest challenge, but it is also very rewarding.
It is all about people management, and how we build relationships with different farmers and landowners.
“I have to create a business which is attractive to people who might want to come and work here, or invest in it.
I am proud of dairy farming as an industry and I would not want to farm anywhere else.”
Visit the series homepage for more information