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AgriScot Preview: Cutting costs and quantity to cope with 10ppl B price
Insights06 Nov 2015by Louise Hartley
At last year’s AgriScot, husband and wife team David and Carolyn Hamilton secured the prestigious title of Scottish Dairy Farm of the Year. Rog Wood went to visit them in Blair Drummond.
Winners of last year’s Scottish Dairy Farm of the Year award, David and Carolyn farm Meldrum at Blair Drummond, Stirling, in partnership.
It extends to 324 hectares (800 acres) and is currently home to 700 Holstein Friesian cows, with the milking portion kept indoors and milked three times per day.
Additionally, there are 740 youngstock, with heifers sent away at nine months old to be contract reared until 20 months of age. Sexed semen is used on heifers, which calve down at 22.5 months.
Heifers Mr Hamilton says: “About 85 per cent of the heifers have heifer calves. We unsuccessfully dabbled with using sexed semen on cows – it just did not work as well as with maiden heifers.”
Milk yields at Meldrum have been eased slightly since winning the award last year, when they had an average 305-day yield for 660 cows of 11,813kg at a calving interval of 391 days. The current level is about 11,700kg at an interval of 386 days for 700 cows.
Milk is sold to Graham’s the Family Dairy, Stirling, which operates an A and B pricing system, paying 23.75p per litre for A milk, and just 10ppl for B milk since August 1.
The herd’s daily production had been about 22,500 litres, of which almost 10 per cent was B milk, but the amount sold at 10ppl has been managed down to about 5 per cent by easing daily output back to 21,500 litres.
Mr Hamilton says: “The family has been at Meldrum since 1985. Over the years we have invested heavily in buildings and the new dairy enterprise was built in 2003/4. We came to the farm in 2010 after a family reshuffle.
“As the milk price squeeze tightened we found it difficult to cut back our planned programme of expansion – it is almost as hard as slowing down a tanker. Our five-year rolling plan is currently on hold and there will be no expansion in the near future.”
Mr Hamilton explained his response to falling milk prices was to become extremely disciplined and ruthlessly cut expenditure by scrutinising every cost. “We have tightened our belts and stopped spending money,” he says.
An obvious option would have been to stop milking three-times-a-day and only milk twice. However, they decided against it as dung passages are scraped by a tractor and milking three-times- a-day allows them to be cleaned more often.
“Scraping when cows are in passages is sore on them and the tractor. If we were only scraping twice-per-day, the passages would get too dirty,” says Mr Hamilton.
When announcing the winner of last year’s Scottish Dairy Farm of the Year award, independent assessor Gregor Colquhoun said of the Meldrum herd: “Cow comfort was superb and cubicle cleanliness the best I have ever seen.
“This translated to great cows which were sound on their feet, with no hock damage and having clean legs and udders.”
They introduced a more severe culling policy and re-examined their main cost – feed – devising a more cost-effective regime. They reduced the maize and wheat content and now use more barley. There is also less reliance on high quality protein, such as rape and soya, and greater use of pot ale syrup as a source of protein.
Meldrum grows about 121ha (300 acres) of grass for silage, which was taken in five cuts this year. Analysis for the first cut was 28.1 per cent dry matter, 20.8 per cent crude protein, a D-value of 75.8 per cent and 12.1 MJ/kg of metabolisable energy.
Mr Hamilton says: “Cutting five times allowed better use of slurry, which helped cut down on artificial fertiliser.”
The Hamiltons also have a significant arable enterprise which complements the dairy business, providing straw for livestock and returning muck to the land.
Some 101ha (250 acres) of spring barley are crimped and clamped for cows. There is also 12ha (30 acres) of winter wheat taken as wholecrop, 40ha (100 acres) of winter wheat – producing grain which is stored for sale – and 16ha (40 acres) of second winter wheat. About 32ha (80 acres) of spring beans are also grown as a cash crop. Hazardous
One of the problems with Meldrum is it straddles a busy road linking Stirling to Callander and can carry a lot of tourist traffic. This makes it hazardous for farm vehicles spreading slurry or carting silage during holiday periods.
Only this year, there was a bad accident when a tractor towing a slurry tanker and a car were in a collision, although fortunately, nobody was hurt. “We have to be wary on the road,” says Mr Hamilton.
As well as 10 full-time staff, the Hamiltons work closely with Glasgow Vet School. Mr Hamilton says: “All deaths go for a post-mortem. We get a lot of information, which help us with veterinary and overall management decisions.
“Students come to the farm with a vet every Thursday to carry out 30-day and 80-day pregnancy checks. They also check the temperature and ketosis levels of freshly-calved cows and heifers and tell us when they are fit to rejoin the main milking herd. Projects like monitoring cow behaviour or eating habits are also carried out.”
Mr Colquhoun sums up the Hamiltons’ operation perfectly, saying: “The management standard at Meldrum is amazing, with high yields, great fertility, low cell counts, good first calving age, excellent calf rearing and fantastic attention to detail.
“Staff management and the monitors and protocols in place are impressive for such a large herd.”
324 hectares (800 acres) with 121ha (300 acres) grass cut five times for silage
700 Holstein Friesian cows, yielding 11,700kg at 386-day calving interval
Currently paid 23.75ppl for A milk and 10ppl for B milk, supplying Graham’s the Family Dairy, Stirling
Dairy youngstock contract reared from nine months until 20 months old
10 full-time staff in addition to partners David and Carolyn Hamilton
Raising awareness of e.coli
David and Carolyn Hamilton charge journalists a voluntary donation to Glasgow’s Yorkhill Hospital for Sick Children in return for an interview and tour of their impressive set-up.
The Hamiltons cannot thank the hospital enough for saving their 13-year-old son Mark when he became critically ill with e.coli 0157 at the age of four in 2006. He was in hospital for a month and on dialysis for 18 days after developing haemolytic-uraemic syndrome – a condition which can lead to lifelong problems. Mark has now fully recovered, but the traumatic incident has had a lasting effect on the family.
The bacteria e.coli 0157 is carried by animals, with ruminants considered the main reservoir. They show no illness, but will sporadically pass the infection in their dung. As there is no way of identifying where or when 0157 has been shed, all cattle and sheep, as well as their dung, should be regarded as infectious. Drinking water contaminated by dung is another source of infection.
It is important to be aware young children can also become infected by contact with floors and other surfaces in the farmhouse and vehicles contaminated by soiled footwear and overalls.
The main symptom in humans is diarrhoea, which may turn bloody. While other strains of e.coli are relatively harmless, 0157 is a relatively new pathogen which was not identified until the 1980s and produces a toxin which can kill.
The most obvious precaution is to thoroughly wash your hands before eating, as ‘dung to tongue’ is the most common route of infection.