With eight robots milking 500 cows, the Ball family’s business based near Sudbury, Derbyshire, is AHDB’s sixth Strategic Dairy Farm appointed to show how best practice can lead to profitable milk production. Simon Wragg reports...
Four years ago the family farm reached a cross-roads. Originally running four farms and three separate 120 to 130 cow dairy herds placed a high dependency on staff and meant daily tasks were replicated, explains Tony Ball who runs the business set up by parents Roger and Carol with his brother Michael.
He says: “Getting good farm staff is an issue as we have Toyota to the east and JCB to the west poaching young people.”
It is a situation he understands well having worked for the digger manufacturer prior to returning home to help reconstruct the business.
The remedy was to consolidate cows to Coton Wood Farm. Being best placed of the four units, a new £3m dairy was built alongside existing facilities initially.
Robots were chosen over a rotary parlour to address the issue of labour (eight staff are required in total) as well as to improve cow health and welfare.
A new cubicle house for 230 higher yielding cows served by four Lely robots was erected with a separate straw yard for up to 60 fresh calvers and transition cows.
Once the old parlour was knocked out, the space was used to create housing for around 185 low-yielders served by three robots. “Our lender was supportive of the plan but as a family we’d already built up a war chest to help finance the development.”
Milk is supplied to Freshways on a liquid contract. Average yield is 9,300litres for the all year round calving pedigree Holstein herd fed a TMR diet. Around 2,000litres comes from forage.
High yielders - those giving over 32litres/day - are fed maize silage and a premix (soya, wheat, sugar beet, maize distillers and molasses) topped with zero-grazed grass during spring and summer. In winter months fresh grass is replaced with grass silage.
Cows are fed to yield with a 16 per cent crude protein cake accessed during visits to the robotic milking stations.
Michael says: “The low group go out after morning milking from 5am and stop indoors from 5pm after which they have access to maize silage. Some New Zealanders would say we are not grazing properly; it is difficult to get cows to graze down when they are fed at night.”
An increase in milk yield has been expected with the installation of the robots. The brothers suggested this has not been as prominent as they had hoped, but a larger than normal proportion of heifers brought in during expansion. “We feel we can get to 10,000litres/cow,” he adds.
Milk hygiene is good with a cell count of 200-250/ml and around 20 cases of mastitis per 100 cows being recorded. Stock are vaccinated for IBR, BVD and tested routinely for Johnes.
Tony explains: “We use dry cow therapies selectively. Anything which had mastitis in the last lactation or triggered conductivity sensors (on the robots) is treated with antibiotics and teat seal. We dry off cows once a week on a Thursday and move cows between groups accordingly.”
AI is used widely across the herd including sexed semen on maiden heifers. Avoiding increase in stature, the focus is on Dutch Holstein bulls able to add to milk yield with positive scores for legs and feet.
“Anything that has had three serves to black and white, but has not conceived, goes to a beef bull.”
As part of AHDB’s Optimal Dairy Systems campaign a number of key performance indicators (KPIs) had been identified. These figures provide a benchmark against which producers can judge their own herd and see where management could be improved to generate more profit from milk production, delegates heard.
Michael says: “For us submission rate is the key. We do not push cows too hard and activity meters are a big boon for us. Anything not cycling is seen by the vet at a fortnightly farm visit.”
Non-bulling cows are not inspected until 70 days; heifers from 55 days. “We prefer if they do it themselves naturally,” Michael says, adding heat therapies were used on problem cows.
With a KPI for age at first calving of 24 months, the herd at Coton Wood averaged 25 months. This was being held back by health issues post weaning in a calf rearing unit which are being addressed.
On the production side the brothers admit an improvement in milk from forage was needed; a further 1,000litres being achievable. This would reduce the unit’s current total purchased feed cost to below a current 8.3ppl. Overall, financially the unit was performing strongly with a total cost of production of 24.6ppl enabling 35 per cent of income to be retained.
Both brothers acknowledged benchmarking and use of KPIs had not featured in the unit’s management to date, but they see benefit in using the industry-wide statistics.
Tony says: “We farm intuitively and you get to know when something is working or not. That probably accounts for 90 per cent of what we are doing; use of KPIs will focus attention on specific areas and may give you an extra percentage or two.
“You can get blinkers on and get wrapped up in the day-to-day. But with 100 farmers coming down the drive every three months (as part of the Strategic Dairy Farm programme) you want to make damn sure you are on top of it.
“We have had a number of visits over the years and we hope to keep learning from other farmers and experts who come here.”