PROMPTED by a desire to better understand his business overheads and swap knowledge with like-minded farmers, Adrian Bland embarked on a three-year stint as one of AHDB’s strategic dairy farmers. Hannah Noble reports.
Having decided to make the change from milking a herd of pedigree Holstein cows to a tight autumn block calved herd of cross-bred cows six years ago, Adrian Bland could not be happier now.
Mr Bland, who works Ninezergh Farm, Kendal, says: “We were struggling to get the Holsteins back in-calf and they were not lasting long enough.
“The fertility of the cross-bred cows is unbelievable. This year we will calve 97 cows in six weeks. With the Holsteins it was more like 42 in six weeks.”
Situated on the edge of the Lake District national park, Ninezergh Farm spans 253 hectares (625 acres) and not only supports the dairy herd but is also home to a 500-strong flock of ewes, a beef finishing unit and an arable operation to boot.
Having taken the reins from his parents, Jim and Helen, in 2001, all the farm’s enterprises are now run by Mr Bland with the help of his wife Janet and their children Eve, 16, and Nathan, 15, plus two full-time members of staff.
The dairy herd comprises 120 cows which are the result of a four-way cross of Holstein, Fleckvieh, Swedish Red and Meuse Rhine Issel.
For Mr Bland’s herd, breeding starts in the first week of November with seven weeks of artificial insemination (AI) using pedometers to detect heats before the bull, a British Blue cross Limousin, is put in until February 14 to sweep up any cows which are still open.
Mr Bland says his target is for heifers to calve at 24 months old, which means service starts at about 15 months. Due to the tight calving pattern of the cows, he says the calves are usually consistent in size.
The complexity of breeding a herd to follow a four-way cross means it is essential each cow is bred to the correct breed of bull. To make life easy, a list of the sire of each cow is printed and cross referenced with their management tag before any mating decisions are made.
He says: “When we were pedigree, 95 per cent of the cows were bred to Holstein bulls to produce replacements. Now about 70 per cent of the cows are bred to dairy breeds and 30 per cent are bred to beef.”
The proportion of the herd selected to be bred to a beef bull are this year, for the first time, being bred to a Charolais and the resulting calves will be reared and be some of the 120 cattle finished on-farm each year.
Mr Bland adds: “Since we started cross-breeding we have seen a drop in the carcase weights of our finished cattle, but the quality and conformation has improved so we needed a sire to bring back some of that size to the carcase.”
Finished beef cattle are sold direct to Dunbia and, to make up the numbers, Mr Bland buys 40-50 continental-bred calves which are contract reared locally to five months old before returning to the farm to be fattened.
Mr Bland’s philosophy is every acre of the farm needs to be working to sustain a profitable business. To support this notion, most of the feed used on-farm is home-grown, with nothing wasted.
“We grow as much of our own feed as possible to keep costs down. As soon as you transport feed and include a salesman between you and the source, the cost per tonne of dry matter goes up. That is what concerns me.
“The farm is split over four sites and the best land is not where the cows are due to historical reasons so we utilise the good land by growing our own crops."
Each year they grow 40.5ha (100 acres) of maize, 8ha (20 acres) of which is sold from the field; 8ha (20 acres) of wheat which is crimped, and 8ha (20 acres) of fodder beet, which is both fed as a standing crop and used in the dairy and beef rations.
The dairy ration is formulated with the help of nutritionist James Bretherton, Agriscope, and on a freshweight basis comprises 60 per cent maize silage, 20 per cent grass silage and 20 per cent fodder beet. But Mr Bland says this varies depending on the forage stocks and silage analysis. They also buy in a small proportion of oilseed rape and soya as a protein source.
The herd averaged a yield of 8,226 litres last year, with 5,200 litres from home-grown forage. Mr Bland says components have substantially increased since they started cross-breeding, and they now sit at 4.35 per cent fat and 3.55 per cent protein. Milk is sold to Dale Farm at 26.6ppl on a liquid contract, with a premium for quality.
The beef cattle are also fed a home-grown diet and spend on average nine weeks on a finishing ration made up of maize silage, crimped wheat and fodder beet, plus some bought-in protein.
The farm also has a flock of 500 ewes. Mules are bought in and crossed with a Suffolk tup. Most of the flock are first cross Suffolks and put to a Texel tup to produce commercial fat lambs.
Lambing commences indoors on March, 20. The bulk of lambs are finished off grass and sold deadweight through North West Auctions by early December.
Mr Bland’s farming system means the dairy cows are grazed from mid-March, depending on the weather, and by mid-April they are outside day and night.
The grazing platform is measured weekly using a plate meter and computer programme to work out grass requirements.
The dairy cows are dried off eight weeks prior to calving, which means despite being calved in a block, there is never a period where all the cows are dry. AI dates are used to determine when cows are three weeks from calving and they are then moved into a paddock where they are fed a transition total mixed ration in trailer feeders and they will stay there until they calve.
Mr Bland says: “We pretty much keep the first 120 cows which calve to keep the block tight. Any cows or heifers which calve outside the block are sold in-calf or freshly calved. This means we are still getting a reasonable price for them and not just a cull price.”
By becoming one of AHDB’s strategic farmers, Mr Bland hopes to drill down into his costings and split out each enterprise to identify which ones are performing the best and determine his true costs of production to secure the longevity of his business.
“The way farmers are paid subsidy is changing and there will be winners and losers, but there will always be farming in this country and a living to be made."