When Andy and Rosemary King started the Barrington organic partnership in 2008 they did not expect to be in the running for the National Milk Records/RABDF Gold Cup award just over a decade later.
In 2008, Andy and Rosemary King had the opportunity to take on the 220 hectares (544 acres) at Thong Dairy, near Ilminster, Somerset.
A career in the dairy feed industry and herd management for Mr King, and a background growing up on a Somerset-based dairy farm for Mrs King, have given the pair the credentials required for successfully managing their own dairy unit.
However, Mr King admits it was a ‘challenge’ and all his advice to dairy producers in years gone by was put on the line when he had to apply it to their own business.
He says: “We took on a 10-year Farm Business Tenancy in 2008, which was extended to 15 years. It was a challenging time as we took on the farm lock stock and barrel and had high borrowings.”
Fast forward 10 years and the Barrington team is managing a herd of 257 cows, comprising 212 Holstein Friesian milkers and a few older cross-breds.
Mr King says the first challenge was to build a more efficient and uniform herd of cows.
“We stuck with black and white genetics, but looked for a more Friesian-type of cow which would be resilient, a good grazer, and convert forage to milk.”
The herd has been closed for the past seven years and all replacements are now home-bred.
Keen to speed up the rate of genetic progress, the couple are looking at genomically testing the heifers so they can identify and breed from, using sexed semen, the best animals that meet their criteria.
“This added selection pressure should see our herd performance improve, and we may even be in a situation where we have surplus heifers to sell,” adds Mr King.
He says it is the day-to-day commitment of their staff that has helped make a success of the business. It is very much a team approach, with Richard Coombes, who joined them in 2009 and who is now farm manager, running the herd alongside herdsman Barry Chick and stockman David Martin.
They currently have two placement students: Bonnie Taylor, from Harper Adams University; and Jonathan Bryer, from Bridgwater College.
“We are really committed to helping students who want to learn and develop their careers in the industry,” says Mr King, who hopes their success in the Gold Cup will attract other eager students to apply for a placement with them.
“As well as the annual placement on the farm, we make sure they get chance to go to external training, conferences and workshops on particular subjects they are interested in,” he adds.
Cows are core to the business at Barrington and Mr King does not believe in making their organic status an excuse for ‘weak’ performance in any sector of cow production, health and welfare.
He says: “We do not shy away from respectable milk yields from home-grown forages, and we monitor and manage cows to achieve good health and fertility performance.”
The all-year-round calving herd grazes on clover-based swards from April to October and they look for between 13kg and 14kg of dry matter from grazing per day.
Cows are fed to yield in the parlour with a 16 per cent protein cake. Just under two tonnes per cow per year of bought-in organic concentrates are fed, delivering an annual feed rate of 0.26kg per litre.
The rest of the ration relies on home-grown forages.
Mr King says: “We grow about 30ha of red clover and 20ha of lucerne. Both crops are selected for their high palatability and protein content, at about 18 per cent, and are these are fed in TMR with minimal ‘balancing’ of the ration using a concentrate blend.”
The TMR also includes the high energy forages fodder beet and wholecrop spring barley, alongside grass silage. This produces about 3,900 litres of milk per cow and is nudging on 50 per cent of total average milk production.
Accurate records and monitoring have helped drive improvements in health and fertility.
Mr King says: “We review our health plan with all our staff, and our vets helps with on-farm training. We view our vet as an investment, not a cost.”
Cows are screened quarterly for Johne’s disease using the NMR milk sample. Fewer than 5 per cent of cows show any Johne’s infection and any cow that does is bred to a beef bull or, in the case of a second reading, put on the cull list.
The herd is vaccinated for IBR, leptospirosis and BVD, and all calves are tag and tested soon after birth to identify any persistently infected calves. These are then promptly removed from the herd.
Calves are vaccinated for pneumonia and the herd has just signed up for the SAC health scheme for TB. Rigorous udder health protocols have led to exceptionally low somatic cell counts. These are typically less than 90,000 cells/ml and, as a result, they see few cases of mastitis.
Only 4 per cent of cows receive antibiotic therapy at drying off. Youngstock are the future of the herd and they are treated accordingly from birth.
A recently installed CCTV system means they can keep an eye on calvings, and Mr King adds it is also a good security tool to have in place.
Newborn calves stay with their mothers for 24 hours and, if needed, extra colostrum from a frozen bank on-farm is fed. After a week in individual pens, calves are grouped in trios. Ad-lib dry feed, hay and freshwater supplements whole milk, fed from birth to 12 weeks of age to comply with the organic standards for calf rearing.
Heifers are weighed regularly throughout the rearing period, even when they are grazing, to meet the first service target of 15 months old, and 24-month calving.
Fertility is managed by their vet John Reader, of Synergy Farm Vets, who monitors the cows through Interherd and checks out any problems on his routine visits.
All cows are fitted with pedometers to help detect heats.
Mr King says: “The vet carries out post-natal checks and examines any cows not seen bulling after a 42-day waiting period. This has contributed to a very respectable average of 56 days to first service. Our staff are trained to carry out AI, so this can be timely. And this helps improve conception rates.”
He is pleased with the current average rate to all services which has increased to 50 per cent in the 2019 breeding season, with a 51 per cent 100 day in-calf rate.
He says: “We involve the whole team and the vet in herd health reviews twice a year.
“And regular analysis and feedback meetings are carried out with the whole team to make sure that a consistent approach is achieved and that everyone is involved with the future strategy and vision of the business.”
Creating the right environment for this organic herd and seeing what they can do is the aim at Thong Dairy Farm during the next few years.
Mr King says: “With organic concentrates 60 per cent more expensive than non-organic concentrates we will keep our focus on growing more protein on-farm.
“We want to maximise milk from forage and we will keep looking at ways to monitor and improve. This will be how we will improve efficiency within the business to help meet strict financial budgets.”
Maintaining the farm’s links with the supply chain will also remain high on the agenda.
Mr King says: “We have always believed in promoting a joined-up approach between the retailer, buyer and producer. We have made the farm available to researchers and training establishments for studies, as well as on-farm training.
“We will also continue to forge links with the local community. We are very much part of Barrington village and we host visits for the villagers to view milking and turnout.”