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Dual-purpose British Friesians fit the bill on family-run farm

The Neill family from Thornington Farm, Northumberland, milks 320 British Friesian cows and has invested heavily in the dairy enterprise over the past decade. Bruce Jobson visited R. Neill and Sons and reports on Northumberland’s closest dairy farm to Scotland.

The beef and heifer sheds at Downham Farm.
The beef and heifer sheds at Downham Farm.
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Dual-purpose British Friesians fit the bill on family-run farm

Thornington Farm lies nestled in the rolling hills of north Northumberland, situated in an elevated position in the Bowmont Valley.


The River Bowmont meanders through the valley bottom, eventually feeding into the Tweed, and provides an idyllic setting far removed from the mainstream media view of a modern dairy enterprise.


The Neill family moved to Northumberland from Kilmarnock with a small herd of Ayrshire cows in 1954 and has since milked cows every day at Thornington Farm.


The business has changed over the past 66 years and, during the past decade, the farm has undergone continual investment.


Tom Neill has spearheaded the restructuring programme and is the main driving force behind the dairy enterprise.


The business remains a family-run enterprise, with Tom’s father and mother, George and Mary, resident on the farm, and Tom and younger brother, David, involved in the daily-running of the operation.


The business farms more than 2,700 acres in total, part owned and part-rented, and also incorporates a beef fattening system, a 1,800-ewe sheep flock and employs six full-time staff.


The Neill family milks 320 British Friesian cows, averaging 7,900kg milk at 4.26% fat and 3.5% protein, allied to a 366-day CIS-recorded calving interval.

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The herd breeding programme and overall farming system suit the British Friesian type cow. The dairy business is structured to capitalise on the dual aspects of milk production and male Friesian calves are reared through the farm’s beef system, says Tom.


He says: “We are currently using 100% British Friesian sires, as well as terminal beef bulls, such as Limousin and Herefords.


“We are conscious of increasing dairy cow stature and cow size within the herd and we aim to breed for a trouble-free cow with high fertility and a cow which is able to graze grass efficiently and, importantly, produce a calf every 365 days.


“We place strong emphasis on animal health and welfare throughout the whole herd, as well as our replacement youngstock and followers.


“Close-up calving cows are kept separate on well-bedded straw pens, then moved into straw-bedded calving pens.


“Post-calving, all cows and heifers are kept in a large straw-bedded yard, located in a separate building, for up to 45 days. We want cows to be healthy, comfortable and stress-free.”


The dairy herd is milked twice-a-day through a 28:28 fully automated DeLaval herringbone parlour, with all cows electronically identified and recorded at every milking.


Cows are subsequently fed to yield on an automatic basis. EID monitors and identifies any reduction in milk yield and milk quality, and flags any health concerns. Herd fertility, animal health and sire matings are also computer-recorded.


Milk is supplied to Arla on the recently introduced Arla 360 programme. The scheme was introduced last year and Thornington is one of only 26 farms aligned to Aldi.


As part of the contract, animal health and welfare are part of the Arla 360 requirement. The farm has two bulk tanks with a 14,500-litre total capacity and milk is lifted on an every other day collection basis.

Tom Neill of R. Neill and Sons.
Tom Neill of R. Neill and Sons.

The Neill family took a collective decision to undertake a process of investment beginning in 2012. Then cow accommodation consisted of 128 wooden cow kennels, however the new wide-span steel building for 140 cows was constructed with cow comfort at the forefront of design.


The new south-facing building is light and airy, and the central feed passage divides cows between high yielding and late lactation groups.


An electric lighting system ensures 16 hours of daylight and eight hours of darkness.


The 140 cubicles have comfortable rubber mattresses. Cows are bedded every day with clean, dry sawdust and lime to help prevent mastitis and build-up of bacteria.


Cows have access to crystal clear water at all times, due to rotating water troughs which are cleaned and emptied on a daily basis. The building incorporates a slatted floor and has underground slurry capacity for a full winter.


The new state-of-the-art milking parlour was installed in 2015 as part of an existing farm building which adjoins the cubicle house and straw-bedded area for fresh milking cows.


Staff comfort was another consideration with the parlour floor having comfortable under-foot thick rubber foam matting.


First milking is at 4.30am, then again at 2.30pm in the afternoon, with everything being washed down and wrapped up by 5pm.


Attention to detail pays dividends right across the various enterprises on-farm, according to Tom.


He says: “We place strong emphasis on animal health and welfare throughout the whole herd, as well as replacement heifers and followers.


“Mole Valley Feeds Nutritionist Julian Hall body scores cows every month, undertakes herd costings, rations dry cows and checks lactating cow diets.


“It is essential to have cows bred back early to achieve a near 365-day calving interval and herd health and fertility are important.


“We want cows to calve easily, not suffer from milk fever, metabolic disorders and retained cleansings, and start to cycle early for insemination after 45 days.


“The central feed passage incorporates locking yokes and this makes routine veterinarian work and insemination easier, and reduces stress on animals and staff.


“Calf rearing is another area of importance. A healthy trouble-free start to a calf’s life is imperative and we use incorporated OmniGen products to reduce antibiotic use in youngstock.”

The 140 cubicles have comfortable rubber mattresses.
The 140 cubicles have comfortable rubber mattresses.

Milking cows are fed a TMR through a Keenan feeder wagon on a once-daily basis. The diet comprises first cut grass silage, wholecrop wheat, urea-treated barley and wheat, molasses, pot ale mixture and minerals.


Silage quality is important, with milking cows targeted to ideally receive only first cut silage depending on seasonal year-to-year available supply.


The 2019-2020 winter diet offered 39.6% dry matter, 12.8% active fibre, 17.7% crude protein and 33.6% non-digestible fibre.


The all-year-round calving herd is currently averaging 27 litres/day with an all feeds diet cost over winter of £3.02/head/day, an 11.2ppl all feeds cost and a margin over purchased feed of 22.5ppl. The herd has a 12-month rolling milk price of 31.1ppl.


Thornington Farm rises from 350ft to 850ft above sea level and maximising available forage remains a priority.


Two new 2,000-tonne silage clamps were constructed in 2018, with one filled entirely with first cut grass. Any extra grass goes into the second clamp and this is subsequently filled with second cut.


Large bale silage and haylage is also made for beef animals and youngstock, respectively.


The dairy herd is turned out to grass in early April, depending on weather, and housed indoors during October.


Herd longevity is another feature of the farm’s long-term profitability, with cows currently averaging more than four lactations.


Tom says: “We do not push our cows for out-and-out yield, but take a measured approach. We want cows to last.


“It takes two or more lactations for an animal to pay for her replacement and the most profitable cows on-farm are third, fourth and fifth or more lactation animals.


“We aim for a 20-25% heifer replacement rate in any given year and target to retain 80 heifer replacements for ourselves. Any surplus animals are sold at Carlisle through Harrison and Hetherington’s monthly dairy sale.


“All our annual animal sales, deriving from the dairy enterprise, are calculated to be worth an additional 10ppl.


Freshly calved British Friesian heifers regularly make £1,600-£2,000 each at auction and purchasers regularly return to Carlisle to purchase Thornington-bred animals.


“Demand for British Friesian animals continues to increase and our careful selection process and breeding policy ensures we only sell heifers which we are prepared to rear and keep for ourselves.


“We use sexed and conventional British Friesian semen, as well as our own stock bulls, Nerewater Junction and Winnoch Incognito.”

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