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Farm focus: Breeding and fertility focus improves calving index and yields

The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak decimated Cumbrian dairy herds, but it was not all about losses. In the case of Malcolm Errington it riggered a series of positive changes.


While the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak passed his farm by, the resulting shortage of heifers in Cumbrian farmer Malcolm Errington’s closed Holstein herd triggered a series of changes and improvements.


Fortunately, the farm and his herd came through the outbreak unscathed, but it did mean the normal AI service could not come on-farm until after the all-clear was given.


Mr Errington says: “Our dairy herd has been run as a totally closed herd for more than 30 years.


“We had two bulls, a British Blue and a Charolais, on the farm so there was no problem getting cows in-calf to maintain milk supplies.


“However, it did mean in 2004/2005 there were only 12 replacement Holstein heifers in instead of our normal 40 heifers.


“The obvious solution would have been to buy-in some replacements. However, we were conscious of the health risks and not sure whether bought-in cattle would be robust enough to cope with an upland farm running from 229 metres (750ft) to 305m (1,000ft).


“Because of the nature of our farm during the summer, our dairy herd can walk up to a mile each way to and from fell grazing.


“There was nothing inherently wrong with our cattle and system at the time, but the challenge was to breed more replacements and this meant greater involvement from our veterinary and cattle breeding services to increase submissions over a 12-month period.”


Mr Errington is the third generation of his family to hold the tenancy of Townhead Farm in Askham, and the farm is part of the Lowther Estate.


He has worked on the farm since leaving school, taking over full responsibility following the death of his father in 2003. The modern farm takes in two units, all classified as a Less Favoured Area, totalling about 190 hectares (470 acres).


The farms are mostly down to long-term leys, with some permanent grass, and include about 20ha (50 acres) of wheat grown for wholecrop. Land is variable, ranging from limestone and sandstone through to heavy clay.


“The land around Townhead is rocky, so can not be mown, which is why the cows need to go out to graze,” says Mr Errington. “We make about 250 acres of silage first crop and about 170 acres of second crop, then have about 50 acres of wholecrop wheat.


“We also buy in a lot of straw, with 33 articulated lorry loads used last year. About half of this was used for feeding and the rest for bedding.


“We use quite a lot in our dry cow diet and would need quite a bit more land if we did not buy in so much straw. I think straw is a healthy product for the diet.”


The herd
the herd on the move

Herd size

The dairy herd currently stands at 207 milkers, with about 60 heifers to come in plus dry cows and followers.


There is also a beef unit finishing 60 to 70 Holstein bulls and a similar number of British Blue cross steers and heifers, also bred from the

dairy herd.


The only other stock are about 1,200 wintering sheep which Mr Errington says are valuable in cleaning up pastures.


“We needed to improve fertility to breed more heifers. Our routine veterinary visits changed from monthly to fortnightly, taking in pre-service and post-natal checks.


“The post-natal checks are to clear up any potential problems before the next breeding cycle. Unless there are any specific problems there is then no intervention until 70 days after service. There is also tight control of infectious diseases, including BVD and leptospirosis.


“All cows are scanned, whether pregnant or not, as our vet says this gives far more information than traditional rectal examination.


“It is fairly easy to get semen into a cow, but more difficult to make sure she is holding in-calf.


“We also make use of a cattle breeding service, which looks after heat detection and choice of bulls. This has included use of sexed semen and inseminations using mixed semen from three bulls,” he says.


Other changes have included using a diet feeder instead of a silage wagon, enlarging some existing cubicles, and ensuring there is enough feeding space so all the cows can feed at the same time. Extra water troughs were also installed,” he says.


The changes over the last five to six years have paid dividends.


Mr Errington says: “We have seen calving index fall from about 410 to 387 days, which has been helped by having an exceptional breeding technician.


“Over the same period average milk yields have risen from 6,500 litres per cow to just over 9,000, with quality at 4 per cent fat and 3.27 per cent protein.


“Our bactoscan is about 13 and our cell count is about 105. We have had only 23 cases of mastitis over the past year.


“About four years ago our cell counts went up to 200, so we installed a back flushing system in the parlour and use new wipes on every cow.


“A cell count of about 100 is about right, as trying to get lower counts would increase the risk of E.coli mastitis.


“We also bought a sawdust spreader for bedding the cubicles, which also have foam mattresses. This helps make sure the job is done properly.”


Mr Errington says while the herd is bred pure, he does not have pedigree paperwork for the cattle.


“Our cattle are middle of the road Holsteins and we do not breed for stature, as that would mean many of our cubicles would be too small. You can have some relatively small cows which still give a lot of milk.”


Heifers calve at about 25 months and all youngstock, dairy and beef, are reared together using a traditional bucket system.


Dry cows are kept indoors along with calving heifers to give the heifers some experience of being with adult cows. Both are introduced to dairy rations and minerals in the run-up to calving and joining the dairy herd.


Mr Errington farms with his wife, Sylvia, three full-time staff and one part time.


His cowman has worked on the farm for 25 years and has been joined by his son, while the third full-time employee has been on the farm for 11 years.


The part-time employee is the cowman’s wife, who helps in the parlour.


“One of the keys to the success of our business is having good staff and looking after them,” says Mr Errington. “We always make sure to ask ‘what do you think?’ and try to make sure they are involved in making decisions about the farm.


“We are always looking to improve things through attention to detail and becoming more efficient.”


The housing
The herd

Townhead Farm

  • The herd calves all year round, with slightly less calving from April to June
  • Milk is sold to Arla
  • Finishing cattle are finished indoors on silage, straw and cereals and sold deadweight
  • The 12-month following average to June 2014 shows yield per cow at 8,974kg, of which 1,519kg is achieved from forage.
  • Average price per litre was 32.72p, with concentrate cost per litre of 10.20p (0.41kg/litre).
  • Margin over purchased feed per cow was £2,020.49 (22.52p per litre or £5,035/ha (£2,037/acre)) based on Carrs Billington costings
  • The dairy herd is managed as single group, with TMR feeding plus high quality concentrate fed to yield in the parlour
  • Slurry is handled through a 1,818,437-litre (400,000-gallon) lagoon at Townhead and a second 1,363,828-litre (300,000-gallon) field lagoon on the second farm. Spreading is via a mix of umbilical and trailing shoe spreaders
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