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Farm focus: Dairy producers embrace sustainable production

As many dairy farmers face a period of uncertainty in light of recent milk price announcements, Farmers Guardian reports on one dairy business which has made the most of its resources to expand herd numbers.

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KELLOE Mains Farm is located near Berwick-upon-Tweed, the northernmost town of England. Third generation dairy farmer Robert McDonald (Jnr), farms the 1,011-hectare (2,500-acre) holding in partnership with his father.


They milk 720 Holsteins, three times a day. Mr McDonald says this is no mean feat and keeping costs to a minimum is central to the system.


“We expanded the herd significantly last summer. Fifteen years ago we were milking 300 across two sites, but we merged the herds in 2000 and upped numbers to 400. The installation of a 40-point rotary parlour followed three years later.


“At that point we were milking twice-a-day but we made the decision to go for a third milking in June 2011,” adds Mr McDonald, who explains the parlour now runs for up to 19 hours a day.


“It proved to be a good move as milk outputs increased by 15 per cent. Importantly, industry standards say the breakeven point is about a 10 per cent increase in production.


“This helped give us the confidence to increase our herd size to 750, however, with this increase came the need for more housing.”

The McDonald’s house their milking herd all-year-round. “We put up a new 2,600sq.m cubicle house last year, it now accommodates 330 cows,” he adds.


Rubber mats

They future proofed this investment as far as possible. “We have installed rubber mats into the passageways. These were actually mining conveyor belts imported from Australia and as a result we have seen massive reductions in sole ulcers and overall hoof health.”


Kelloe Mains is also self-sufficient in electricity. The buildings have a 200KW solar panel system which supplies the farm with power. “We expect the solar panels to pay for themselves in six years. While they will save us money in the long run, it is also important to be sustainable.


Their choice of bedding material may not be conventional but also appears on the sustainability agenda. “We invested in a slurry separator last year. This has enabled us to deep bed the cows on manure solids. It is about 35 per cent dry matter and works incredibly well for us. Being in an nitrate vulnerable zone means we still need slurry storage for 4.5 million gallons but it is great to be able to use a sustainable bedding material. It is proving to be incredibly effective and we have seen a drop in mastitis cases and somatic cell counts. Most importantly the cows seem incredibly clean and comfortable on it.”


Simplicity is at the heart of the McDonalds’ system and no exception is made in their approach to feeding regimes.


The dairy herd is fed a complete TMR and there is no in-parlour feeding. Dr Michael Marsden, Trident Feeds technical manager, details the components of the TMR. “The herd is fed 3kg spey syrup, 1.5kg water, 1.2kg straw, 8.5kg blend and 3.75kg caustic wheat on a 4:1 ratio of wheat to oilseed rape seed, 4.5kg draff, 22kg silage and 5kg wholecrop.”


The blend comprises 2 per cent syrup, 2 per cent minerals and yeast, 8 per cent beans, 8 per cent barley, 14 per cent soya, 19 per cent beet pulp, 20 per cent soy pass, and 27 per cent wheat distillers.


Mr McDonald highlights the significance of the diet. “The barley, wheat and beans from our arable enterprise go back into the diet and we also make our own silage from about 400 acres of grass. We are aiming to get three cuts of silage which equates to about 6,000 tonnes.


“However, in spring 2014 cutting was delayed by around 10 days and even then, when we could go, we were dodging the rain.


“Unsurprisingly, the crop of grass silage has low dry matter, about 23 per cent per cent, so we have had to tweak the diet to improve the energy density of the ration, but as a result of the quality of silage we have also seen an increase in ration sorting.


“The palatability of the ration has been improved through the inclusion of wheat distillers which are also a great palatable source of protein and energy,” says Mr McDonald. He says they are a cost-effective alternative to imported proteins and have a high nutritional value.


The wheat distillers fed by Mr McDonald, sourced from the Vivergo bioethanol plant in Yorkshire, are produced solely from British feed wheat. “This domestically-produced product contains 33 per cent crude protein, is high in digestible fibre, and low in starch,” says Dr Marsden.


Wheat distillers

Mr McDonald adds the inclusion of wheat distillers in the ration has also helped us reduce our reliance on imported soya.


He explains the ration is fed at 5.30am and 8.00am and is topped up throughout the day.


“Feeding times are important and should not be neglected. By feeding just an hour earlier we have noticed an increase in milk yield of just under a litre a day.”


He is aiming for 10,000 litres from his cows and looked to Holland for heifers to build his herd numbers. “Last summer I purchased 278 Dutch heifers; these have the potential to carry less disease.


“I was also using 100 per cent genomic semen and used a lot of sexed semen in the run up to the expansion. I am breeding for milk and health, and not ‘type’ – after all, its milk which sells.”


He adds the Holstein suits the TMR system. “Their appetite and subsequent intakes follow the milk curve, and as we are calving throughout the year it is good to have cows which you know will not put on extra condition if the food is in front of them.


“I am always looking to reduce costs, but most crucial of all, I am looking at ways to develop and enhance our business. It has been an exciting 12 months and despite milk prices I am looking forward to the future of Kelloe Mains.”

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