A new dairy complex capable of accommodating 700 Montbeliarde cows in Dumfries and Galloway.
The new dairy complex has been designed around a slurry system which flows by gravity to a 150kW anaerobic digestion plant which should generate more than £100,000 of electricity annually from slurry alone.
It was about 10 years ago when Iain Service began to plan his move into dairying. At the time, he was operating a low-cost, grass-based system with 700 beef cows and 1,800 breeding ewes.
Now Mr Service and his wife, Rosanne, farm a ring-fenced block of 1,092 hectares (2,700 acres) of grassland at East Knockbrex Farm, Newton Stewart, which comprises about 400ha (1,000 acres) capable of being cut for silage, 400ha (1,000 acres) of good permanent pasture and 280ha (700 acres) of rough grazing.
In addition, they have 400ha (1,000 acres) of hill grazing about eight miles away where 200 beef cows are out-wintered. A flock of 900 breeding ewes is run in conjunction with the beef enterprise.
With the demise of milk quotas already planned 10 years ago, the partners knew they would not have to buy any and this was the green light which allowed the project to proceed.
Farm staff began building the new 50-cow rotary milking parlour in March 2011, with the first milk flowing from the unit in August last year.
Currently, 550 Montbeliarde cows are milked twice a day, but with cubicles for 700, there is scope for future expansion.
Mr Service says: “The only thing we can grow here is grass, which can either be used for low-cost beef and sheep systems, or to produce milk. It was the cost of milk quotas which put me off dairying in the past, but I did not have to buy any as they are coming to an end.
“I planned and designed the layout over a number of years as a green-field development.
“It was a DIY job involving myself; Steven Landers, who has worked with us for 30 years; and my sons William, Robert and Andrew.
The partners have invested more than £4 million in the new enterprise and Mr Service reckons the buildings and anaerobic digestion (AD) plant cost about £3 million. Unusually for a project of this scale, there was no grant aid.
“I wasted about £20,000 on consultants and never got a penny from the Scottish Rural Development Programme. My scoring was appalling.”
Justifying the huge capital outlay involved, Mr Service says: “This is a 50-year investment. Doing things ourselves probably saved us about £1m. We built the cubicle sheds and did all the groundworks, including drains.
“The parlour, silage pits, slurry tanks, electrics and building works for the AD plant were done by local contractors.”
Montbeliardes were chosen as Mr Service prefers red and white cattle and wanted cows capable of going out to grass during the day in the grazing season.
He also wanted bull calves with beef potential and replacement heifers which had the ability to grow well on his rough grazing. As the dairy enterprise is in its infancy, management of the herd is still evolving.
“I am not comfortable with housing cows all year round and Holsteins are a high-maintenance breed, which would not fit my system.
“Anyway, I did not like the idea of having to put their bull calves down at birth, and Ayrshires have more-or-less become red and white Holsteins.”
Pedigree Montbeliarde cows were imported through Coopex, a farmer-owned co-operative based near the French Alps where small herds of cows regularly graze at above 1,000 metres (3,280 feet).
The co-op has been using proven bulls for the last 30 years to selectively breed cows to produce milk with high solids, suitable for cheesemaking, from grass and forage-based diets which mainly consist of hay.
Milk solids are important to Mr Service as he is contracted to supply milk to the Lactalis cheesemaking creamery at nearby Stranraer.
Producing electricity by AD of slurry was always an integral part of the plan and he jokingly says: “It’s fair to say, currently the slurry is the product with value, while milk has become a by-product of little value.
“It always seemed to me AD was a perfect environmental solution for handling slurry from a large dairy herd. It makes a lot of sense to use the slurry in a holistic
approach which improves fertiliser quality, reduces smells and generates electricity and heat.
“Odour from digestate is reduced by 90 per cent compared to slurry and this is important as, with Newton Stewart just a mile away, smells could have created problems.”
Slurry flows by gravity through channels and pipes from the ‘head waters’, created by washing the parlour, to the reception pit at the AD plant which will process about 13,000 tonnes annually.
Mr Service is increasingly confident the plant should generate more than 100MWh per year, which should save him about £25,000 on the farm’s electricity bill and hopefully create a surplus, worth about £75,000
annually, to sell to the national grid, all from slurry alone.
Fortunately he has a good relationship with Scottish Power, which charged him £50,000 for the grid connection.
Although AD is not a new technology, there are few plants in Scotland and technical knowledge can be hard to find.
“There are a lot of things about AD plants which folk never think about. The industry is in its infancy and there are only a few plants which have been run for five years.
“Most AD plants do not work as well as sales staff would lead you to believe. It took me some time to find a technology provider I had confidence in and it has taken more than four years to get our plans for AD to this stage,” says Mr Service.
He looked at one in California in 2008, but it had problems silting up with sand which was difficult to access. This made him look for a system which allowed him to easily remove sediment.
He also wanted a solid roof, rather than a plastic one which could fail, especially in high winds.
Eventually, he came across a system which was manufactured in the UK, visiting Wrexham in 2009 to meet the designers and see the prototype.
“I was impressed with their knowledge and experience. Their system incorporated a degritting sump which was easily accessed and allowed regular emptying.
“The rotor which mixes the slurry is made of non-corrosive fibre glass. That is important, as where the gas meets the liquid is a very corrosive environment for steel,” he says.
As with all AD plants, there have been teething problems.
“Although you are always better to have a firm deadline to get the project completed, realistic timescales are also important. If you are told it will only take a year to complete the project, it will probably take at least two. My project did not move forward as fast as it should have done, but we are there now.
“It has been running since mid-December and appears to be giving more output than we expected. It looks like a better investment than another couple of hundred cows.
“The farm staff can maintain it and it fits well with a dairy because both cows and an AD plant need constant supervision.”