The Herridge family takes a long-term view when investing and planning for the future on their tenanted farm in the Peak District. Chloe Palmer finds out how their dreams have become a reality.
Investing in a state-of-the-art rotary parlour is just one bold decision which Mike and Amy Herridge have made in their farming lifetime.
As tenants at Bent Farm on the Tissington estate, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire, ambition has driven progress ever since Mr Herridge succeeded to the tenancy from his father.
“The biggest step for us was taking on Bassett Wood Farm three years ago as our heifer rearing unit, which added 113 hectares (280 acres) to our holding,” says Mr Herridge.
The family then focused on making the best use of the additional land they had taken on over the previous two decades. A change in feeding strategy was the first step.
Mr Herridge says: “We wanted to bring the new land into a rotation for re-seeding so we started growing wheat to replace bought-in feed and now we grow maize on what we consider our best land.”
Growing as much of the ration as possible on-farm and feeding to the lactation curve, based on days in-milk, has proved positive for the herd and the business.
“The cows, producing 35 litres a day at 200 days, would yield the same amount of milk on little or no concentrate. In the past we had fed to yield and it made us realise we had been over-feeding because many of our late-lactation cows were becoming too fat,” Mrs Herridge explains.
The adoption of a new approach to feeding the dry cows also led to significant benefits, says Mr Herridge.
“We now feed 5kg of wheat straw mixed with silage, magnesium chloride and 2kg milking cow concentrate to the dry cows for a 50-day period. They maintain condition but do not become fat and it has reduced the incidence of milk fever substantially.
“Feeding a bulky straw-based ration to the dry cows has also improved forage intakes post-calving,” he says.
The fall in the occurrence of metabolic problems in freshly calved cows has been shown by a free ketone testing trial conducted on the herd.
“Of the 50 cows tested, only two showed sub-clinical ketone levels. In both cases these could be accounted for by an extended lactation,” Mrs Herridge says.
The high cost of concentrate and straw is the main factor which has persuaded Mr Herridge to crimp the home-grown wheat this summer.
Keeping his options open influences his forage production strategy.
“Growing wheat, maize and a large area of silage means we spread our risk. If we have a poor grass year, we can wholecrop the wheat.
I am also conscious this is a marginal farm for growing maize, so we have to be prepared for a bad year.”
Grazing is still an essential element of the system at Bent Farm. High yielders will graze for several hours every day between May and August whereas low yielders are outside all the time from May to October but will be fed silage before coming into the parlour.
With the milking herd increased to 300 cows and a feeding strategy paying dividends, the Herridges turned their attention to the milking parlour.
“Our herringbone parlour was 45 years old and we wanted the replacement to see through the next generation of Herridges at Bent Farm. We looked at robots and rapid-exit herringbone parlours but there were reasons why both would not work for us,” says Mr Herridge.
The decision to opt for a rotary parlour was only the first of many choices to make. Securing the finance was a challenge but Mr Herridge was lucky enough to have an understanding bank manager.
With the bank loan taken care of, Mr Herridge had a list of priorities which the design of the parlour had to accommodate.
He says: “Good cow flow is crucial, so making space for an adequate collecting yard coupled with an effective backing gate was paramount. The right handling system is also very important because we were spending up to two hours a day sorting cows for vet visits, the foot trimmer and for insemination.”
Mr Herridge designed his own handling system and even built his own backing gate so it could be exactly as he wanted it and at the right price. He is also quick to credit his builder who is a farmer’s son.
“We handed him the design drawings and they were several inches thick; there was as much below the ground as above. It was the first rotary he had built but he got everything right.”
Mr Herridge secured investment from Defra’s Animal Health and Welfare grant scheme which contributed 40 per cent of the cost of additional items relating to health, welfare and energy efficiency.
Rubber matting, also part-funded by the grant, covers all the decking and the entrance to the parlour and Mr Herridge believes this is a significant factor which has helped the cows adapt.
He says: “The third milking on the new rotary was quicker than when we used the old 12:24 herringbone. Now it saves us six hours a day. The cows adapted very quickly and our oldest cow, 12-year-old Ivy, is always the first to the parlour.”
“We decided against feeding in the parlour because we thought the cows would stand more quietly if they were not reaching for food all the time.”
Instead, the cows are all electronically tagged and monitored and they provide bespoke concentrate rations calculated according to days along the lactation curve. The parlour and the feeders work on two different computer systems but the Herridges hope to integrate the two in due course.
Future plans figure prominently in the thoughts of the Herridge family, not least because the parlour now has to be paid for. Milking three times a day is the next step.
“We think we can achieve up to fifteen percent more milk if we move to three-times-a-day milking.
We see it as a way of improving herd health because it will reduce the amount of milk our high-yielders have to carry into the parlour each visit and this will reduce the stress on their limbs.”
Finding additional staff for the extra milking who are as good as the two current Polish employees, Marcin and Julius, who have worked on-farm for eight years, may be difficult but Mr Herridge hopes the attraction of the excellent working environment will help.
Mr Herridge is conscious some ground was lost when his attention was distracted from the detail of herd management during construction of the parlour.
“Our calving interval slipped and we would like to see it drop back below 400 days. The herd walks through a newly constructed footbath twice a day which has made a big difference to digital dermatitis rates but we hope we can reduce lameness still further.”
Standing still does not seem to be an option for Mr Herridge who is intent on continual improvement at Bent Farm.
“We are really thrilled with how the parlour has turned out and it has lived up to all our expectations in terms of function and capacity.
We still have some of the pieces of the jigsaw to fit in but we are tackling them one by one.”