With animal welfare, health and comfort firmly in mind Grosvenor Farms set about building a new dairy farm, which would also meet exacting standards economically, environmentally and socially. Katie Jones reports.
Dairy farming has been in the DNA of the business run by Grosvenor Farms in Aldford, near Chester, for more than 100 years.
So when the dairy farming business reached a cross-roads four years ago, the review process and decision over where to go next was not taken lightly.
Mark Roach, managing director at Grosvenor Farms, explains at the time the business comprised four herds; one of 500 cows, and three of 300.
“The facilities were adequate but no longer ‘best in class,” says Mr Roach. “Many of the facilities had been built in the 50s and 60s and were no longer the most efficient set-ups and, in some cases, were nearing the end of their natural life.
“We had to ask whether we thought we were going to be serious milk producers in the next 30 or 40 years, and whether it was still a good business to be in.”
Mr Roach says after doing this initial research the team decided dairy farming was a good business to be in and Britain, and in particular Cheshire, was a good place to be producing milk.
This and the fact Grosvenor Farms had a long-standing team of skilled people working for it, meant the decision was made to build a new unit.
Mr Roach, along with the operations manager, David Craven, and herds manager, Mark Farrall, then researched what they should build and how.
Several weeks were spent in the US, Europe, and on dairy units in the UK, with world experts in the field of building design consulted.
“We hovered up a lot of intellectual property; we had the opportunity to build a new dairy farm so we wanted to make sure we were building something which would stand the test of time,” says Mr Roach.
The unit was designed in-house, planning went in in 2012 and building work, which Mr Craven took charge of, started on the brownfield site previously used for heifer rearing, in May 2013.
Mr Roach explains there were four objectives.
“The first was to design and build a farm, which would operate at the top end of economic efficiency in the UK and be resource efficient.
“The second was to have the highest standards for welfare, health and comfort; we believe you cannot achieve the first objective if you do not have this.
“Thirdly we wanted a farm, which had a low environmental impact and low carbon footprint.
“And finally we wanted a farm which people enjoyed working on and had good standards. We want to attract and retain good staff.”
The build took just more than 18 months to complete and the farm has been operating since November 10 last year.
Despite expecting the cows to take time to get used to their new environment, Mr Roach says the cows settled in within a week or two.
“We closed three of the four farms and put the cows from these into the new site. None of the cows had been milked through a rotary before so we expected to lose some milk, but were amazed milk went up by 6 per cent in the first six weeks. Milk quality was also higher, and we think this is all down to the comfort of the new facilities.”
Currently 950 cows are milked at the new site, with the whole build costing around £5,000 per cow. The total business comprises 1,400 cows in total run across two herds, plus 1,000 followers reared at a separate site.
Calving is all-year-round, average yields are 11,300 litres at 3.8 per cent fat and 3.3 per cent protein, with milk sold to Muller.
The new site comprises three sheds, one houses the dry cows, transition cows, and also has an area of individual pens for safe and effective calving.
The other two sheds each house a group of around 400 cows; an ‘open’ group and a ‘pregnant’ group.
These sheds have been designed with two rows of head-to-head cubicles, with no restrictions in the middle which allow the cow more lunging space.
Sheds are 140 metres (460ft) long and 25m (82ft) wide, with wide passageways to allow for good cow flow, and also to stop slurry build-up. There is a 1 per cent fall on the buildings, and concrete has been custom-grooved to prevent the ‘pooling’ of slurry, which Mr Farrall says has had a significant contribution to lowering mastitis incidence.
“Incidence is low, we currently have one cow being treated for mastitis, and the last case was seen nine days ago,” says Mr Farrall.
The roof pitch on each of the sheds is 22 degrees, compared to 12.5 degrees, which is the usual industry standard for cubicle housing in the UK.
Mr Craven says: “In the States and Europe roof pitches can be up to 30 degrees, with the greater pitch used to help air movement known as the stack effect in buildings.
The sheds are open-sided and space between them is equivalent to the width of the shed itself, again to ensure there is plenty of air going through the sheds.
“The thermal neutral temperature for cows is 4degC, so we are trying to work around that temperature to keep the cows as comfortable as possible.”
Mr Craven adds water was an important consideration within the design process, and shallow troughs have been fitted, with high water pressure ensuring fresh water enters the troughs quickly.
Two bungs on the plastic troughs mean cleaning is straightforward, and pipework is internal to eliminate problems with freezing pipes.
Lighting in the sheds was also important, and Mr Craven explains the LED lighting requires a low power input. Light sensors are used for
automatic control, but he says they are aiming for around 18 hours of light.
There is enough feed space for all the cows to feed at the same time, and the feed fences are fitted with locking yokes, which allows routine treatments to be done in the sheds.
“This means there is no stress caused from pulling out cows into separate treatment areas,” says Mr Farrall.
With the vet visiting weekly for routine fertility work, Mr Farrall explains it is important to be able to quickly identify which animals need to be looked at.
“To begin with we were giving the vet a list of cows, but this was taking too long as it was difficult to identify the cows in such large groups.
“So we were separating the cows out using segregation gates in the parlour and keeping them separate until the vet arrived. But the cows were getting stressed by this, so now we have someone in the parlour marking the back leg of the cows which need to be looked at once back in the shed; this was the quickest way to do the job.”
Mr Farrall says they used to chalk cows for signs of heat, but now rely on Cogent’s activity monitors which pick up heats which might have been missed in the past.
“We also have reproductive training from Cogent’s Precision team to ensure our fertility team are at the same level of competency when serving cows. We use a mix of genomic and proven bulls from the Cogent portfolio, such as Superstyle, Goodwhone, Bookem and Grafeeti. All the cows are mated using their programme to find the best fit for each cow while minimising inbreeding.
“Since starting at the new unit we have moved to once-a-day breeding, with cows AI’d in the yokes within an hour and a half of them being milked in the morning.
“Before moving to this unit pregnancy rates were averaging 19 per cent, and when we first came here this did take a dip, but in the last two months we have been achieving an average of 26 per cent.”
All the cubicles are deep sand bedded, and a sand recycling and slurry separating facility has been built, which is in line with environmental objectives.
“The slurry separating system has come from the sand quarry industry. Sand is pulled from the slurry, with the muck separated into liquid and solids,” says Mr Craven.
“We can apply the liquid slurry to growing crops, and the composted manures can be used to restructure and condition soils within the arable rotation.
“We have just started to use the recycled sand in the dry cow sheds, but we need some warmer weather to dry out the recycled sand as it still feels a bit ‘claggy’ for use in the main sheds.”
He adds they are aiming to recycle all the sand used on-site, and estimates this will save them around £60,000 out of the £75,000 it would currently cost to buy sand for the year. He adds the system should pay for itself within five years.
Water is also recycled with parlour water used to flood wash the collecting yard, and then in the sand recycling unit.
Solar panels have been fitted to one of the sheds, which means the site is producing more energy than required.
“We wanted a unit which had a minimal use of natural resources and, as a result, would have a low carbon footprint,” says Mr Craven.
While the team at Grosvenor feel they have got cow comfort and flow right in the sheds, they also say there are some areas they are looking to improve in the future.
At the moment milking parlour throughput is around 320 cows/hour but Mr Craven says there is scope to increase this.
“We want to be able to milk the entire group of 400 within an hour, so once we have ironed out teething problems with getting cows off the platform, and as genetics develop to ensure even quicker let-down of milk we hope to achieve our target.”
While the main aim for the team is to run a profitable business, Mr Roach is keen to stress they are also mindful of the social and environmental aspects of the business.
“Once you have got the right system in place, it is then all about the system. We want to provide good working conditions, and get the right people to manage the cows. We want to be able to build a business which is fit to pass onto the next generation.”
Yolk locks allow cows with health problems to be treated in the sheds
The 60-point rotary parlour on-farm sees cows visit three times a day and includes features such as a height adjustable platform for staff