There is a tendency to associate New Zealand type grass based dairy systems in the UK with relatively large extensive units, but the Fewster family are managing the system successfully with around 100 cows.
At a time when most relatively small family dairy operations are leaning towards high input/high output milk production systems, the Fewster family has opted for a New Zealand-style low input/low output grass-based system on its West Yorkshire farm.
Through careful soil and grassland management, the family has an extended grazing system with about 100 New Zealand-type Friesians averaging about 6,000 litres at 4.2 per cent fat and 3.6 per cent protein, giving high solids milk for a manufacturing milk contract.
Listing Mill Farm, Gomersal, near Cleckheaton, is run as a partnership between father Malcolm, his Dutch wife, Trees plus their son, Malcolm Edward, and his Australian wife, Cheryl.
Malcolm came to the farm nearly 50 years ago, initially as a farm worker then taking over the tenancy and later buying the farm. All four are equal partners in the farm business.
Now aged 39, Malcolm Edward studied agriculture at Newcastle University and was a Nuffield Scholar in 2010 looking at pastoral farming including units in Europe, North and South America, plus Australia and New Zealand. He also worked for a year on farms in New Zealand.
The farm is a 40.5-hectare (100-acre) undulating grazing platform used by the dairy herd and a further 20ha (50 acres) made up of mostly rented small packets of land used for dry cows and youngstock.
Listing Mill Farm is also surrounded by urban development on all sides which, says the family, has many advantages, but which also severely limits the prospects of any major expansion from their present base.
But they are also quick to say there are no plans for such expansion as their present farm and system produces sufficient income to support both families.
However should any of the third generation, Malcolm Edward and Cheryl’s young children, decide to take over the business, that would be their choice.
Malcolm says: “We originally had a conventional Holstein herd calving all year round which stemmed back to the days of unpasteurised milk bottling.
Then, over the past 10 to 12 years we gradually changed to a spring-calving, New Zealand-based system, which has been ticking away quite nicely.
“This system had great appeal as it required a low capital input and as owners of a mortgage, financial stability was essential. With just two years of the mortgage still to run, we will soon be proud owners of the farm.”
Recent investments, which have needed to show a low risk and a good return, include a borehole and a wind turbine. These were expected to pay for themselves within three and six years respectively.
The farm’s dairy cows are currently cross-bred from a New Zealand Friesian base with Jersey and Swedish Red crosses.
Recent investments include a wind turbine and borehole and both will provide a return on investment in a short space of time.
However the turbine now seems set to pay for itself in four years and Malcolm says both contribute to the long-term efficiency of the farm.
“We used Livestock Improvement Company genetics to develop our herd of New Zealand-type Friesians plus a little Jersey cross-breeding. Recently, 13 pure Jerseys have also joined the herd to boost milk solids and two years ago we also introduced some Swedish Reds.
“In the past we have also used some Brown Swiss,” says Malcolm.
“Recently we have been offered and taken a new manufacturing milk contract with Arla, which means we get paid for additional protein we effectively gave away under our old contract. Over the year we expect this will be worth an extra 2p per litre.”
Another key point was the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, says Trees.
“We stayed clear of the disease but, understandably, our AI man said he could not come to us for just two or three inseminations,” she says.
“It was decided to synchronise our cows so a larger group could be inseminated at the same time, which in turn led to block calving. This is a key part of our present system.”
Malcolm says: “It was the best move we ever made. Observation of bulling cows is so much better as we are looking over a relatively short period instead of all year round.
“Block calving also saves on other costs, including selling more calves together rather than taking several trips to Holmfirth market with just two or three calves. This meant savings in both fuel costs and time.”
Malcolm Edward says: “Our spring calving time is planned to fit in with grass growth. We use the feed wedge system to match grass availability to our grazing needs.
“We AI cows over a six week period using largely New Zealand genetics, then put in our Aberdeen-Angus chaser bull.
“This system works well as our most fertile cows conceive to AI and less fertile ones will be served by the bull. We can use this information in breeding for dairy replacements.
“Last year, out of 90 cows served, 60 calved over the first three weeks of the calving period. The calving pattern also means we have a month each year without milking.
“We aim to graze cattle for 10 months of the year. Our land is generally free draining and our rainfall is relatively low at about 685mm (27 inches) annually, which means we can burn up a little if the weather is hot and dry.
“We grow about 12 acres of kale each year, which is followed by grass. Our grass is mostly perennial rye-grasses, including high sugar diploid varieties, sown as medium-term leys.
“Tetraploids are simply not resilient enough for our grazing system. A little clover is also used.
“Our silage is mostly taken as and when there is surplus grass on the grazing areas - usually about 10 acres at a time.”
Grazing is on a strict rotational pattern. The aim is to take grass no later than the two-and-a-third to three-leaf stage on the first grazing rotation, after which the bottom leaves tend to deteriorate.
Malcolm Edward says: “We also use a follower-leader system, with dry cows following milkers around the grazing areas.
“The kale is then used to extend the grazing period through to Christmas.
“Some grass is held back from the middle of October into November so we have good grazing available in March.
“By the middle of April our grass growth matches demand at about 50kg dry matter per hectare, and this farm is grazed virtually bare at a time when other local farms have plenty of grass.
“We have a ‘magic day’, usually April 10, when grass growth just takes off again, covering the normal early summer dip.”
Malcolm says: “Looking after the soil is absolutely vital for our system.
“We use the Albrecht system of soil analysis and deal with any imbalance flagged up.
“Soil structure is also important, with a good population of earthworms and soil bacteria. We also aerate our ground to encourage good structure.
“We are in an NVZ here, but this does not cause us any problems. We have a small slurry lagoon, but because our cattle are fed a lot of fibre, the muck is mostly solid, so is easily handled and is mainly spread onto the kale land.”
Looking to the future, Malcolm Edward says: “The family has had many conversations, toying with ideas of expansion, diversification or taking on another tenancy.
“The general conclusion is that our relatively small holding is providing us with an enjoyable lifestyle and sufficient profit.
“The farm is surrounded by a built up area so there would be no chance of simply taking on adjoining land and taking substantial plots of land away from our present farm would mean major investment and would detract from our low cost formula.
“Diversification could be an option for the future, but would bring with it inherent risks, including reducing the focus on the core business.
“Relocation and taking on another unit seems too much upheaval at the present time.
“For the foreseeable future we will stay here, although if, as we hope, any of the next generation want to stay in farming, it will be up to them.”