Striving for success on a state-of-the-art dairy unit has brought its share of challenges. Chloe Palmer finds out how the younger generation are working out the answers at Gleadthorpe Grange Farm.
Developing a dairy unit from scratch in an area better known for carrots and potatoes might seem like an ambitious goal. For the Bacon family, it has proved to be an exciting venture providing the sons and daughters with a rare chance to forge their own future in farming.
The Bacon family; two brothers, Richard and Robert, and Richard’s two sons and daughter (Will, David and Martha), had always milked cows just 10 miles away in Derbyshire. The short distance between the old and new farm belies a host of differences – ‘from clay to a sandy beach’, according to the family.
The younger generation of Bacons were showing a keen interest in farming and their father and uncle were keen to encourage them.
When the opportunity to sell off some land for development at the old farm coincided with Gleadthorpe Grange Farm coming on the market, the family took the plunge.
Richard and Robert chose to manage the development of the new unit and the sale of the old farm so this provided the opening for Will and David to take on the day-to-day management of the cows, assisted by Martha.
David says: “We bought the farm in May 2008 and started milking in April 2010. We looked at lots of farms with different systems before we decided what we wanted. There are always things you can change, but overall we are very happy with it.”
The original herd of 200 Holstein Friesians were brought from the family farm in Derbyshire to Gleadthorpe once the buildings were complete.
“We were surprised at how quiet the cows were when we first moved them here. Within a week, milk yield increased and cow comfort was so much better, which ultimately improved herd health,” says David.
The acquisition of an additional 150 cows to increase the size of the milking herd from the Ward brothers from Ashover, near Chesterfield, proved to be the start of a lasting and valuable partnership.
Will says: “John and Ian Ward had made the decision to stop milking and we were looking to expand our herd. They now rear all our heifers for us and we are really pleased with the arrangement – they look after them as if they were their own.”
Once herd numbers were approaching the target of 400, the Bacons could begin to focus on their goal of improving cow health and welfare and increasing yield.
David says: “As yield increased, we met more challenges. We went through a tough period at the beginning where things didn’t go to plan. We were not prepared for the differences between the cows we had before and the herd we have now.
“We realised one of the main solutions to our problems was the management of the dry cow period. We are trying to make sure the transition cows are not getting over conditioned.”
A high incidence of dry cow origin mastitis was another hurdle to overcome and the family came upon the answer through less than ideal circumstances.
“We were shut down with TB because the Wards had a reactor and our herds are linked. We had to keep the cows we had bought from them separate to ours so space was limiting.
“To address this, the dry cows were kept in cubicles almost until calving, rather than in straw yards. Suddenly the cases of mastitis dropped significantly. This supported ideas proposed by vets from Nottingham University,” says David.
The Bacons work closely with the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at the University of Nottingham and their local veterinary practice, Scarsdale Vets, which visits the farm once a fortnight and has been an integral part of the team when seeking solutions to issues.
Signing up to a mastitis control plan has also meant the dry cows are subject to a strict routine at milking.
Will says: “The cows to be dried off are milked with the rest of the herd and they return at the end of milking after the parlour has been cleaned. We then start our dry cow protocol consisting of fore milking and foam dipping the teats, which are then wiped clean with medicated towels. We then apply surgical spirit to cotton wool to disinfect the teat orifice.”
The vets have also worked closely with the Bacons to reduce the use of ‘critically important’ third and fourth generation cephalosporin antibiotics, which previously were used routinely on all dry cows at Gleadthorpe.
“Any cows with cell counts in excess of 200,000 in any month out of the last three receive an antibiotic tube and a teat sealant. Those cows with consistently lower cell counts are treated only with a teat sealant.”
David adds: “We were nervous about reducing the use of antibiotics so dramatically given the history of mastitis on this farm, but we have been very impressed with the results.”
The farm supplies Sainsbury’s as part of the Sustainable Dairy Group and David believes this has had wide ranging benefits.
“Sainsbury’s are looking for continual improvement in their producers. This ethos fits exactly with what we want to do and they are supporting us to help us meet our targets.”
Tackling lameness in the herd is a priority for David, who believes early identification and correct preventative action is the key.
“We have focused on mobility scoring for some time now. I think it is important to be honest when scoring. Spending time on this means earlier identification of lameness which leads to a more effective response to treatment.
“I have been on several foot trimming courses and I think it is important to get the correct training. All our cows walk through a self-cleaning, self-filling footbath as they exit the parlour and this has significantly reduced the cases of digital dermatitis in the herd.”
Moving to an almost pure-bred Holstein herd has not been without problems, but Will and David remain committed to the breed and the potential it offers.
“We are looking to increase yields so the Holstein has to be the way forward for us. We are not looking for an extreme animal because we do not want yield at the expense of conformation and udder. But ultimately, we have to refine our system to fit the Holstein.”
The younger cows in the herd have shown what they are capable of, particularly a recent cohort of heifers purchased from the Ward brothers. This has encouraged Will and David to breed additional replacements using more sexed semen.
“We use sexed semen for second services on animals which have had a successful transition from the dry period through to early lactation. We have used Holstein sires from families including McCormick and Shottle for all first services and we will use test bulls and beef sires on any cows at third or fourth service,” says Will, adding they no longer serve any cows more than 200 days.
Martha is responsible for the calves, including those sent to the Ward brothers for rearing.
She says: “The dairy replacements stay with us until they are about two weeks old and then return six weeks before calving. All the other calves are reared in our beef calf unit in the old farm buildings. We sell the beef calves to several buyers including one of our relief milkers.”
Stringent health protocols apply to all aspects of herd management and the calves are no exception. Eliminating Johne’s disease from the herd is a priority as Martha explains: “We test for Johne’s and we have had a few positive results so we mark up those cows and do not use colostrum from them. If we keep them, we use beef sires on them thereafter. We are currently looking at options to calve them separately from the remainder of the herd.”
Standing still is clearly not an option for the Bacon family and there is a consensus among Will, David and Martha as to the focus for the future.
“We have realised the key to the Holsteins is to allow them to meet their potential and we think three times a day milking could be the way to achieve this and may also help us to tackle the dry cow management,” says David.
They are quick to give credit to Richard and Robert who are still closely involved in the business, but give them the freedom to make decisions.
Will says: “We are very lucky to have been given such a fantastic opportunity by my Dad and uncle. We have a great team around us and we like to be open to advice because there is always room for improvement.”