Barry Alston has been on-farm catching up with last year’s winner of the Welsh Dairy Stockperson of Year Award.
A study trip to New Zealand and spending time milking cows has paved the way for a major management change for Elir and Catrin Evans.
Cow numbers have more than trebled at their West Wales dairy farm and the acreage of owned and rented ground has more than doubled.
What was once a single all-year-round calving herd with 180 milkers is now an all-spring calving operation, with more than 600 milkers spread across a four-unit enterprise - and their sights are set even higher.
The policy switch and expansion is largely down to Elir, who farms Henbant with his wife, Catrin, and parents Emyr and Edwina, not far from the sea near Talgarreg, Ceredigion.
Given the scale of courage needed to change direction, along with his dedication and determination to succeed, it is easy to see why he was the judging panel’s choice for the Wales Dairy Stockperson of the Year Award 2013.
Henbant has been farmed by the family for 90 years with Elir, the fourth generation, taking over the management from his father in 2007 after a spell as an agricultural student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, when he decided to make farming his career.
Elir says: “Originally the farm was about 32 hectares and like most family holdings of the era ran a few dairy cows, alongside sheep and suckler cows.
“It was Dad’s decision to expand the dairying side, which led to the installation of what then was a state-of-the-art abreast milking parlour with eight units.
“As cow numbers gradually continued to increase, we decided to do away with sheep and specialise in dairying, with investment going into a new 24:48 swingover milking parlour.”
That decision was taken on the back of a seven-month visit to New Zealand shearing sheep, but more importantly working on a dairy farm for four months. With 200 cows, it was hardly a large unit, but it was an experience which taught him a great deal.
“By far the most important lesson drilled into me was to produce milk from grass and home-grown forage rather than from pumping in the concentrates - hardly reinventing the wheel, I know, and something my grandfather would probably have been doing back in the 1930s and 1940s,” says Elir.
“Indeed, I believe dad would have been upset had I even suggested bringing in a feeder wagon.
“What we did agree to do was to move towards a New Zealand-type system and aim to produce as much milk as we could from grazed grass, even though we were calving all-year-round.
Initially they went for a split autumn and spring-calving herd, switching the cows around according to stage of lactation and eventually moving to a 100 per cent spring calving period.
Elir says: “Because we knew the history of the cows we already had, rather than selling some and buying in spring-calving replacements, we achieved the turnaround by keeping the autumn calvers dry for a longer period.
“Now we dry off all cows completely by December 17 and start calving on February 1, having finished this year by May 1.
“The breeds kept are mainly a New Zealand Friesian type, with a few Jersey crossbreds and the remains of 40 pure Dairy Shorthorns bought-in as in-calf heifers back in 2008 just to boost our numbers.
“We put a Friesian bull onto all our better cows, with the rest going to a British Blue and the crossbred beef calves being sold through the local markets at about three weeks old.
“The cows were out until December 7 last year and went out again by night and day as they calved, making it a fairly short winter.
“We have tried keeping them in at night, but feel they adjust more readily to being outdoors when they are out all of the time from initial turnout.
“At the same time, as we made the switch to spring calving, we bought another farm on the other side of the village with the intention of increasing cow numbers by a further 120 and taking us up to 300 milkers on the 121ha, using the additional ground for silage and youngstock grazing.
Although the family farm in what is considered to be a high rainfall area, the land is mostly a free-draining medium loam and south facing, with the grazing ground kept to a mixture of field sizes, largely served by a concrete roadway. Contractors are used for silage-making and slurry spreading.
“We have both cubicles above a slatted floor and loose housing, but because of the lie of the land, putting up any additional buildings is basically a non-starter given the amount of infill that would be needed.”
That dilemma has, however, been solved by the establishment of a second milking herd at Hafod Wynnog, two miles away near Ffostrasol.
“We were given the opportunity to take on what was once a 140ha organically-run sheep holding on a 15-year farm business tenancy, initially with the intention of using it for youngstock rearing,” says Elir.
“But with only an 80ha milking platform at Henbant and already more or less stocked to the hilt, we approached the owner with the idea of establishing an entirely new dairy unit.
“He agreed and we entered into a type of contract-farming agreement, with the investment being shared between us, but with him receiving a return based around what remains there permanently. In turn, we have invested in improving the infrastructure, reseeding and the stock.”
To start with, the only building at the farm was an old empty 24m by 18m (80ft by 60ft) open plan shed, but since then Elir and Catrin have put in a 24:48 swingover parlour very similar to the one at Henbant, laid some 4km (2.5 miles) of stone-bedded cow tracks, water troughs and nearly 22.5km (14 miles) of fencing, given that one field actually covered 47ha (116 acres).
He says: “We decided not to invest in housing for the time being, but instead initially to winter the stock - which then were in-calf heifers - on a 12ha fodder beet paddock. This yielded 18 tonnes per hectare of dry matter, along with big bale silage fed in ring feeders.
“It has worked well, although success or otherwise is largely dependent on the weather.
“As the herd grows older, we will have to consider putting in some form of housing at Hafod, but in the meantime we have purchased a neighbouring farm, which already has housing for up to 200 cows.
“It means this coming winter the later-calving cows will be kept outdoors on a crop of fodder kale, rather than fodder beet, and the others housed.
“Currently we have 320 milkers based at Hafod, all of them spring calving within a 12-week period and all sourced from heifers produced at Henbant.
“Day-to-day management at Hafod is down to Rhodri Pritchard under a contract arrangement, with payment based on a per litre produced basis.
“It means he has a purpose in what he is doing and from our point of view we know he will be doing his utmost to make a success of developing the herd.”
Given most of the cows at Hafod were heifers, the average yield last year stood at 3,900 litres per cow from 700kg of concentrates fed. This year, as second-calvers, they are on course for 4,500 litres-plus.
“The Henbant average is 6,000 litres, with just under one tonne of cake being fed per head, and clamp silage is grab fed via a feeding passage. The aim is to be milking 300 cows at Henbant and 420 at Hafod by 2016,” says Elir.
“All the milk goes to First Milk at Haverfordwest on a cheese contract and yes, the recent drop in prices is worrying but hopefully only a short-lived downturn.”
Uppermost in his mind is securing a future for his three young children - daughter, Jano, who is eight-years-old, and two sons, six-year-old Dafi and two-year-old Efan, should they want to be follow-on farmers.
A long-time member of the Merlin producer knowledge exchange and discussion group, Elir was also one of the 12 farms involved in the recently completed all-Wales, three-year grass value monitoring project.
“Sharing information with like-minded people has been of considerable help to me,” he says. The transfer of knowledge has been invaluable and provided the confidence needed to try out new ideas.
“Sure there have been many challenges and a variety of issues along the way — but I do not think I would have gone ahead with the expansion if I was not enjoying what I am doing.”