Fastidious stockmanship combined with smart technology is proving a powerful formula for father and son team Roger and Gary Mason. Wendy Short visits Cumbria to meet the farmers whose faces are now a regular on supermarket shelves.
A father and son team from Cumbria has combined innate stockmanship skills with the latest technology to produce a profitable dairy unit with a planned programme of investment over the coming years.
Roger Mason and his son Gary form a tight-knit team, managing their 180 pedigree Holsteins at Heaves Farm, near Kendal, with great attention to detail.
Milk from the all-year-round-calving herd is taken twice daily and sold to Booths on the supermarket chain’s ‘Fair Milk’ premium price scheme.
After exploring possible new outlets for their milk, Roger discovered the supermarket was actively looking for a family-run dairy farm to represent Cumbria.
He says: “My enthusiasm must have made an impression, because after a farm visit, we were told we had won the contract. We are in close proximity to the M6, which also helped with our application.”
Part of the scheme sees Roger and Gary visit the store a couple of times a month and the pair have been received with much support.
Roger says: “Most customers are supportive and often tell us they understand why we are complaining about our milk price.
“But we stress we are not there to complain. Our role is to answer any queries they might have and explain how the Fair Milk arrangement works.
“We are also called on to help with finding certain items and have even been asked if we are collecting for charity.
“Part of our membership involves hosting farm visits and going to look at units belonging to other Fair Milk suppliers, as well as attending regular meetings organised by Booths.
“It has taught us a lot about the supply chain and given us an appreciation of challenges supermarkets are facing and how we can work together to the benefit of all parties.”
With the supply route secured, performance is projected to reach an average 10,000kg, at 4 per cent fat and 3.1 per cent protein. The current milk price is 30.5ppl.
One example of recent expenditure to improve herd management is activity collars.
All milking cows have worn a collar since last summer. They contain a transponder, which monitors a range of activities, including rumination, feeding activity and resting, with the information downloaded via an internet app, which can also send a phone text message.
Heat detection and well-being are two of its most important functions, says Roger, whose first leap of faith was taken when the system highlighted a cow which was ready for service.
He says: “She didn’t look as if she was bulling, but I put my trust in the system and inseminated her, as instructed.
“When she was pregnancy-diagnosed 30 days later, she was found to be in-calf, which delighted our vet.
“Gary received an alert to a cow which was bulling while he was on a skiing holiday in France.”
The alert for a cow which is spending too much time resting, with feeding time falling below average for the individual, has proved useful, Roger adds.
“One cow was flagged up for this reason and a check showed her milk yield had fallen by five litres.
“There was no outward sign of illness, but she was diagnosed with a mild case of twisted stomach by the vet a couple of days later and she recovered after an operation.
“This occurred during the early stages and we would act much more swiftly if it happened today.
“Until recently, data was not linked to our CIS milk recording service and this led to a duplication of information, but the issue is being resolved.
“The one feature which cannot be monitored is calving, but in general, the collar saves a lot of time. When we go into the building, we know which cow we need to single out for special attention.
“It also allows us to get on with jobs away from the farm steading and monitor cows by checking our phones at regular intervals.
“However, it is just one of a variety of management tools and is no substitute for good animal husbandry.”
Another new feature is the LED lighting system which went into the main cubicle building in January.
It is made up of 108 strip lights, which provide 200 lux for 16 hours daily at a running cost of 60 pence per hour.
The automated system is programmed to shut off if sufficient natural light is available.
The total investment was £13,000, although the Masons received a 40 per cent grant through the Rural Development Programme for England.
It works by inhibiting the production of melatonin, which is known as the ‘sleep hormone’. The manufacturers claim a potential milk yield increase of up to 8-10 per cent, but Roger finds it impossible to pinpoint a precise figure.
“Our average daily yield was 30kg 12 months ago and now stands at 34kg. This is probably due to a combination of genetic progress, the computerised system and the new lighting.”
The Booths contract has permitted the pair to wind down the rose veal calf business, which once saw some 300 animals on the unit at any one time, with all bull calves reared through the enterprise and the remainder bought-in at two to three weeks old.
Roger says: “We turned to veal calf production in 2009 in response to the low milk price.
“It was initially worthwhile, but our butcher customers found it increasingly difficult to market the whole animal and only wanted to buy the choicest cuts, which eroded our profitability.
“Rose veal is a delicious product with a low fat content, but it has gone out of favour to a degree.”
Calves received milk for eight weeks, followed by a standard rearing diet and slaughter at between eight and 12 months old. But Roger says it was highly labour intensive and were relieved when the new milk contract permitted them to focus solely on cows again.
The push for high yields has inevitably affected cow fertility, although the calving index is moving in the right direction, at a figure of 408 days, compared with 440 days, some 12 months ago.
The herd receives a total mixed ration and the auto-ID facility on the collars is used to top up with concentrate at 0.45kg/litre in the parlour.
Wholecrop is not part of the diet, because there is only limited acreage, with the potential for bringing cereals into the rotation.
For the first time this year, maize has been replaced by grain beet, a 5:1 mixture of brewers’ grains and beet pulp.
Roger says: “We always produced a reasonable crop of maize, but our geographic position is on the outer margins, for achieving high dry matter yields and very good quality.
“We decided to concentrate on growing the crop which is best suited to our region and that is grass.”
A computerised mating programme has been used for bull selection for more than a decade and there are plans to make use of genomic testing.
Roger says: “All our heifers are home-reared and they will be genomically tested to help us decide on replacements.
“Meanwhile, sexed semen will be used across the best females and the rest will be inseminated with conventional black and white semen or semen from easy-calving British Blue and Aberdeen-Angus bulls, depending on requirements.
“Our bull calves leave the farm at 12-13 months old at present, but beef animals produced on the new system will be sold as young calves.”
Keeping on top of herd health is another key element of herd management and cows are routinely vaccinated against BVD, leptospirosis and IBR.
Johne’s disease is monitored through the CIS recording service and, like many other farms, a handful of positive cows have been identified.
These are calved in a separate building, with calves removed before suckling.
The Masons are determined to stick with dairying for the long-term and future plans are to continue to improve cow health and performance.
Roger says: “Our herd size has remained fairly static over the years, but we might increase numbers slightly and perhaps sell some of our newly-calved heifers.
“We will continue to strive for better herd management and next on our agenda is a review of ventilation in the main building and installation of cameras in our calving shed and main building.
“The dairy industry seems to operate in three-year cycles and I think we need to learn to invest when prices are good to enable us to survive through bad times.”