A state-of-the-art rotary milking system is the centrepiece of a 400-cow upland dairy joint venture business that has brought two farming families together. Gaina Morgan reports.
The DeLaval E100 is the first of its kind to be installed in the UK, on a greenfield site at a former beef and sheep farm rising from 650 to 1,100 feet above sea level on the edge of Snowdonia.
The venture has enabled two families to pool resources, talents and abilities, and allowed some to continue to work off-farm.
The Jones and Owen families are neighbours and friends, but while Gwydion Jones has a background in dairying, Emyr Owen had been running a beef and sheep enterprise on his family farm.
With Emyr’s previous work in New Zealand and later with Farming Connect in Wales, his brother Dylan’s agricultural banking experience coupled and Gwydion’s love of dairying, it makes for a broad-based team.
Dylan says: “It is an upland joint venture in the true sense of the word.
“It is bringing two small size upland farms together to safeguard the viability of both businesses for the future.
“We trade via a newly-formed company, Llaeth Bod-Ffynnon Cyf.
“Gwydion is responsible for the management of the dairy herd.
“The company pays a rent to both families for the rental of the land and cows, and in addition Gwydion receives a fee for his labour and the use of machinery.”
It has meant some considerable changes at Bodrach Farm, where Emyr and his parents, Bryn and Mary, live.
The 40-cow suckler beef herd and the 500-strong breeding ewe flock were sold last autumn to fund the purchase of new heifers and expansion of the pre-existing 150-cow dairy herd previously run by Gwydion at Tyn Ffynnon Farm. The spring calving herd comprises Kiwi Crossbreds, chosen for the milk constituents, size, hardiness and longevity running to four or five lactations.
They yield 5,000 litres a year, with 5 per cent butterfat and 3.8 per cent protein, and the milk is sold to Arla.
Crucially, their compact size means they are less likely to poach the ground in such a high rainfall area and, as aggressive grazers, they thrive in the often-wet pastures.
The combined farms run to 132 hectares (325 acres) with 380 cows, which is set to grow to 400 in January, and the grass at Bodrach has been improved over three generations, with soil sampling to get the pH and P and Ks right.
Three quarters has been reseeded over the past 10 years.
The investment in dairying has been ‘significant’, with money spent on infrastructure as well as the new parlour and the E100 rotary milking system.
The company has laid 4.5 kilometres of tracks, albeit with hardcore from the farm quarry, now restored to grazing, and 10 kilometres of electric fencing.
It is a rotational grazing system with the cows moved daily and the grass measured weekly.
The figures are then used to adjust the additional feed given to the cows. Around 120ha (296 acres) are kept for silage, with harvesting contracted out and the silage stored in a pit.
The prompt came from Emyr Owen who was given the opportunity to manage a heifer rearing unit for a large dairy farm in nearby Pentrefoelas.
He realised his parents had reached a stage where they might want to ‘slow down’ a little and that the 74ha (184-acre) beef and sheep holding needed a change of direction.
Gwydion says: “Looking forward, it’s future-proofing the business and gives us a bit of scale.
“We were quite a small milking platform before and we were very heavily stocked to generate the income we needed, which means we were relying a lot on bought-in feeds, diesel and fertilisers.
“But now we don’t have to be so tightly stocked to have a viable business. We’ve been able to take on more staff and we’ll be able to have more free time eventually.”
But, says Emyr, this is not a typical dairy farm.
He says: “We could see that Gwydion could grow a lot of grass, and all that separated us was a fence.
“The cows are housed at night by the end of October and are out in the daytime until the end of November, depending on the grass.
“Then they will be out if the weather allows straight after calving in mid-February.”
They feel the new system is working well and they are pleased with the way the cows have settled in. It makes the best use of grass and gives a six-week spell with no milking.
They opted for the DeLaval Rotary Milking System E100, because it meant only one person is needed to milk.
Emyr and Gwydion were impressed by the unit they saw in Ireland on a ‘shopping trip’ for heifers.
They felt it was an efficient, robust and relatively simple system, with the cows each fed the same ration, as a balance to their diet, and the only automation being the cluster removal and teat spraying.
Dylan says: “We were debating whether to choose a herringbone parlour or a rotary one.
“We decided on the rotary system as it allowed 400-plus cows to be milked by one person which reduced our labour costs, but also future-proofed the business if we increase cow numbers.”
Dylan stresses the importance of ensuring that the figures are right and that the business concept is viable.
He says it was critical that all involved came to the venture with an open mind, ready to embrace a new concept and to recognise and utilise individual strengths.
There is a formal meeting once a month between Emyr and Gwydion and they feel this ‘is vital for a new business in order to stay on top of the figures’.
As for the older generation at Bodrach, Bryn and Mary are delighted with the venture and are happy with the change from beef and sheep farming to dairy – quite a big change from the 1950s when Bryn’s father milked just 10 cows at Bodrach, but one which will enable both families to prosper.