The Verity family farm in the foothills of the Pennines in Lancashire on some pretty challenging ground, but last year Mark Verity took the British Farming Awards Dairy Innovator of the Year Award. Neil Ryder went along to see how his dairying plans are shaping up.
In many ways Radholme Laund Farm would make a near perfect upland sheep unit with land running up to 305 metres (1000ft) above sea level and some pretty steep slopes running down to a river valley. In fact, the farm near Whitewell, Lancashire, is home to a successful specialist 350-cow dairy unit.
Mark Verity, who farms in partnership with his parents Stuart and Kathleen, took the Dairy Innovator of the Year award in last year’s British Farming Awards and hosted a RABDF ‘Milking grass for profit’ open day.
One thing that is clear is the family’s success is based on attention to detail through the precise record keeping measurements used to monitor progress.
Stuart took over the tenancy of the 243ha (600-acre) Duchy of Lancaster farm in 1976. The farm was then a mixed sheep and dairy unit with average rainfall running from 1520mm to 1780mm per year (60-70 ins). The family have since bought 40ha (100 acres) at Mitton about seven miles from the home unit and which is used for silaging and youngstock grazing.
After Mark finished college he spent three months in New Zealand in 1998 becoming a full partner in the business in 2010. It is abundantly clear that grassland management at Radholme Laund has been heavily influenced by New Zealand thinking though carefully adapted to suit home conditions.
The dairy herd of 350 cows is made up of 75% Holstein and 25% crossbred animals. The crossbreds are a three-way cross using Jersey bulls on the Holstein, Swedish Red on the Jerseycross- Holstein and then finally back to a Holstein, all with the intention of maximising hybrid vigour.
The dairy herd is made up of 75% Holstein and 25% crossbred animals.
After weaning the beef calves are put on a straw and pellet diet.
“Our Holsteins are not the extreme type as they simply would not cope with the weather conditions we experience on this farm. They would probably blow over or have a heart attack up here. We are gradually increasing the numbers of crossbreds in the herd as we believe the milk market will increasingly focus on fat and protein. Our herd averages 8200 litres at 4.3% fat and 3.35% protein with cell count of 107 and bactoscan of 16,” explains Mark.
“This farm is not suited to spring calving because it is too wet in spring for an early turnout and would risk damaging our swards, and, after talking with our milk buyers Arla Amba, we are now all autumn calving.
“We calve from September through to January 10, though our aim is to have everything calved before the end of December. This year we expect to calve 225 cows in September and another 90 in October. This has been made possible by our Cogent Precision technician Simon Redcliffe who AI’s all the cows and we have the 125 heifers synchronised over two days,” he says.
All herd replacements are homebred and the system is heavily reliant on heifers calving down at two years of age. Failure to do so means calving at three years together with the unacceptable additional cost involved. Unusually for a dairy farm, Radholme Laund has a weighing unit for calves and heifers to measure progress. Calf rearing is the responsibility of Mark’s mother, Kathleen. A milk taxi is used to feed the calves, with intakes of up to eight litres per day. The aim is to maximise calf growth over the first few weeks of life as this influences the lifetime performance of the cow, says Mark.
The key to the grazing system is a constantly growing network of farm tracks.
A feed reader is fitted to the ATV to measure pasture growth.
All cows are moved to a fresh paddock each day, so do not eat any regrowth.
After weaning calves are put on a straw and pellets diet and continue to be fed using feed trailers after turnout including some concentrate. It is important to achieve an average 0.75kg to 0.85kg daily liveweight gain from birth through to calving.
Dry cows are given dry cow minerals and moved to a separate field three weeks before calving. Care is taken not to use fertiliser on these fields less than six weeks earlier to risk upsetting the mineral balance for the dry cows.
Winter feeding for milkers is based on silage, brewers’ grains, distillery by-products, pot ale, a rumen protected fat, and yeast, and this provides maintenance with parlour concentrate fed according to yield. In summer grass availability is measured and managed accordingly.
Mark says: “Simply we use the cheapest feeds available at the time. These are moist feeds so are fed with a relatively dry silage of about 30% and about 11 ME. For summer we try and get the cows out as early as possible in April, though this will depend on weather and ground conditions. If conditions worsen, we will not hesitate to bring them back inside again, but even a week or so grazing is the cheapest feed.”
Mark Verity was winner of the Dairy Innovator category in the British Farming Awards last year and finalist in the 2014 RABDF/NMR Gold Cup competition.
“Winning the 2015 British Farming Award for Dairy Innovator of the Year just gave everyone in the farm team a real buzz factor and showed that their hard work had been noted,” says Mark.
Stuart Verity took over the tenancy of the 243ha (600-acre) Duchy of Lancaster farmi in 1976. The farm was then a mixed sheep and dairy unit running from 183m- 305m) 600ft to 1000ft above sea level.
They have four employees and regard their advisers as very much part of the team. The advisers include Carrs Billington nutritionist Duncan Rose; vet Robert Howe; Cogent breeding technician Simon Redcliffe; and grassland adviser James Bretherton.
The farm has heavy clay over half the farm and limestone over much of the rest. The slope down to the river also has a sandy subsoil.
Jersey blood was first introduced as the breed offered easier calving on maiden heifers and other benefits such as better fats and proteins percents, smaller cattle and better feet.
The Swedish Red was introduced as a good third cross because as a breed they fitted into the grazing system but still gave good yields with high levels of fats and proteins, with the additional advantage of the breed being able to walk the long distances required on the farms trackways.
Calving index is 369 days and pregnancy rate is 40%.
The key to the grazing system is a constantly growing network of farm tracks started by Mark’s father though now, as Mark readily admits, extending much further than his father would have ever envisaged. A further 350m is planned for this year to open up more land and to make better use of grass and improve milk from forage. These tracks enable the milking cows to move around the farm under all conditions, reducing the need to walk cows through one paddock to get to another.
To protect cows’ feet, the tracks are covered in second- hand industrial belts and, more recently, used astro turf. The latter has worked well but, after about two years, it can become slippery under wet conditions. This is easily dealt with by power washing the tracks. Both surfaces are secured by giant pins.
Cows remain out until mid-November, whenever possible, and calve outside. High yielders will be housed after calving, but last year cows calved outside up to 20 October, and were then brought in enabling them to have a settled diet before serving at the end of November. Low yielders and dry cows remain outside as long as possible as once inside the costs start to escalate. Housing is in cubicles with sawdust bedding and milking is through a 40/40 herringbone parlour.
All cows are moved to a fresh paddock each day, so they do not start eating any regrowth, and the stocking rate is about three cows per hectare.
Soil analyses have been done over the farm using a soil compaction tester.
Grassland is reseeded when necessary using ‘easy’ ryegrasses, mostly Aberystwyth types, and some clover. Conventional reseeding is used on the flatter land with minimum tillage techniques employed on the more difficult, sloping land.
Higher clover content is used on slopes to help reduce the need for as much fertiliser. One of the problems is that herbicides used to control docks will also kill clovers, and while some spraying is carried out Mark also makes use of spot treatment where possible.
Soil analyses have been carried out across the farm and analysis of grass nutritional content is also used in formulating feeds. Aeration and pan busting operations are carried out as needed.
This, together with slurry nutrients, means little P and K fertiliser is needed and use of N is modest. Slurry storage is an above ground store with applications using injection during the summer and dribble bar in the winter.
Good grazing management is vital with availability measured using a quad bike mounted reader. Because of the relatively hard nature of the farm, cows move on to grass which is a little higher than normally recommended, and also leave a little higher residue than normal. Occasionally this does mean grass is a little higher than optimum and is pre-mown from the second rotation ensuring good utilisation and a clean aftermath.
The herd is deliberately not pushed to achieve lower grazing residuals as with primarily a Holstein herd the effects can soon be seen in less milk in the bulk tank. While it is not policy to chase yields, dropping litres to hit residual grass targets is seen as unhelpful.
“We are flexible as to how much grass we silage at each of our three cuts -- if for example the grass is growing faster than the cows can graze it, we will close some of the paddocks up for silage, and vice versa if we are short of grazing,” adds Mark.
“We aim to produce 3000 litres from forage, though are not quite there yet, and are able to make a margin with our current milk price. We sell to arla amba on a contract with the emphasis on fat and protein.
“We produce all our heifer replacements which means we can keep a closed herd and reduce the risk of disease, and we are working to open up more challenging ground with reseeding and other work to give us more grass.
“Simply, we just want to keep improving and to keep our costs down,” he says.
We are now seeking entries for this year’s British Farming Awards – if you feel you are doing a good technical job, have an eye on gearing up to meet future challenges and not afraid to adopt innovative ideas that will help fulfil your business objectives, then we want to hear from you.
Enter now at www.britishfarmingawards.co.uk