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Long-term sustainability is focus for Kirk family's dairy business

Milk hygiene, security of supply and self-sufficiency are upper-most in the Kirk family’s drive to develop a 440-cow dairy business, founded as first-generation farmers on a Leicestershire County Council smallholding. Simon Wragg reports.

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While many dairy farmers are being forced to rethink capital spending as the industry works through the current trough in milk pricing, Stephen and Anne Kirk – supported on-farm by son Rob, daughter Katie and employee Garry Manning – are strategically investing in new equipment to help ‘future-proof’ their family dairy business.


Kirkholt Holsteins facts

  • 440-cow pedigree red and white Holsteins
  • Aim is for healthy calves and optimal heifers
  • Health plan includes targetting Johne’s disease
  • Heifer/bulls snatch-calved
  • 2.5-3 litres of colostrum fed in first hour
  • Investment in US-made pasteuriser
  • Split units for different ages of stock
  • Calve at two years up to 11,000 litres/heifer lactation

These first-generation farmers have achieved the goal of many aspiring new entrants to have their own farm business. Through considerable endeavors, they are determined to see it succeed in future years in the hands of the next generation.


Mr Kirk says: “We started here at Holt Farm, which is a council smallholding, and have taken opportunities to grow the business in size.


Rob lives at a neighbouring smallholding with his wife, Rebecca, and we’ve bought land and have rental agreements locally. The current farmed area is around 750 acres.”


The family – including the couple’s other daughter Jess, who works in human resource management – made headlines in 2013 after achieving supremacy in the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers/Volac heifer rearer of the year competition.


The predominantly red and white pedigree Holstein herd – under the Kirkholt prefix – is managed on principles for a closed herd.


Milk is sold to Arla and supplies Tesco – a valued contract – and is supported by all-year-round calving to level off milk supply, but also brings stability to workloads and, importantly, cashflow.


Stephen says: “Average yield is 9,000 litres with a concentrate cost of 4.5ppl. We do not do anything fancy. Cows are split into three groups for management and are fed the same TMR diet as we are believers in ‘keep it simple stupid’.”


The current cow ration includes grass and maize silage, with 61 hectares (150 acres) of maize needed annually. Two-thirds of this is grown on local farms, plus 2kg/head/day of rape meal, 2kg distillers’ grains, 2kg beet pulp, 3kg maize bran meal and 6kg brewers’ grains supporting an average daily yield of 27.4 litres/cow.


Rob says: “Each group of cows has access to a separate loafing area during the day, but we do not turnout until first cut silage has been taken.”


Contractors undertake the silage-making and both Stephen and Rob drive for Prestons of Desford as and when demand and farm duties allow. The family spreads the dairy herd’s manures using farm-owned kit to reduce risk of bringing in disease.


This concern for herd health is central to the business’ current success. Three years ago it led to the separation of stock of different age groups to dedicated rearing units.


Milking cows are based at Holt Farm and run through an 18:36 herringbone parlour twice daily. Young heifer calves are reared initially at the neighbouring Breach Farm – another council smallholding – and transferred to a family-owned dedicated heifer unit at Eastlongs Farm nearby at six months old.

Some of the seven-week old bull calves, which are due to be sold at Melton Mowbray market

Some of the seven-week old bull calves, which are due to be sold at Melton Mowbray market


To achieve this level of security, the Kirk family has recently installed a programmable milk and colostrum pasteuriser imported from the US. To comply with farm assurance rules, it is housed in a small breeze-block built heifer calf rearing shed adjacent to the parlour.


Rob says: “Johne’s disease is going to be a big challenge for the dairy sector. The problem is, while you can test for antibodies, these only show once a cow has become infectious, which is usually as a result of stress, but it could have been dormant for years beforehand.”


Also in view of other associated human disease being linked to Johne’s, this concern has led the Kirks to adopt strict protocols commonly exercised in the human food sector for handling colostrum. Liquid is heat treated at 60degC for 60 minutes to counter the potential presence of Johne’s bacteria.


The family works closely with Tom Mitchell of Broughton Veterinary Group to achieve good herd health. Heifer calves snatched at birth are taken to individual straw-bedded pens and placed under a heat lamp.


Between 2.5 and three litres of pasteurised colostrum will be fed according to appetite within the first hour of life.


Stephen says: “We give calves priority. It is not uncommon on a dairy farm for a newly-born calf to be left until after milking which can be several hours later. It is, in our view, time you cannot afford to lose.


“We invest a lot in breeding heifers using expensive semen in many cases. They are the future of the herd and hate to see any genetic potential wasted.”


The colostrum regime will be repeated for the first few days of life until at three days old heifers move to Breach Farm. Here, they are grouped in 20s and fed using an automated milk replacer feeder providing six litres/calf/day split into four feeds. Calves have access to fresh water, hay and a pelleted concentrate.


Operated under an all-in/all-out regime common to the pig and poultry sectors – allowing pens to be washed out and disinfected between batches – the aim is for heifers to triple their birth weight by 10 weeks old.


Heifers are then transferred to Eastlongs Farm at six months old. A TMR-type diet, including 2.5kg/head/day of wheat distillers and clamped grass silage, is refreshed every other day and pens scraped out and bedded up twice weekly on a strict routine.

A concern for herd health has led to a different age groups being separated into dedicated rearing units

A concern for herd health has led to a different age groups being separated into dedicated rearing units


Heifers are not turned out in their first summer. Stephen says: “We want them to grow steadily and achieve a bulling weight which allows heifers to calve down at two years old. Once they have been served, I am happy for them to free-wheel to a degree. Pushing for growth during pregnancy only increases risk of difficult calvings.”


An indication of the level of attention attributed to breeding is highlighted with figures showing 230 heifer replacements have incurred just four calf losses in the last 12 months.


Surplus pedigree heifers are offered for sale privately and through regular consignments at Leek market, Staffordshire. Bull calves are reared on the same principles as heifer calves, but sold at seven weeks old through Melton Mowbray market.


Stephen says: “In the future, we have to become more self-sufficient by using what we can do and what we can grow to continue developing the herd.


“We are strong believers those who want to farm should be given the opportunity. The next generation is important and those family and staff wanting to better themselves should be supported. This is why we treat anyone who comes here to work as family. Staff will be a big issue for all farms in the future.


“But most of all, we do this job because we love it. I have always believed if you do not get satisfaction and enjoyment from what you do, it is time to do something else as you will not put your heart and soul into it. To all of us, it is more than a job.”

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