The commercial Holstein herd at Roadhead Farm, Quothquan, South Lanarkshire, had progressed to 500 cows by 2003 when Geoff Hewitt decided to start his on-farm mill and mix facility. Jennifer MacKenzie reports.
Update to the present day, and the milking herd now stands at just under 1,000 cows, and the on-farm mixing has developed into a thriving separate business, supplying a host of neighbouring farms.
“Forage intake is key if you are trying to achieve high butterfat content which is our aim,” says Geoff Hewitt, who also stresses the importance of making the most of home-grown forage to his customers.
The herd at Roadhead is currently averaging more than 10,000 litres for 850 cows in-milk at 4.2% butterfat and 3.28% protein, sold on a Graham’s Dairy contract.
Geoff is a third generation farmer who originates from Northern Ireland; the family moved to Scotland in 1982.
He took over Roadhead Farm in 1996, buying the neighbouring Covington Mains Farm at the same time to extend his dairy herd to 500.
Geoff farms at Roadhead with his wife Aileen and their three children, Kerry, Fraser and Adam.
Following further land purchases, now the farming business, JA Hewitt, comprises 1,500 acres, 300 of which are rented and the rest owner-occupied.
Cropping is 1,000 acres of grass silage, cut four times a year, 280 acres of winter and spring barley, with the remainder grazing for youngstock. All grain is sold to the feed business.
The farm employs seven full-time staff and four part-time staff. Adam, his youngest son, is responsible for organising all the tractor work.
Geoff originally built a mini feed mill for his own cows as he felt he could not buy the quality feed he wanted.
Roadhead Farm Feeds is run as a separate business, operating from a computerised automatic feed mill on-farm and supplying more than 350 customers.
Geoff enjoys nothing better than to walk through his customers’ cows, discuss their individual needs, provide solutions, then see the customer achieve the success they want from their cows.
Roadhead Farm Feeds employs 10 people, including its own delivery drivers for farmer-customers who do not collect their feeds.
Geoff and Aileen and daughter Kerry are hands-on with both businesses. Aileen oversees all aspects of health and safety in the feed business, as well as the Universal Feed Assurance Scheme and grain sampling. She also runs JA Hewitt farm accounts and cattle records.
Kerry and new team member Annie Bryson support Geoff with the animal nutrition. Fraser is responsible for the website and social media, but turns his hands to any aspect when required.
Geoff says: “Both businesses are run separately. All grain is sold straight away to the feed business and the farm buys back the blends used. We can keep a close eye on both businesses to see how each is performing.”
While time and money was invested in developing the feed mill, the dairy continued to run at 500-600 cows.
With the continuing success of the feed business, Geoff then refocused on the dairy, making further investment three years ago.
A decision was made to install a rotary parlour, new cubicle shed and three individual calf sheds, which were completed in late 2019.
Geoff says: “Milking time for 600 cows was taking four-and-a-half hours through the old parlour. Now the same amount of people can milk 860 cows in three hours.”
Since last Christmas, sexed semen has been used for first service on first and second lactation cows to reduce the number of dairy-bred bull calves and make greater genetic improvements using the Genus RMS service.
Maiden heifers are all served with sexed semen to calve at 24 months or earlier.
Geoff says: “We are looking to reduce the age of first calving to less than 24 months and we have heifer calves coming through in batches now which are achieving that goal.”
A weekly Monday vet visit PDs cows and heifers, as well as making other regular herd health checks.
The bottom 20-30% of the herd is served through Genus with a Limousin or Aberdeen-Angus and there are two Angus sweeper bulls.
Geoff says: “If we can achieve the number of heifers we need for herd replacements, we can increase the use of beef semen from 30% to 40% of the herd.”
The new 545-cubicle building, measuring 420ft by 140ft, was built with cow comfort and flow uppermost with wide passages and feed areas. It is 100ft away from the building housing the parlour and cubicles to help airflow and ventilation.
The in-milk and dry cows are all housed throughout the year with only the youngstock out at grass.
Geoff constantly has his eye on improving efficiency and extensive reseeding keeps grass as young as possible.
Between 200-250 acres are reseeded annually as part of the arable rotation using a mix of two intermediate varieties, Boyne and Nifty, and one late variety, Alfonso, to last four to five years.
This mix is made up by Paddy Jack, of HF Seeds, who also helps with advice for customers of Roadhead as well.
At least four crops of silage are taken each summer, with the first and main crop made in the second or third week of May, and subsequent cuts taken every six weeks after that. Five cuts can be taken off the young swards.
Geoff says: “While I was never convinced about tedding, because I felt it would contaminate the crop with soil and stones, I have had to eat my words.
“To achieve higher proteins, the leafier grass needs to be wilted. We now use two 16-metre tedders twice after mowing and we aim to chop and get it into the clamp within 24 hours.
“If you produce the best quality silage you can, that is the starting point and it makes feeding a lot easier. If you can increase daily dry matter intakes by 1kg, efficiencies start to work.”
The aim is to produce a silage with 32-35kg dry matter, 14-14.5% crude protein and a metabolisable energy of 11.8-12.
Cows are fed through a tub mixer wagon in two groups depending on yield using a base diet. The higher yielders are fed M+34, while the lower yielders are fed M+28.
Both groups are topped up in the parlour with an 18% blend at a feed rate of 0.45kg/litre.
Geoff’s plan is to keep cows in the same group to get further control and cause least disruption to the cows.
Already herd fertility is good with the current calving index running at 385 days and it staying below 400 for the last three years.
Geoff says: “The bottom line for dairy farmers is we need pregnancies. I feel that keeping cows in the same group will minimise social change which can result in a drop in production and keep the diet pretty much the same instead of moving them from different groups.”
With calf health and welfare uppermost, as well as achieving calving at under 24 months of age, three new calf sheds have been put up in the last 18 months to add to the existing shed to provide enough housing.
Building one large shed would have been cheaper than three housing 50 calves each, but the smaller units allows calves to be kept as a group and helps improve calf health, as the sheds are 20ft apart to aid flow and reduce spread of disease.
Calves are penned in groups of five and fed on a teat for the first two weeks before being let out with the other calves and fed on a computerised calf feeder.
Roadhead has formulated its own calf feeds and milk replacers to improve calf rearing and reduce scours.
Any dairy bull calves have been sold in batches of 15-20 when they are weaned. Beef crosses are sold store at eight to 12 months old, mostly off-farm through Lawrie and Symington in Lanark.