Revolutionising the system at Peaslows Farm has seen average yields double from the same acreage. Chloe Palmer visits one of the highest dairy farms in England to find out more.
When John Cartledge left school at 16 years old in 2000, the 70 Friesian cows on the family farm were tethered in stalls, line-milked and fed hay.
Now he milks 200 Holsteins through a 20/40 herringbone parlour. Cows are housed year round and fed a total mixed ration.
The progress at Peaslows Farm is a consequence of Mr Cartledge’s drive and ambition. On any dairy farm it is a struggle against the elements and challenges a volatile market price presents.
With farm buildings at 410 metres (1,350 feet) and land rising to 425m (1,400ft), the challenge might seem impossible.
Mr Cartledge describes his land as ‘slightly sloping’, but to anyone from flatter dairy counties it would hardly deserve this modest description.
To the north is the Kinder plateau, the highest ‘peak’ in the Peak District and, to the west, the farm looks down to the top of Winnats Pass and across to the summit of Mam Tor.
This obvious disadvantage has done nothing to dampen Mr Cartledge’s enthusiasm and the figures speak for themselves. The herd now averages just short of 10,400 litres milk sold per annum on twice-a-day milking and Mr Cartledge grows 47 tonnes of fresh weight silage per hectare (19t/acre).
Rather than attending agricultural college, Mr Cartledge chose to return to the family farm and make a start on his plans. At first, his father was less than enthusiastic about his ideas.
He says: “The biggest obstacle was convincing my dad it was a good idea to make changes, but now he is very supportive.”
The first task 12 years ago was to put in a 10/20 herringbone milking parlour, which Mr Cartledge managed to do ‘on a shoestring budget’. This has since been updated.
Mr Cartledge soon realised he would need to invest significantly in grassland across the farm if he was to grow cow numbers.
Ration cost is 10.1ppl, including home-grown forage.
Ration per cow per day is:
He says: “Our land forms a triangle to the north and west of the farm, with farm buildings in the far south east corner. Grazing cows on the sloping land and walking them long distances back to the parlour was never going to be practical.”
Moving to a zero-grazing system was the only way of increasing production and this meant a major programme of reseeding and under-drainage to produce large quantities of high quality silage.
Mr Cartledge says: “I reseeded my first field in the year after I left school. Now, we have reseeded everything and continue to reseed fields as necessary on a short rotation as we never use long-term ley varieties.”
Peaty soil at Peaslows Farm overlies gritstone and Mr Cartledge believes this offers an advantage, describing grass growth as ‘phenomenal’, because land never dries out in summer.
Choosing the right grass varieties to suit the land is essential if yields are to be maximised, according to Mr Cartledge.
“We have land facing all aspects on this farm, so some fields are early and others late. We have opted for a mixture containing 30 per cent festulolium because, although it is a coarser grass and we lose quality, it does well on wetter ground and we gain yield.
“We treat all our grass as a crop and put as much thought into the choice of variety of grasses as we do when choosing a bull.”
New leys are established by direct drilling as taking land out of production for any length of time is not an option because the farm is so heavily stocked.
Mr Cartledge says: “We rarely cultivate unless we need to incorporate manure or land needs to be levelled.”
To save cost, unless there is a considerable weed burden or weed grasses are becoming dominant within the sward, fields are over-sown to rejuvenate the sward rather than reseeded.
Mr Cartledge regularly soil samples each field to ensure yields are not compromised by nutrient deficiencies. Bagged fertiliser is spread in response to analysis results to supplement slurry applications and regular liming is essential to counteract the naturally low pH of soil.
Housing: Everything is housed throughout the year, except youngstock which are usually turned out for at least one grazing season
Yield: 10,400 litres milk sold; 2.9 per cent butterfat and 3.41 per cent protein
Fertility: Calving interval is 379 days on a 12-month rolling average; 21-day pregnancy rate is 31 per cent; average age at first calving is 24.2 months
Prior to the construction of a large new slurry lagoon, slurry was tankered off the farm over winter to neighbouring sheep farmers and so nutrients were lost.
He says: “Slurry is now an asset as we have eight months storage, so we can apply 90 per cent of it using a trailing shoe to the growing crop to maximise utilisation of the nutrients.”
This forms part of the attention to detail needed for him to achieve four cuts of silage he takes each year to the desired specification.
“We have to complete our first cut across the farm by May 15 and cut on a six-week rotation thereafter. We need to finish fourth cut by mid-September and we will big bale this final crop.”
Making the highest quality silage has been pivotal to improving milk yields, along with investments in cow comfort and herd health.
Making use of grant schemes, such as the farm and forestry improvement scheme, has enabled Mr Cartledge to make several vital investments.
He says: “We bought mattresses with the grant and also made changes to cubicles. Heat detection collars have been the best thing I ever spent money on as they have improved submission rates considerably.”
Mr Cartledge is passionate about measuring and monitoring key aspects of performance so he can identify where improvements can be made.
He says: “I monitor pregnancy rates and cow health carefully, particularly mastitis rates, and I mobility score every cow on a monthly basis.”
Mr Cartledge has used sexed semen on all maiden heifers and on the top 30 per cent of the dairy herd.
Remaining cows are served to a British Blue sire. High conception rates from sexed semen have produced a large pool of potential dairy replacements.
He says: “Having additional replacements has allowed us to cull more heavily for mastitis and persistent lameness problems and it will help us achieve the planned target increase in herd size to 230 cows.
“We are now milking a herd containing 40 per cent heifers compared to 25 per cent last year, but we have still recorded an increase in yield.”
Mr Cartledge sees rapid genetic progress within the herd as key to achieving continued increase in yield and cow health.
“We are now using the genomic bulls at the top of the PLI index and we are selecting for high positive values for milk quality, fertility and yield.”
Striving for the lowest stress levels within the herd is another objective and every aspect of cow management reflects this.
He says: “We reduce pre-calving stress by minimising the number of moves within social groups. After calving, cows are moved together into the freshly-calved cow pen within the main building where they stay for two to three weeks.”
Heifers are kept separate from the remainder of the herd until they have had their second calf to reduce bullying.
The whole milking herd receives the same TMR and there is no out, or in, parlour feeding.
Mr Cartledge believes this strategy is paying dividends.
“We have now fed the TMR for five years and milk yield has increased 2,000 litres on average in the last three years,” he says.
Calf management follows strict protocols and Mr Cartledge is aiming for rapid growth so heifers calve down for the first time at 24 months.
“After receiving their mother’s colostrum, calves are kept in individual pens for five days before moving to the calf feeding machine for 68 days where they are fed 1kg of milk powder per day.
“We serve heifers from 12 months old when they reach 360kg or 1.25m high.”
Looking to the future, Mr Cartledge is keen to tackle mastitis and lameness rates which he describes as ‘too high’ at 16 cases per 100 and 9 per cent, respectively.
Further investment is on hold in the light of the current milk price, which he describes as ‘frustrating’, but will not dwell on it.
He says: “I want to upgrade ventilation and lighting in the main building to improve conditions for the milking herd.
“The next big project is building new youngstock housing so there is room for all the milk cows in one building and a new bulk tank.”
Mr Cartledge hopes to pursue his long-term expansion plans, despite the current market gloom.
He says: “Increasing cow numbers to 230 is the next stage of a planned progression using our existing acreage.
“If there is an increase in the milk price I would like to move to three times-a-day milking, then we will be looking to achieve a yield average of 12,000 litres.”