Each year NFU Cymru honours men and women who look after the nation’s dairy cows. Barry Alston catches up with last year’s award winner and his employer.
Top herdsman Carl Poole loves milking cows – just as long as they belong to someone else.
Such a mindset has resulted in one Mid Wales farming family reaping the benefits of having a reliable and loyal member of staff to help manage the day-to-day running of their dairy herd.
As the herdsman at Dyffryn Farm, Meifod, Welshpool, Powys, Carl manages the 320-cow pedigree Holstein herd belonging to Jonathan and Susie Wilkinson who openly admit they would be lost without his management skills.
The dedication, commitment and enthusiasm he gives to the job were, in fact, the main reasons judges singled him out for the keenly-contested NFU Cymru-NFU Mutual Welsh Dairy Stockperson of the Year Award.
Jonathan says: “He treats the cows as if they are his own and I do not think you can ask for more than that.
“Our confidence is such because I had to leave him run the farm during a spell of ill health and, almost single handed, he did a fantastic job.”
Carl has been at Dyffryn since 2005 after Jonathan offered him the opportunity to co-manage the farm.
Jonathan had advertised for a new herdsman with little success and he was even on the brink of taking on someone he knew was not really suitable for the role. Then he was put in touch with Carl who was working on another dairy farm.
“I had not met him before but I gave him a call and I immediately knew he was the right person for the job. You can just spot a good stockman,” adds Jonathan.
When Carl first arrived at Dyffryn the herd numbered 180 and the cows were being milked through a 14:14 herringbone with the parlour and housing seen as the main limiting factors to any expansion moves.
The new dairy complex was built with a steel frame, using concrete panels and treated timber
Under ground channels run from the housing to the slurry tower
But while increasing cow numbers is easy enough, choosing a new milking parlour and layout is not a decision to be taken in a hurry.
More important to the pair was it ticked all of the must-have boxes, particularly in making the farm’s day-to-day work load a great deal easier.
Taking this approach five years ago led to what is now a labour-saving complex, fully geared up to easily cope with the demands of a one-man 400-cow unit.
A sizeable investment went into a new parlour and dairy, with additional housing and a silage clamp on a Greenfield site across the road from the existing farm buildings.
As such, where previously it took four to five hours, twice a day to milk 200 cows, timings have been reduced to a two-hour session for 320 cows.
Housed in a brand-new building measuring 56 by 26 metres (185 by 85 foot) is a 44-point rotary parlour fitted out with individual cow electronic identification, an automatic ‘dog’ controlled collecting yard, isolation and treatment races and a four-point sluice gate cleaning system covering all the areas to which cows have access.
All the washings and slurry from the adjacent automatic scraper-cleaned cubicle housing go into a slat-covered reception pit below ground before being transferred into an above-ground circular 3.4 million-litre (750,000 gallon) storage tower.
A fully computer-controlled 18,000-litre bulk tank and operator washing and toilet facilities complete the installation within the steel framed, concrete panelled and treated timber structure which has been constructed to a far higher standard than most agricultural buildings – including a red brick finish for the gable end facing the road.
“Father bought what was then a 121-hectare (300-acre) holding back in the late 1950s, running a mixed unit with sheep, beef cattle, pigs, egg laying poultry and just 20 milkers,” says Jonathan.
The new dairy complex features 230 cubicles with cow mats and sawdust bedding for comfort
“But as the years went by and with a further 50 acres added to the holding, we started to concentrate more on producing milk and eventually switched over to being a specialist dairy unit.”
Investment in 1966 saw the area’s first cubicle shed and a 12:12 herringbone parlour installed for a set-up based around 80-90 cows.
“The parlour was then refurbished and extended to a 16:16 in the 1990s, serving us well until the crunch decision of whether we wanted to stay in dairying or not,” says Jonathan.
“Realistically, going out of milk then was never really an option, given the fact we had too much invested in a high-yielding pedigree herd even though the milk price was a constant worry at the time, remaining so today.”
Grassland management is not helped by the fact the farm is split half and half between high and low-lying ground, with access difficulties meaning all the top land is mostly used for silage making.
The area of maize grown has been cut back to 6ha (15 acres) in favour of more wheat and an experimental crop of hybrid rye.
Saving labour and reducing other costs are what led to the inclusion of the twice-a-day flush-cleaning system.
It makes use of all the dirty water parlour washings, storing them in a 13,640-litre (3,000 gallon) above-ground tank before being gravity-fed to one or all four of the strategically-placed outlet points.
Carl, who works with assistant herdsman Wayne Williams and part-time helpers, says: “The cows adapted to the new system far quicker than I did.
“Why a rotary parlour? Well, we looked at what was available and maybe we were influenced to some extent by Susie’s father and other family members who have had rotaries for a number of years,” says Jonathan.
“To me it seems the most obvious way of working. You do not have to walk miles and the cow flow is faster.”
Carrying the pedigree Pendyffryn prefix, the all-year calving herd has been maintained as black and white, with the type being Holstein-Friesian rather than extreme Holstein.
“Seeing the progression of the herd is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job,” says Carl.
He works with Jonathan on the breeding programme, with sexed semen being used on the heifers.
“We look for a good balanced cow, one with strength, good legs and feet.
“Longevity is important too. In fact, there are cows in the herd which are in their 13th lactation,” he adds.
Milk goes to Arla, with the average yield standing at 32 litres per day at 4 per cent butterfat and 3.3 per cent protein.
Cows producing more than 32 litres go out to grass during the day and are housed and buffer fed with silage at night, while cows producing more than 42 litres receive up to 10kg a day of cake in the parlour – the highest yielder in the herd producing 71 litres.
Jonathan says: “We have seen a huge development in the herd since Carl has been with us, though we have spent quite a lot of money on genetics.”
While type over yield has been the main driving force, the trend now is more towards yield.
With only four pedigree animals having been bought over the past five years, the herd is almost totally closed.
Replacements are bred from the superior cows with British Blue semen used on the remainder. Both Carl and Jonathan share the AI responsibility.
Cow fertility is one area which has been improved considerably, with dry cow management once having been the weakest link in the business.
“Carl persuaded me to spend more in this area and the cows are now calving down in better condition and not getting metabolic disorders,” adds Jonathan.
Herd health is underpinned by twice monthly visits by the farm’s vet, although Carl is in charge of keeping foot health in good order, having received training in both foot trimming and AI.
One area Carl does not fall shy of is passing on his knowledge and expertise to others who work on the farm from time to time.
“A lot of youngsters have benefited from Carl’s patience. He is far more patient than I am,” says Jonathan.
So are there any regrets at choosing to look after cows for a living?
“Definitely not,” says Carl, who vividly recalls his mother’s reaction the day he arrived home from school and announced he wanted to be a farmer, despite the family having no connection with the industry whatsoever.
“‘You’re a crazy boy’ is what she told me,” he adds.
But now with a family of his own and a job he adores, Carl has no qualms about having made the right decision.
“It is a nice way of life and farming comes naturally to me – but I would never want to own my own farm.”