Jim Struthers was the recipient of the overall chairman’s award at last year’s inaugural First Milk Responsible Farming Awards.
He farms with his son David between Auchmeddan Farm, Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, and their newly acquired Newhouse Farm, just a few miles along the road.
The judges were impressed by the family’s ‘willingness to embrace farm diversification through renewable energy production, ability to overcome the challenges posed by farming on reclaimed land and commitment to business expansion’, which sums up the past 10 years at Auchmeddan quite well.
During that time, Jim says they have strived to improve efficiency in all aspects of the business and make the most of the farm’s best asset – its ability to grow grass.
He explains: “Ten years ago, we felt that the farm was not as profitable as it could be, so we decided to invest in new housing for the cattle.
“The cubicles had been installed in the 1970s and were not suitable for the more modern size of cows.We put up two new sheds and increased the size of the cubicles, to include rubber mats, which made a far better environment for the cows. We also moved from self-feed silage, to a TMR feeding system.”
The following year, in a bid to further improve efficiency, Jim had 140 solar panels fitted to the silage pit roof and installed a 90kw biomass boiler.
He explains: “The solar panels provide three-quarters of the electricity for the farm and the biomass boiler heats the house and the water for the whole farm.
“It has been very worthwhile putting these in and they help to make the farm far more efficient.”
Jim milks 300 British Friesians at Auchmeddan, while David, who had been successfully working in the poultry industry for a few years, is now based at Newhouse, currently milking 150 Holsteins, which were bought along with the farm, last year.
Jim says: “David was keen to come home to work, so we managed to buy Newhouse, which is close enough that we can work the two farms together.
“The experience he’s gained working away from home and the technical knowledge he has learned from the poultry industry will be a great benefit to him, and me, with dairy farming becoming more and more technical all the time.”
David plans to gradually breed Friesians into the current Holstein herd at Newhouse, as the family feels the Friesian breed better suits their type of land and their system.
Jim explains: “The herd at Auchmeddan is currently averaging 7,300 litres and while there are certainly other types of cows that would produce more milk, they would not suit our grazing system. The Friesian is better suited to grazing and is a more robust cow for walking out into the fields.”
The cows graze from mid-April until the beginning of November, with a 21-day rotational grazing set-up now allowing them to achieve far higher results from grass. They are now taking 4,000 litres from grass and forage alone.
Jim says: “We used to struggle to have enough grass for 150 cows and now we can easily graze 300, just from managing it differently.
“We have been rotational grazing for four years now and it has been a big success for us. We used old railway sleepers and artificial turf to build tracks between the paddocks.”
To aid the grass management, Jim says they also now use AgriNet grass software, which has been a huge help with increasing the amount of milk they produce from grass.
“I used to just judge the grass by eye, but now we measure it, which is far more accurate,” he says.
“With the rotational grazing, it makes a massive difference if you can hit it at just the right stage, to get the best energy boost for the cows. A plate metre tells us how much grass has come off each field, so we know exactly how each field is performing.”
The ground at Auchmeddan is wet, so constant drainage work is essential.
They have also reclaimed land from an opencast coal site, which has required substantial work to get it to the same stage as the rest of the land, including aeration and building fertility back into it.
Jim and David have upped the number of silage cuts they take from two to three, to ensure it is as good quality as possible.
They have managed to increase the D-value from 65 per cent to 80 per cent, allowing them to cut down on concentrates (to 1.5 tonnes per cow, per lactation) and instead, feed more home-grown forage.
Block calving takes place in the spring and autumn, with a black and white bull used for the first six weeks and then an Aberdeen-Angus for sweeping up.
Jim says they used sexed semen for the first time last year, which they plan to continue to use more often.
He adds: “The block calving works well for us and has improved the management of the cows.
“It means we get a lot of calves at one time, so we can rear them together at the same stage and then the calf shed can get a rest too.
“They are reared in a single pen on cow’s milk for seven days and then go into groups, on a calf rearing machine with milk replacer, before being weaned at 56 days.
“Improving our attention to detail with the calf rearing, has increased growth rates and allowed us to calve heifers at two-years-old, where we previously calved them at three.
“Block calving means we are feeding a group of cows at the same stage of lactation, which is easier.
“Joining a benchmarking group made a big difference to improving herd and grass management too.
“It has great being able to discuss ideas with like-minded farmers and see how other people are doing things and overcoming challenges.”
The cows are milked twice a day in a Fullwood 15:15 swingover parlour, which was installed 18 years ago, prior to the rest of the steading upgrade at Auchmeddan.
Jim feels this improved set-up has not only helped increase production, but it has also made it easier to find good staff.
“We have four full-time staff between the two farms, all local lads, and I have no doubt that
having a good set-up and improved cow welfare, has made it a more attractive place to work,”
Jim says. “It was a huge investment for us 10 years ago, but it was an excellent move in so many ways.
“When we were told that we had won the First Milk Chairman’s Award, the staff were just as
delighted as David and I, because it really is a team effort here.
“Although we were never expecting to win, it is a good feeling to get some validation that we’re going in the right direction and the investment has been worthwhile.”
The focus at the moment is on developing the herd at Newhouse and modernising the steading there, but Jim says they are always looking to the future and searching for new opportunities.
As for the future of the dairy industry, he is confident of that too.
“The population is always increasing and while there has been a lot of bad press about dairying, there has also been plenty good publicity about the benefits of drinking milk and buying local
produce,” he says.
“I think there will always be a demand for milk and for well-run, efficient dairy farms, so we plan to just keep doing what we do, but do it better where we can.”