Since it was established in 2012, one dairy unit in Shropshire has quickly made developments, including a £1 million housing facility.
Progression and development is showing little sign of letting up at Sansaw Estate, a 1,500- hectare (3,706-acre) dairy unit near Hadnall, Shropshire.
With major building work and an overhaul of breeding policy well underway, a 1,200-cow housing facility is on track for completion this November, consisting of 900 cubicles and loose housing space for a further 300 cows.
It will mark the first indoor capacity for milking cows at the unit, which, until now, have all been out-wintered on fodder beet within the grass-based system.
Managing director James Thompson, the sixth generation of his family to farm at Sansaw, began the development eight years ago.
He oversees operations at Sansaw alongside his wife and business partner, Asa, which also involves managing some 125 residential properties and 50,000sq.ft of office space.
He says: “The housing facility marks one of the big changes we have made to the dairy system and will mean we can house cows from the end of November until early the following year.
“It will allow us to significantly tighten up our dry periods, as well as provide space to calve cows on the main unit, which was previously done more than a mile away.
“Cows will be dried off according to calving date once the shed is in place, looking to achieve a consistent 60-day dry period.
“Up to now, we’ve had to dry off primarily on body condition score [BCS] to make sure cows were in the right condition when going on to the fodder beet. This meant drying off some of the leaner cows earlier to achieve this, leaving us with a block of unproductive time at a huge cost to the farm.”
James returned to the business in 2005 after spending seven years serving in the Royal Marines. It was previously overseen by his father, Robin, who remains involved as chairman of the estate.
Although there were no concrete plans to do so, he took the decision in pursuit of spending more time with his family and four sons, William (16), Freddie (13) Frank (nine) and Morgan (seven). Their part in the future of the business is yet to be decided, but James is keen for the family to remain at Sansaw.
The decision to get into dairying came when the estate had the opportunity to acquire a 750ha (1,853-acre) block which had previously been tenanted.
Before this, the farm was managed organically, producing pigs alongside some arable production.
But they felt there was limited opportunity to grow this at the time.
The dairy’s low input system is based on a 500ha (1,235-acre) grazing platform, split into 6ha (15-acre) paddocks with cows on 12-hourly shifts.
Grass measuring is done weekly to monitor farm covers using a plate meter and the 60km round-trip takes two days to complete – a job which falls to grassland manager Matt Edwards.
Matt, alongside herd manager Beth Kirkby, both joined the team at Sansaw in the last 18 months and make up a dynamic, young team at the estate, something James is keen to endorse.
James says: “The industry needs forward-thinking young people who are hungry for information, keen to learn and driven, and we are keen to provide opportunities at Sansaw which can help people get a foot on the farming ladder.
“We are proud that a number of individuals who started with us at a young age are now in equity partnerships and managerial roles in the industry.”
It is also hoped the new housing facility will provide more flexibility during the grazing season.
Matt says: “Up to now, the farm has had no choice if particularly poor weather has hit. Cows have still had to go out, which has led to poaching and a loss of grass production in some paddocks, especially at the beginning and end of the grazing season.
“The option to turn them into the shed if it is needed will be useful for grassland management.”
A further 250ha (618 acres) of support land is used to graze youngstock and for forage production, with any surplus grass on the grazing platform baled and fed to in-calf heifers grazing fodder beet, the only stock which will remain on the out-wintering system.
This is grown as part of a rotation, explains James, which sees wholecrop cereals follow the fodder beet, which is then undersown with grass to provide immediate follow-on grazing.
The farm is also growing close to 80ha (198 acres) of maize for the first time this year, which, James says, is to reduce the farm’s reliance on bought-in feeds and provide a forage reserve for a dry summer.
First-cut silage is planned for the end of May this year and will be followed with a further two or three cuts, depending on grass growth. Silage will be split between three new pits built as part of the new housing facility, to be fed out to cows in winter on a self-feed silage system.
A substantial network of sleeper and sand-based cow tracks provides cows with access to the grazing platform, incorporating six underpasses so cows do not have to cross any roads.
Cows can be walking a 10km round-trip some days, so a breed which can withstand this, while producing milk predominantly off grass, was kept in mind when stocking the unit in 2012.
“We run Jersey cross New Zealand Friesian genetics, targeting a cow with a mature bodyweight of 500kg, the ability to walk several kilometres per day and have a calf every 365 days,” James says.
“Cows produced about 4,000 litres from forage in 2018, which we are looking to push to nearer 4,500 litres this year. That should be achievable with the extra days in milk gained through having the shed space.”
The herd is managed in two separate groups, which sees those in first and second lactation split from older, third lactation or above cows. This is predominantly to manage walking distance, with younger animals grazed in further away paddocks.
But it also helps to minimise social pressures within the herd.
Cows are milked twice daily via a 70-point Waikato rotary parlour, where they currently receive a flat rate of 2.5kg of concentrate.
Milk is sold via an Arla contract, with the herd averaging 26 litres per cow per day at 80 days in milk.
Calving is done over a 10-week block, with a planned start date of February 1 for heifers, followed by cows from February 14.
Although the farm has always operated a stringent breeding plan to achieve this, an overhaul this year has seen bulls taken off the farm and a move to an all-AI system, which is incorporating sexed semen for the first time this year.
This has seen all bulling heifers and 360 of the higher performing cows (selected based on longevity, fertility, health traits and production) synchronised to be AI’d over three days using sexed semen.
The rest of the herd is on a manual heat detection system, with a beef terminal sire used on cows which will not breed replacements.
About half will be served with fresh and the rest frozen sexed semen this year to assess the merits of both going forward.
Farm manager Bruce Braithwaite, says: “The use of sexed semen has allowed us to identify which animals we have replacements out of in order to breed the best genetics into the herd.
“We need a cow which can give us consistent quality milk, with good feet and legs, but we don’t want to compromise on fertility and, if you are using a bull, you don’t know what you’re getting.
“Why gamble with genetics when we have the technology available to us to control it? We are also eliminating the 50 per cent chance of producing a bull calf, so we will not be left with large numbers of dairy-bred bull calves which there is no market for.
“Bulls can also be dangerous and we have had issues in the past. It is just not worth it when we don’t need them on-farm.”
James says: “There is huge pressure on the dairy industry to address the bull calf issue and it is one we needed to deal with now the herd is established and we know what we want to achieve from our system. We are a big unit with a reasonably high-profile and we want to be proactive.”