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How a move to an autumn block calving system is paying off for one dairy herd

Aiming to reduce costs and simplify his farm system, Sean Nicholson, alongside his father Colin, has overhauled the dairy enterprise at Castiles Farm, Ripon.

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How a move to an autumn block calving system is paying off for one dairy herd

Speaking at an AHDB, British Grassland Society and LIC-organised farm walk, Mr Nicholson explained how the herd had progressed from a 100-cow year-round calving herd on robots to the current set up, which sees 200 cows milked on an autumn block calving system.

 

Mr Nicholson said: “The two robots were costly to run and we would have needed to invest in another two if we were to grow numbers and stay on this system, which we could not justify longterm alongside the servicing and other running costs involved.

 

“With the infrastructure we had at the time, cows were also housed all-year-round, requiring more staff at irregular hours, meaning they were not invested into the business.

 

“We recognised we could run more cows on the block system, with fewer staff and without taking much of a hit on yields.”

 

The transition began in 2014, which saw the sale of the existing robots and investment in a 24-point swing over parlour in May the same year.

 

A focus on high herd-health status meant the transition was gradual, shifting existing cows towards calving in the planned 12-week block from September 1 and the farm’s own replacements used to increase the herd size.

 

“The key to tightening calving has been getting the heifer replacements to calve when we want in autumn, shifting cows gradually by letting some slip, pulling some forward and selling some in-calf.”

 

Since transitioning to the block system, breeding policy shifted towards New Zealand Friesian genetics producing a 550-600kg cow, which Mr Nicholson said suited the new system better.

 

The attention has been on building numbers so far, which has seen most of the herd artificial inseminated to a New Zealand Holstein Friesian in the first instance, before using an Aberdeen- Angus sweeper bull.

 

“More selection pressure for milk quality and other traits will pick up once the calving block and numbers are where we want them,” said Mr Nicholson.


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Workload

 

The farm employs one full-time herdsman as well as part-time relief cover and, although the block system means a heavy workload at certain times of the year, Mr Nicholson said this had enabled him and his staff to focus on one task at a time.

 

A shift in focus to getting as much milk from forage as possible also meant some investment in grazing platform infrastructure was needed.

 

It spans 68 hectares (168 acres) of the farm’s total 115ha (284-acre) platform, split into paddocks to operate a rotational grazing system, achieving total covers of 14 tonnes dry matter/ha (5.7t DM/acre) in 2018.

 

This saw 2,000 metres of tracks laid using mostly sleepers and some stone, as well as 50m of pipe laid underground to provide water to each paddock.

 

Dry stone walls which separated some of the paddocks were also fenced off with electric wire, as Mr Nicholson said these were prone to being knocked down by cows on the rotational system as they were getting used to it.

 

Mr Nicholson said: “Cows are turned out in February once grass covers reach 2,800kg DM/ha, operating a general stocking rate of 2.8 cows/ha on the platform, although paddock sizes will be adapted in line with grass covers to ensure demand and supply are aligned.

 

“We produced 3,775 litres from forage in 2018, with concentrates fed at a flat rate in the parlour.”

Cows are housed during nights from mid-October and fully housed from the beginning of November.

 

Once inside, they are fed grass silage using a shear grab and block cutter after the farm sold its diet feeder.

 

“It used to take one person two to three hours per day to feed round, but since we started using this system it can be done in half the time and is fed out only on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

 

“Using the grass we have available has enabled us to build resilience and get more from our ground, all while simplifying the system, meaning we can enjoy a better quality of life.”

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