Carving out a successful niche is a business model David Finlay and his wife, Wilma, have worked at for several decades at Rainton Farm, near Gatehouse of Fleet, Castle Douglas.
It is where they have grown their dairy herd and built a successful business which has direct supply and public connection at its core.
The business also recently gained recognition for their approach after David was awarded farmer of the year at the Ceva Animal Welfare Awards earlier this year.
The couple are the second generation of Finlays at Rainton, which spans 345 hectares (850 acres) of rugged pastureland, 500 acres of which is improved permanent pasture, with the rest made up of rough grazing, shrub, and woodland.
It is home to a 125-head herd of three-way cross Swedish Red, Holstein and Montbeliarde cows.
After deciding to move away from intensive dairy production, they turned to direct supply as their main outlet as well as converting to organic production in 1999.
This saw the arrival of artisan ice cream and, later, cheese production at Rainton, under what is now their nationally retailed Cream o’ Galloway brand, as well as an on-farm visitor centre which opened in 1994.
Faced with the challenges of an ever-changing consumer profile, the pair has not been afraid to respond by challenging conventional thinking.
And it is this mindset which, following a trial seven years ago, paved the way for their decision three years ago to introduce the system of extended dairy calf suckling to the entire herd.
Mr Finlay says: “We had been doing farm tours for 25 years as part of the visitor centre experience and we knew our customers had issues with separating cows and calves at birth.
“The concept [extended suckling] had been raised on occasions, but it was always one I firmly dismissed until we started the process of building the new shed for the milkers when the business had outgrown our old 75-cow shed.”
It was during the planning phase of the new building when Mr Finlay began considering whether the idea of extended suckling was worth looking at.
He says: “When looking at the bigger picture and the direction of dairy farming in the UK, it was clear we as a business were a small-scale producer in a growing commodity market.
“We needed to look what the opportunities were to add value to our product in the niche marketplace we were supplying, so when we were looking at shed design options, we visited some farms in the Netherlands operating the concept on a smaller scale, with about 40 cows, to get a better idea of what it involved.”
With the help of a Scottish Rural Development Programme grant, Farm facts the new 140-cow capacity building was put up between 2009 and 2012, complete with tweaks to accommodate the new concept.
It is split into four sections which allows the team to move cows in their calving groups between freshlycalved, raising, weaning and fulltime milking groups alongside designated calf creep areas.
An auto tandem parlour was installed at the same time, through which cows are milked once daily when suckling calves, and twice a day for a couple of months after weaning.
Although annual milk production has taken a hit, Mr Finlay explains his target is to get back to pre suckling net annual milk yield of 550,000 litres, from what will be 135 cows once herd expansion is completed.
The herd achieved 3,800 litres per cow this year, rising from about 2,800 litres per cow in the first year of extended suckling.
About 50 per cent of milk produced is used in ice cream and cheese production, with the rest currently supplied to Omsco.
The objective, though, is to move this figure towards 100 per cent and maximise direct supply.
Explaining the concept, Mr Finlay says: “Calves are now on cows for four to six months, to be weaned at about 200kg.
“Weaning is a gradual process and starts when calves are two to three months old by separating calves from their mothers overnight, allowing the cow to give more milk but also promoting rumen development in the calves as they transition.”
The new system also prompted a fresh look at the farm’s breeding and marketing avenues, which now sees cows served via artificial insemination to a dairy bull or by one of two Aberdeen-Angus bulls, used on the heifers and as sweepers across the cows.
Calving is split between a spring and autumn block, taking place over eight weeks between October and December and the same period during early March and April.
With current herd expansion plans, most heifers are kept as replacements while dairy-bred and beef-sired males are targeted at the rose veal market and sold as whole carcases to specialist outlets in central Scotland and London.
Mr Finlay says: “The two calving blocks give us a supply of milk all year round.
“We will try to calve most cows indoors for convenience. Spring calvers are turned out with their calves at foot though, which makes overnight separation something of a challenge.
“We also leave the bulls entire at weaning now to promote growth rates, which have upped from about 0.65kg per day to an average of between 1.3kg and 1.5kg per day.
“This sees the best of the Aberdeen-Angus sired bull calves pushing 350-400kg from six months old, to produce a carcase weighing about 180-200kg, to kill out at 55 per cent.
“Males which do not hit the rose veal requirements at six to 10 months will be kept through to 18 months and marketed as conventional bull beef.”
The transition, Mr Finlay says, has been a steep learning curve during the last three years.
“We are taking cows designed for a system and putting them into a completely different way of working and it was a real challenge in the first year,” he says.
“The cows did not know what the rules were any more and we had a struggle keeping on top of disease burden in calves to start with.
“Some cows are better at it than others in terms of milk sharing between calves and the parlour, and it is these traits we are selecting for now to move towards animals which are more suited to this system over the next few years.”
Working closely with his vet and adjusting protocol in the shed has proved crucial to getting on top of the calf health issues seen initially.
Calving box hygiene, focusing on water cleanliness and adopting environmental inoculation are some of the measures which have been adopted.
But it is colostrum management which Mr Finlay says proved crucial to turning the corner in getting on top of calf health issues.
“Every calf now gets 2.5 litres in the first couple of hours of life on top of anything it has suckled itself, from a pool of good quality cow colostrum which we harvest and freeze in sachets of that amount,” he says.
“We invested in the ColoQuick colostrum management system three years ago, a machine waterbath which tumbles colostrum sachets at 40degC and guarantees a consistent substance, protecting the delicate antibodies during defrosting.”
All livestock diets at Rainton have been cereal free for the past 18 months, with only mineralised lucerne nuts used in dairy, beef and sheep rations.
The farm is also registering with the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association, and will be attempting to go antibiotic free this winter.
“These are assurances increasingly asked for by our customers. Although niche marketing is not an easy option, it does provide strong customer loyalty,” Mr Finlay says.
“The ups and downs in the market place since going organic and the early days of selling organic ice cream from booming to downturn has taught us that to successfully go after niche markets, you need a very strong point of difference which is demanded by your customers.
“You also need protection from the ‘big boys’ jumping into a growing market opportunity.
“Our game is exploiting the opportunities of our niche market, because we do not see that we can compete with large-scale herds in a volatile, price sensitive commodity market.
“Unquestionably, the success of the suckling dairy system will come from developing good staff and cow relationships, trust and minimising stress.”
The Ceva Animal Welfare Awards are open to farmers, vets, vet nurses, animal welfare professionals and animal welfare teams who can be nominated to receive an award by fellow peers or friends and family.
Nominations are now open, and will close on Tuesday, December 31.
The awards are presented at a ceremony in Birmingham on April 1, 2020.
For more details visit www.cevawelfare.com