Roberta Dunbar farms at Cromlet Farm, Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, and has developed an award-winning pedigree British Friesian herd that is high-yielding, profitable and has bulls procured for AI.
The Barncluth herd of 85 British Friesians is testimony that there is more than one way to make a profit from dairy farming.
The farm is situated in a Less Favoured Area in North Lanarkshire and despite topographic and climatic challenges, Roberta Dunbar and her partner Gordon Smith, turn a financial profit that many dairy farmers can only envy.
The latest annual accounts list a farm income of £224,000 realising a profit of £43,000 before depreciation. This is not a one-off figure, and in a male-dominated industry, Roberta demonstrates that a woman can certainly make her mark.
The path has been difficult; and odds may have been stacked against her, yet hard work and determination has led to success.
The farm has been owned by the Dunbar family for almost 120 years, but following the passing of her parents, Roberta had to buy-out family members in order to maintain the 100-acre family farm, which she now runs alongside an additional 80 acres of rented land.
At that time, 1988, the herd numbered 35 non-pedigree British Friesians and, since then, Roberta has graded-up the herd to full-pedigree status and increased numbers to 85 milking cows and followers.
“I only ever wanted to farm and when my father was ill, I was at college training to be a home economics teacher, and this provided the opportunity to return home,” says Roberta.
“Back then, we milked the herd in an old abreast parlour and mucked out by hand, and it was an extremely physical work-load. Nine-years ago, we purchased a second-hand herringbone parlour that speeded-up milking time, reduced labour and the cow health and welfare management has improved.”
The herd is CIS recorded and averages 8,100kg milk at 4.13% fat and 3.31% protein with a calving-interval of 388 days. The herd continues to increase production levels averaging 31 litres per day in March 2019 compared with 25 litres in March 2018.
The make-up of the herd reflects Roberta’s view that long-lasting, trouble-free cows, with good feet and legs and quality udders, provide a solid base for long-term sustainable profit.
Herd composition includes 42% of the cows being in their fourth lactation or above, with seven cows currently milking in their eighth lactation.
The fourth lactation and above group numbers 36 cows averaging 9,294kg, third lactation and second lactation cows average 9,600kg and 9,000kg, respectively, while first lactation heifers are averaging 7,600kg milk.
Roberta has worked closely with Davidsons’s nutritionist John Rogers for the past 23 years, and the relationship covers everything from dairy herd nutrition to on-farm costings.
Roberta said: “Davidson’s feed mill is just a few miles away at neighbouring Shotts, and we have an excellent working relationship with John and the company.
“We operate a simple feeding system with cows receiving Davidson’s 18% protein concentrate in the parlour on a twice-per-day basis. Most cows receive 5kg per milking, although some of our high yielding cows producing 50 litres per day receive 8kg a milking.
"Concentrate use is 0.39kg/litre, with a 12-month annual rolling average cost of 9.5p per litre.”
Due to the herd longevity achieved, Roberta says she is flexible about increasing numbers on an annual basis.
“This year, we have 10 heifers in the herd and I carefully select the cows we breed replacements from and also breeding bulls. A couple of years ago, we had a run of heifer calves so, the following year, we eased back and bred more cows to our own Limousin beef bull.
“We sell Limousin cross Friesian animals privately to local buyers and receive £350-£400 for a heifer and between £250-£350 for a bull calf at 12 weeks old. We have limited acreage and limited facilities to rear dairy heifer replacements and steers.
"We have tremendous demand for the beef-cross calves and selling at these prices helps our cash flow and helps reduce costs,” she says.
The herd is fed a silage ration through a feeder-wagon and supplemented with concentrate usage through the parlour.
This past year’s silage provides maintenance plus four litres with an analysis offering 29% DM, 11.1ME, 71.5 D, NDF 46 and Crude Protein of 13.3. Cows at grass are expected to yield M+20 litres, depending on annual grass growth and climatic conditions.
Dry cows are carefully monitored and housed in a purpose-built ’transition-shed’ away from the milking herd.
The cows are fed hay and silage and receive 2-3kg per day of Davidson’s dry cow nuts in the three-week run-up to calving as Roberta is conscious she does not want Friesian cows to be over-conditioned prior to calving.
The dry cows are bedded on straw and also receive a calcium dry cow bolus.
The milking portion of the herd reside in cow kennels and a new purpose-built 50-cow cubicle shed that incorporates automatic scrapers.
The cubicles have rubber matting and are bedded with saw-dust and cows receive silage along a south-facing external feed passage. Slurry from the cubicles and cow kennels is stored in a new 340,000-gallon above-ground slurry tank.
“The slurry tank allows long-term capacity storage and the opportunity to spread slurry to our best advantage. Turn-out is usually in mid-April and we operate a 21-day grazing paddock system and follow up with slurry application.
"We also spread slurry on the silage ground before first cut and after each cut, and depending on grass growth we usually harvest two to three cuts using a local agricultural contractor.
“Gordon and I took a decision that we needed to increase herd numbers and invest in new facilities. Over the past nine years we’ve constructed a transition shed, built a new 50-cow cubicle facility and adjacent slurry store, and converted an existing building into the new milking parlour.
"We went to the Royal Bank of Scotland with our business plan and it agreed to loan the required financial investment.”
Unfortunately for Roberta and Gordon, the farm had been turned down for a grant approval due to its small size and various other qualification requirements. This meant the couple had to fund the redevelopment from their own financial trading.
However, Roberta did not have to purchase any additional cows to increase herd numbers and subsequently built-up the herd from her own high-quality breeding stock.
The Barncluth herd entered the 2016-17 British Friesian Herds Competition and was placed third overall. The couple were thrilled to receive the best heifer award as well as second-prize home-bred cow in the 50-tonne class.
However, the couple’s home-bred bull, Barncluth Arrival, has recently taken the Friesian cattle-breeding world by storm explains Roberta.
“The bull offers impressive production figures of +698kg milk, +25.1kg fat and 15.3kg protein and is classified Ex91 points. We collected 10,000 units of semen from the bull privately and the supply is stored at UK Sire Services. We then decided to place a small advert in Farmers Guardian in October 2018 and since then semen sales have literally taken-off.
“We’ve been placing an advert every month and farmers are getting in contact from all over the UK. There has been an upsurge in demand in recent years for British Friesian semen as well as for live cattle.
"Friesian cows are extremely hardy and offer good production and milk components, along with longevity, high fertility and ease of management. Friesian cows suit our system and topography and continue to deliver a profit,” she says.