Northern Irish farmers visit Scotland

The group at Broadwigg
The group at Broadwigg

A group of 50 forward-thinking dairy farmers from Northern Ireland took part in a two-day educational tour incorporating a visit to two units, each milking over 1,000 cows in southwest Scotland. The group also visited AgriScot as part of the excursion.

Norbrook, the UK’s only homegrown veterinary pharmaceutical company, hosted the popular trip - which was oversubscribed - as part of its efforts to support and serve the farming community in the shift towards smart and sustainable agriculture. The initiative was organised in cooperation with National Milk Records (NMR), the leading supplier of milk recording services to the UK.

Southwest Scotland is home to the highest concentration of dairy farms. The Forsyth family owns a large-scale livestock enterprise and the group visited their 500-hectare, Broadwigg unit at Whithorn, where Dave Ellis, the herd manager has been in charge for three years.

Mr Ellis now manages 1,310 cows and he is constantly fine-tuning herd management to get the most from them. Housed year-round, the cows are carefully monitored to achieve a calving interval of 393 days. Rolling milk yield averages 10,500 litres. Age at first calving is 2 years and the cows produce for 3.4 lactations.

His experience in the past as an industry troubleshooter has helped prepare Mr Ellis to manage such a large herd size as well as a staff of fourteen.

Mr Ellis says, “At this scale, proper protocols must be in place at every level. Cow welfare is paramount so I make sure that protocols are followed. We have a good team spirit and retain staff, which is vital to the success of a large herd.”

In a bid to reduce input costs, the business installed a slurry separator to produce recycled manure solids that now provides green bedding for the herd. Mr Ellis commented, “We did have some teething problems. Initially the recycled material was too wet and mastitis levels shot up. It turned out that a new motor was required to get the dry matter to 35 per cent. Since this has been achieved we are now returning to mastitis levels of 25 cases per 100 cows. Green bedding looks set to offer a six figure saving to this herd and we’re now confident that it is the right bedding choice for the stock.”

Samuel Steele from Rowreagh, County Down, Northern Ireland jumped at the chance to visit Scotland and see for himself how large herds can be managed successfully. Samuel, who farms with his father and brother, was named the Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year in 2012.

Samuel commented, “We manage a 500 cow herd and coming to southwest Scotland to see herds of double that size is inspiring. The passion for improvement and growth whilst retaining attention to detail is clear to see in both the businesses we visited. I’m very impressed to see how large workforces are all pulling together in the right direction.”

The group’s second visit was to Crofthead Farm, Crocketford, which has experienced significant changes over the past four years. At Crofthead, Mark Callandar milks 1,150 Ayrshire cross cows on 760 hectares of grassland. A satellite unit nearby is milking an additional 200 head and rearing the heifers.

The main herd is permanently housed, fed on a silage-based diet, with readily available distillery by-products, cereals and inclusion of a high energy and protein blend. Mr Callander says, “Both the cows and staff prefer three times a day milking. It works very well and the cows average 9,500 litres, calving all year round.”

He has invested significantly in a purpose-built steading and a BvL feeder wagon, which is one of the biggest that the factory has ever made. The new cubicle sheds, which received funding from the Scotland Rural Development Programme, incorporate a foot of extra length in each cubicle. A by-product from processing oats at the local porridge factory provides an affordable source of dry fresh bedding. Each passageway is scraped three times daily.

Mr Callandar says, “Cow welfare is our top priority. At herd level we are always striving to improve. Currently cow fertility, lameness and management of dry and newly calved cows are targets that are closely monitored on a weekly basis to assess progress.”

Energy efficiency is also important, with the farm using electricity generated from two 100 KW wind turbines to pump slurry into a lagoon at the satellite farm from where it can be spread more easily.

Marcus Scott of Norbrook concluded, “Norbrook is delighted to be working with NMR to bring this group to two of Scotland’s largest dairy farms. We’re especially pleased to see such an ambitious group with so many young farmers that have taken up this opportunity to spend time looking into new ideas to help improve the performance of their own herds.”

Speaking of the joint initiative, Andy Warne, Managing Director of NMR said:

“Dairy farming is becoming an increasingly complicated business and the forecast low milk price means farmers need to be smart and focus on the areas of their business which drive efficiency. NMR’s recording service aims to supply the management information needed to drive efficiency and this type of event helps generate the new ideas which farmers need for the future. We are happy to partner with Norbrook who, we believe, share our farmer-focused strategies.”