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The right cow for the system is lifting farm profits

Fine-tuning the dairy business at Lydney Park Farm with the right cow, right system and optimised use of resources has dramatically lifted the farm’s profits in this 1,000-cow herd.

Switching from a fully housed to grazing

The system operated at Lydney Park Farm has famously changed tack, switching from a fully housed, intensive set-up to one based almost entirely on grazing. While this has led to a decline in production from around 10,000 litres to well under half this amount, the enterprise profits have significantly more than doubled.

That this has been achieved with once-a-day milking and annual production of just 3,750 litres per cow may seem surprising, but improved grassland utilisation, reduced costs of production and breeding the right cow for the system have each contributed significantly to this success.

Farm manager, Keith Davis, who is the driving force behind the changes and the continued success of the herd, says getting the right kind of cow has been a process of trial and error. “We started with a herd of Holsteins and immediately bred to a mixture of Friesian and Jersey genetics, quickly realising we wanted a cow that was three quarters Jersey and one quarter Friesian,” he says.

Following the prevailing trend at that time amongst grazing-based producers, he initially opted to select his service sires on New Zealand’s Breeding Worth (BW) and Ireland’s Economic Breeding Index (EBI).
“Coming from a Holstein base we had a lot of milk volume but poor fertility and low fat and protein percentages, so these were things we wanted to correct,” he says.

He also describes the milk contract he had at the time, which imposed an extra haulage charge for volume because of the farm’s location outside his buyer’s milk field.

Focus on the Spring Calving Index

Today, 10 years after the switch away from the Holsteins, he says he has possibly cut production too far, having focussed on EBI and BW which have strong negative weightings for volume of milk. “There are some cows amongst the New Zealand and Irish genetics with superb fertility; they certainly get in calf but they just don’t have enough milk,” he says.

He also accepts that these two indexes are designed for different economic circumstances from those in the UK and he has now made the choice to completely switch away from their use.

Instead, he has refocussed attention on the UK’s bespoke breeding index for grazing producers, the Spring Calving Index (£SCI), which he believes is ideally suited for the herd, which calves in a 12-week block from 20 February. He says: “I’m now completely convinced the £SCI is the index to follow because it is formulated for milk contracts and input costs in the UK. These can be quite different from those in other parts of the world, where they can be geared around different market conditions and completely different pricing structures for selling milk.”

He also values the fact that the £SCI can be used to highlight bulls from every nation and across all breeds on the same scale, allowing him to compare a broad cross-section of bloodlines on a level playing field.
“We find the £SCI highlights the type of bull we now need for this herd, and we’ve selected the Danish bulls, VJ Tudvad, VJ Link, VJ Huzar and VJ Zummit for two-thirds of our matings for this breeding season,” he says.

“These bulls are better transmitters of milk than those we have used in the past, but they retain the milk quality, so will help ensure we improve production without losing fat and protein,” he says. “This also helps with our current milk contract which now has no penalty for volume, as our buyer, Wyke Farms, has extended its milk field into our area.”

However, within £SCI, he also filters for weight of fat and aims not to drop below a Predicted Transmitting Ability (PTA) of around 12kg fat (on the across-breed £SCI scale). “Our current production of fat plus protein is around 350kg/cow/year, typically achieved on 250kg concentrates, but I’d like to think we could increase that to 380-390kg over the next few years,” he says. However, he says he still does not seek out the highest milk volume bulls as the cows have to walk up to three miles a day and he doesn’t want them to do so while carrying large volumes of milk.

“We ideally like our cows to produce 20 litres of high fat and protein milk rather than 30 litres at a lower quality,” he says. “We aim for a peak of 1.8kg fat plus protein per cow per day, which will help us hit our annual milk solids target.”

"Happy with these scores"

The fact that the herd is milked through a 32-point rotary parlour also has a bearing on his 20-litre target as anything giving much more than this will slow the system down.
“It takes 7.5-8 hours to milk 1,000 cows and we don’t want to take any longer, but cows giving 30 litres usually have to do an extra rotation,” he says.

Commenting on the increasing domination in the herd by VikingGenetics, he says that as well as the bulls’ performance on £SCI, he likes the long-term emphasis on breeding for hoof and udder health over many years.

“The Danish bulls we have used in the past which now have UK daughters milking, have come through with good figures for the UK’s comparable traits, like Lameness Advantage and Mastitis Index,” he says.

Daughters of bulls such as VJ Link and VJ Tester have contributed to good locomotion scores across the herd, which (on a scale of 0-3) show only 0.5% of the herd scoring 3, 6% scoring 2, and 6% scoring 1, with the remainder scoring 0 and showing perfect locomotion.

“We footbath five times a week and are very happy with these scores,” he says.

The ultimate test of the policy is in the financial performance, and Keith says veterinary costs and overall costs of production have been slashed since the breeding and management changes were made.
“Even when we had Holsteins on this system the finances started to come right,” he says. “We just knew we had to have different genetics to make it work properly.”

With today’s Jersey-Friesian mix he says costs of production have declined to 24p/litre, but he’d like to cut that further.

“Yes, we are making a profit but I can’t tell you what,” he says. “But it’s substantially more than we made under the old, intensive system.”

Text: Ann Hardy

Lydney Park Farm facts

  • 1,000 milking cows – broadly ¾ Jersey ¼ Friesian
  • Milked once a day throughout their lactation
  • Calve in a 12-week block from 20 February
  • Served with dairy semen for three weeks, Hereford semen for one week
  • Angus bulls used as sweepers from week five
  • Currently giving 3,750 litres at 5.1% fat and 4.0% protein
  • New target to increase volume and weight of fat plus protein
  • Selecting on £SCI and breeding two-thirds of herd to VikingGenetics Jerseys
  • Feed 250kg concentrates per cow per year
  • 1,500 acre premises along the River Severn near Chepstow