Beset by low milk prices for the past two years and with a continuing exodus from the dairy sector over the past 20, the current mood could be anticipated as despair.
While the total number of dairy farmers in North Yorkshire fell below 500 this year a large proportion of those remaining have cut their cloth accordingly, including Mark Day of New Sheepfold Farm near Ingleby Greenhow.
Situated on the edge of the North York Moors, Mark has followed his father Paul’s philosophy on cow management and his own penchant for breeding, and producing calves that will suffer less stress has recently opened up a new market.
“Dad learned how to make money out of cows through making milk from grass rather than bought-in feed. It’s something we stuck to at Bickleygate on the edge of Dalby Forest where we moved to when I was seven-years-old and here where we came to when I was 18. Everything fed is either fresh grazed grass or grass silage. All we add are concentrates, no straights.”
The herd runs to 220 Holstein dairy cows with 150 young stock. Milking is combined between one robot and a traditional herringbone parlour.
“We installed the robot in 2009 thinking we may have gone fully robotic but it didn’t suit our system because they don’t hold the same attraction when the herd is grazing. They’re already getting fed and so there is little incentive to come back in, as the attraction is usually that they will be fed while standing at the robot. We now use the robot more as a management tool to milk the high-yielding cows. It allows them to be milked three or four times a day so that it eases their udders and that way it helps with cow longevity. We usually get around five lactations per cow here.”
Cow welfare is one of Mark’s primary concerns. By improving his cows and calves’ lives he improves the chances of them being more productive.
“I’ve always been fascinated by genetics and I use genomics a great deal. I’d heard about the poll gene and realised that by breeding for polled cows I could reduce the stress caused to calves. Most dairy farmers in the UK dehorn Holstein dairy calves and there’s a cost attached in doing that. What happens in the calf’s first six months can have a long-lasting affect and there are a lot of statistics that show the negative impact something like dehorning can have on future milk yield. My own feeling is that I want to do anything I can to make the lives of my calves less stressful.
“I’ve been breeding polled dairy cows for the past ten years and when I started there were only two bulls in the world that I felt were good enough to use. Now I can choose from around 15. It’s still not a lot but is indicative of a move towards polled Holsteins. It’s still very much a niche market but in some countries such as in Scandinavia and Germany where it is compulsory that vets undertake dehorning the polled breeding route is much more popular as they save on vet costs.”
Mark’s herd is now 35 per cent polled and he hopes that figure increases to 75 per cent in the next few years. He currently has the number one homozygous polled heifer in the UK, which means she is the best heifer with purely the poll gene rather than both one horned and one poll gene that the heterozygous would have.
“We flushed her - Sahara Perfekt PP - to the highest poll bull in Europe to try and breed a homozygous polled bull. Bickleygate Colt Lila Z was an embryo. She is from a very famous cow family with a really good poll line. Her great grandmother was sold for one million dollars. We flushed her as a maiden heifer at one-year-old and have milking daughters from her that are all polled.
“Polled cattle compete with any non-polled genetics, but where they score heavily is in the tangible difference in rearing costs. The cost of drugs and labour in treating a horned calf, most notably the dehorning cost, is much greater than breeding polled cattle. I’ve been to the USA and into Europe to source the right genetics and I’ve recently set up Premier Polled Genetics with another farmer who breeds poll bulls to market them further. We’ve set up a new website.”
Mark’s research isn’t just into polled genetics either.
“I try to keep ahead of the game and about 15 years ago used some bull’s semen that maybe nobody else in the UK had considered. In Scandinavia all vets have to record lame cows and so there is a hoof health index for bulls. That information was available but no-one seemed to be using it. So I knew which bull would get me better hoof health. I used a bull called Ramos from Germany.”
He’s also spent considerable time this year getting involved with the new mid-tier stewardship scheme that has replaced the ELS that he’d been part of for the past 10 years.
“One of the benefits is the ability to claim capital grants. As a result we laid 2,300 concrete sleepers this spring and by doing that we were able to bring the cows in a fortnight later than we would have had to normally, so it can work.”
The new Arla milk price Mark will receive this week will be 23 pence per litre (ppl) but he reports that by the time penalties are taken off he will still be struggling to get 20ppl. It’s better than 17ppl he suffered in July.
“Somehow we’ve maintained our profitability. That’s because we’ve stuck to our guns in the way we manage the cows on grass and silage; plus we have another income stream with our own water from a spring supplying local properties and we have our own biomass boiler that provides free hot water.”
Mark’s farming operation runs to 330 acres including his parents’ farm next door at Old Sheepfold Farm purchased seven years ago. He runs an all year round calving programme with 70 per cent Holstein calves and 30 per cent Belgian Blues spreading his options and selling calves locally.