Farm Of The Week: Dairy farm that has the inside track

Keeping cows indoors all year is still a relatively new phenomenon in the UK, but it is becoming more common and after this summer’s weather there could be a greater acceleration towards the practice.

Dan White and his father Michael, of Weddacre Farm in Gisburn, have been farming like this since 2004. Their herd of nearly 500 predominantly Holstein dairy cows never goes outside and Dan believes that has been a major contributory factor towards a consistent milk supply.

“One night of rain and our cows would be up to their knees in mud around here because of the land. It’s clay and doesn’t provide the right conditions for them. Big Holstein cows like having full bellies and having to walk around a muddy field finding the best grass they can is not the greatest way of treating them. The ground also puts them at risk of injury.

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“From our point of view they have much better conditions by being inside.

“Our health status is very good and as we are on a Sainsbury’s contract through Wiseman Dairies, we are monitored very closely. We also operate a controlled diet inside, so we know exactly what each cow is being fed and can monitor them more closely.”

Situated on the edge of Gisburn, and tucked away half a mile down a farm track, is the massive building that houses the herd and inside is an equally impressive state-of-the-art rotary parlour.

“My dad has always been very progressive and at the forefront of modern dairy farming,” says Dan, who runs the operation with his father keeping a watchful eye. “Dad is always there to yank my collar if it looks like I need it!

“We have new buildings and the latest in dairy equipment. Putting in the Dairymaster rotary parlour is to my mind the best investment we’ve ever made. We get through all 430 milkers in two hours and milk twice a day. In that time we see every cow, which also provides a twice-daily check on their health.

“Dad and I both share the same enthusiasm for dairy farming and we’ve built up the herd substantially in recent years. We had 300 cows when I left school in 2004. We have also put up this building. It has been a tremendous start to my career as a dairy farmer and dad has been my inspiration. He wouldn’t have put up the building if I hadn’t been interested.

“I’m 25 years old this week and left school at 16, straight after my GCSEs. I’d had enough of education. I just wanted to get involved here. Dad knew what I wanted to do and we started working through the changes we have made.”

Those changes have included moving away from providing their own new dairy cows through rearing replacements and a further more recent move towards other continental breeds rather than being totally reliant on Holsteins.

“We have stopped rearing our own replacements and now run a flying herd, buying everything in. We have a neighbouring farmer who rears his own replacements and sells them to us; and we also now import cows from Denmark and Holland.”

The Whites’ reasons for importation of dairy cows, rather than staying with the home market, is down to a combination of UK prices and mainland Europe health status.

“Livestock prices have got dearer and dearer over here, so we had to look at other options. We started introducing the Danish Red into the herd late last year. We have about 33 at the moment.

“We’ve gone for a move towards a hardier cow that is also longer lasting and doesn’t need as much attention. It’s smaller and more compact than the sometimes clumsy Holstein and although it gives around 200-300 litres less per lactation its longevity makes up for that. It also produces a higher butterfat and protein content than the Holstein.

“We have also found that cattle from abroad come in with a far superior disease status. Our next breed we are looking at importing is the popular Fleckvieh. The breed is the second most popular dairy cow breed in the world. It was developed from the Simmental and is well known in mainland Europe as a dual-purpose animal.”

The herd average at Weddacre is 9,500 litres, which brings about an annual production of four million litres per year.

“We’re happy with our herd average. It works well for both cow health and production. We don’t like to push the cows any further as we don’t want to upset the balance. We are more concerned about providing the same quantity and quality of milk every day.”

Dan and Michael have sold their milk to Wiseman Dairies for 11 years having left Dairy Farmers of Britain in 2001, and have been on their Sainsbury’s contract since 2004. Recent developments have seen a 0.1p per litre increase to their milk price. They are now paid on what is known as COPP (cost of production plus) whereby their books are presented to Sainsbury’s once every three months.

“It’s a relatively new system. A consulting group goes through our accounts and calculates what it is costing us to produce per litre and then we are paid a margin on top of that. We’ve only had one visit so far, but it is working in our favour at the moment. The only problem with it might be that if the price of milk took off we’d then still be stuck at the COPP.”

Weddacre runs to 500 acres and the Whites rent a further 60 acres from a neighbouring farm. It is all down to grassland and the silage is fed to the herd.

“Our first cut is in May and we manage three cuts altogether. The others are in July and August. We don’t put any fertiliser on the third cut just slurry. We cut the whole acreage in a day and a half. Amazingly, we have still managed to get the three cuts in despite the weather conditions.”

As well as Dan and Michael there are two full-time staff and a team of relief milkers. Everything is dealt with professionally and in such a way that the dairy farming operation doesn’t totally run their lives.

“We are usually all finished by 5pm and we all get a day off each week. Being a dairy farmer is both your work and your hobby but running the farm the way we do seems to keep everyone happy.”

Alfred White, Dan’s grandfather, came to Weddacre Farm from Hawes in 1948. He gradually built up the farm acreage as more of the Gisburn Estate land owned by the Hindley family was sold off.

The farm was originally a dairy/sheep enterprise but Michael changed it to a wholly dairy farm some years ago. Their expansion to nearly 500 dairy cows may prove to be just one more step forward to an even greater herd size in the future, although Dan doesn’t see Weddacre ever reaching the size being suggested earlier this year in Lincolnshire.