Battling the elements in a sustainable system
21 January 2020
Maximising fertility, increasing production per cow and making the best possible forage, is part of Malcolm Errington’s strategy to create a sustainable business in a Less Favoured Area.
Town Head Farm in Askham, Penrith, is located in an area noted for its harsh weather, on fields that don’t face south and at 229-305 metres (750-1,000 feet) above sea level – something Mr Errington recognises as far from ideal.
But that hasn’t stopped milk production increasing from 1.1 to 2.1 million litres on the 190ha (470 acre) farm since 2004, despite milking only 15 more cows. Moreover, as well as a yield of around 9,600 litres per cow, the farm maintains top-level fertility, with a pregnancy rate of 30% and a 386 day calving interval.
Attention to detail
It’s all down to attention to detail in lots of small areas, rather than anything radical: good breeding, good feeding, motivated staff and maintaining a healthy environment for the cows.
We don’t do anything different to lots of farmers,” says Malcolm, who milks just over 200 Holstein Friesians. “We trough-feed grass silage, wholecrop wheat, a concentrate blend and molasses with minerals and an acid buffer through a mixer wagon to about 25 litres, then top up in the parlour with cake. Grass silage and wholecrop are buffer-fed in summer.
Malcolm believes high fertility starts with good dry cow husbandry and hygiene, and minimising animal stress to protect the developing egg. Just 24 mastitis cases were recorded during the last 13 months in 218 cows calved. Dry cows receive 4-5kg of straw and whatever silage is required, plus 2.5kg of cake with a calcium binder for a minimum of 18 days before calving to guard against milk fever. Ensuring cows get off to a good start means they are more likely to get in calf promptly, which also optimises milk production potential.
Making the best possible silage with Ecosyl
Making the best possible silage, despite the challenging growing conditions, also plays a part in maintaining milk production and also creating a more sustainable system, less reliant on concentrates.
Sheep are grazed over winter to ensure fresh grass for spring. Unpredictable weather means only two silage cuts are possible per season, whilst wilting can also be a bit of a lottery. Cuts are taken in late May/early June and again seven weeks later.
Because of rain, first cut in 2019 needed up to 4 days’ wilting to achieve 28.4% dry matter (DM) silage, at 11.1 MJ/kg ME and 13.5% protein, whilst a sudden hot spell produced second cut of 41.8% DM, with 10.8 ME and 14.8% protein.
“We take what dry matter we can get,” explains Malcolm. “We try to be in the mid-twenties because 30% dry matter is difficult round here.”
While contractors are used for the bulk of the silaging operations, the farm does some mowing and carting and ensures there’s a second machine rolling the clamp for good consolidation. All clamps are indoors with big square bales used on top of sheeting for plenty of weight. Consistent with making the best possible silage despite challenging weather, an additive is used on all clamps.
We’ve used Ecosyl for years. We’ve tried others but come back to Ecosyl because it’s proven,” Malcolm explains. “We’re trying to make the best of what we can get to reduce concentrates, and to get the best for the cow.
For the wholecrop, a different additive, Ecocool – combining the bacteria in Ecosyl with a second bacterium – has been used to keep the higher DM material cooler. This year’s wholecrop analysed at 50.9% DM and 36.1% starch.
However, recognising that sun shining on the south-facing first cut clamp can also cause heating, Malcolm tried Ecocool across all three silage buildings this season. It has kept everything stable and cool.
It’s a simple system,” he adds. “We just try to move forward in little steps.”
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