Wednesday, January 23, 2019

New year, new parlour

January 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

A dairy farm near Bungay is investing to create a better working environment. Judith Tooth reports.

Come the autumn, the milking team at David and Shaun Utting’s dairy farm in the Waveney Valley will be sleeping snugly in their beds for an extra two hours every morning. A new parlour with faster throughput will mean that instead of bringing the 285 cows in at 4am, milking can start at 6 and still finish at the same time.

The investment is all about creating a better working environment, says David: “Starting at 4 in the morning makes for such a long day. Now we’ll all start work at the same time, and fewer staff will be needed at the weekend, so everyone will get more of a break.

“It’s got to be done sooner or later. We could update [the existing parlour] but I recognise that’s not the way forward. If we stay as we are we can’t grow the business in the future.”

David’s not thinking of his own beauty sleep: he’s the one member of the family who doesn’t do the milking. Shaun’s son, Nathan, heads up the team, along with David’s son, Henry, Nathan’s partner, Claire, Shaun himself and new recruit Coral.

Deciding which parlour to invest was much harder than expected, and followed visits to dairy units in Devon, Scotland, Essex and locally. Robotic systems didn’t seem to sit well with grazing, and rotaries were pushed into second place by cost, making a swing-over herringbone parlour the favourite.

Some designs were not very comfortable, some had a high service cost. The final choice was a Fullwood 32-64 with automatic feeding, automatic dipping and cluster flushing and rapid exit, and a new handling facility.

New parlour

Work will start in the spring: “We didn’t want to have to fit into the same building as that would compromise our decisions, so we’re putting up a new one, and will convert the old one into housing for the cows.

We’ll do as much of the work as possible by ourselves, but the parlour itself will be installed by Mill Dairy Services. We’d like to be ready for the heifers coming into the herd in the autumn so that they can come straight into the new system.”

The investment follows a move to autumn block calving, which, after four years, is still a struggle to complete, but now all but 15 or 20 of the herd calve between September and Christmas.

A more astute farmer would probably have got rid of the late calvers, says David, but they are good milkers. And, as the herd tends to produce fewer heifer calves than bulls, they are an insurance against a shortfall in total herd numbers.

Jersey lines have already been introduced into the Holstein herd to create a better grazing animal, and now a third cross with Swedish Red lines is underway, this time to improve herd health, and, in particular, to try and reduce rates of mastitis.

Scandanavian influence

“We run a loose housing system, and we accept that mastitis rates are higher than if we had cubicles, and especially if they were sand-based. But then cubicles tend to produce more problems with feet, and more slurry, and we don’t have a slurry handling system.

“But we are being made more aware of the use of antibiotics, and I know that in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, where there are a lot of Swedish Reds, there is very little use of antibiotics. So we’ve selected bulls with excellent health rates, and our first three-way cross heifers will calve next year.

“Introducing them into the herd was the one thing we could do without major investment. I don’t know of anyone else with them… I’ve gone in with an open mind.”

Last year was a tough season for grazing on the marshes, with the late spring putting the farm on the back foot before the cows were even out. Rather than risking a shortfall of feed stocks later in the winter, and having to buy in at a premium, the cows were made to work hard during the summer.

Maize silage yields off the farm’s light land were poor, but maintained their average on the heavier soils, and total feed stocks have been boosted by an extra 10ha of maize, 28ha of wheat cut as whole crop and a late silage cut from 12ha sown to fast-growing Westerwolds after maize.

Tactical decisions

“We made some tactical decisions early on, doing everything we could to protect ourselves. Otherwise we would have been short. I think we will see more dry summers, so we’ll put down extra grass as near as we can to the new dairy unit, and maybe reseed some of the drier marshes.

“We’re also looking at growing one-year rather than two-year leys for silage, as the drier conditions are hitting second year yields, and replacing our traditional plough and power harrow system with cheaper cultivation techniques.”

Apart from buying in a small amount of protein and supplements such as brewers’ grains, the farm is self-sufficient in feed for the dairy herd and associated beef enterprise. Four sweeper bulls – three Limousin and one Angus – go in with the dairy herd in December or January, with the resulting beef crosses having two seasons of grazing before coming in to fatten.

Just as David benefited from knowledge sharing and benchmarking with a local dairy discussion group organised by the AHDB, Nathan has joined Arla’s new R500 resilience programme.

Wider in area and so drawing in a broader spectrum of farmers, and with opportunities to get right away from the day-to-day running of the dairy, David is confident it will be good for Nathan and for the farm.

Forage contracting

As well as producing beef, machinery repairs, welding workshop, ditching and digging work, forage contracting on around 700ha and a growing farm supplies store all help to insulate the business from the peaks and troughs of dairy farming.

The store grew out of the agricultural repairs work and “sort of ran as and when people needed stuff”. Dedicated premises were built three years ago, with a new farm office on the first floor, but there was no-one to run it full-time. Then D-Agri-S bought part of a closing countryside supplies business at Harleston, and with it came Giles Jones to manage and develop the business.

“It’s going well – a lot of farmers use us,” says David.

“I see it as a one-stop shop for farmers in a 15-mile radius of Bungay, and an alternative to having to drive up to Norwich for all sorts of things: bearings, chains, hand tools, water fittings, fencing, workwear, timber, metal, drainage equipment and more. We’re now a flagship distributor for Granite Parts and also agents for Teagle straw blowers.”

A 50kW solar array on some of the dairy buildings has now paid for itself and earns an average £18,000 a year. And a biomass boiler, about to come on stream, will use surplus straw and timber, producing heat and hot water for the farm house, office, store and workshops, and attract renewable heat incentive payments.

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