Top-quality genetics are matched with top-class management on one North Yorkshire-based unit, with a close eye on nutrition and tackling heat stress to maintain productivity and fertility.
TEXT KAREN WRIGHT
Owners: James & Richard Pratt
Herd size: 140 cows plus 100 followers
Milk yield: 10,717 litres at 4.42% butterfat and 3.41% protein
Calving interval: 388 days
It’s fast approaching 50 years since Alan Pratt registered the Studdah prefix. As sons James and Richard pick up the baton, this pedigree Holstein herd is embracing its strong foundations as it adapts to today’s challenges.
James and Richard’s grandfather, also called James, moved to Bellerby, just outside Leyburn in North Yorkshire, in 1964, with 25 cows. Today the brothers, with help and advice from their parents Alan and Edith, run 140 milkers and 100 followers. James and a friend also have eight Jerseys from one cow family in the herd that they all agree add interest and colour.
Studdah Farm is an all-dairy 91-hectare unit comprising 61 hectares of grassland, rotated with 12 hectares of wholecrop, as well as 12 hectares of permanent pasture and six hectares of woodland.
“Dad was ahead of his time,” says James. “He took it upon himself to plant trees in ‘rough’ corners of the farm to create wildlife habitats and look after the land. These areas are now well-established and we’re all now reaping the benefits. It’s ticking the carbon footprint boxes too.” The Holstein herd averages 10,717kg of milk, at 4.42% fat and 3.41% protein, and milk is sold to Wensleydale Creamery, so milk quality is important. The aim is to improve fat and protein while not compromising milk yield in this twice-a-day milked herd.
Maintaining a level milk profile is also important for their buyer and their system, which operates on cubicle housing for high yielders year-round. Once in calf, cows are grazed during the summer as part of the second group of milkers.
“Our system relies on an even calving pattern, so we have to have good fertility,” adds James. “This means getting cows back in calf after a 50-day waiting period. We want to at least maintain, if not improve, the herd’s 388-day calving interval.”
James views this as a good measure, based on their 20% replacement rate. “If the calving interval is slipping we know we’re not getting cows in calf.”
The brothers rely on visual heat detection and do all their own AI. They have fortnightly vet visits for pregnancy detection and to check that cows are fit and in good condition. Monthly foot trimmer visits ensure all cows are given attention both post calving and pre drying off, and it keeps lameness levels to a minimum.
Keeping high-performance cows on target relies on high intakes of a consistent diet all year round, and fine-tuning the ration if necessary. “We know we have cows with good genetics and plenty of potential,” says James. “We have to support them with the correct ration to put high-quality milk in the tank and to make sure cows get back in calf.”
The pair work closely with Carrs Billington’s Jim McRobert who applauds the standard of husbandry on the unit. He admires the family’s attitude to trying new ideas to progress the business and to target improved milk quality alongside herd health and fertility. He suggested they switch to a compact feeding system six years ago. “It was a good move,” adds James. “Cows stopped sorting the ration, and intakes increased – as did milk-solids.”
The compact TMR comprises concentrates soaked in water and mixed with the grass and wholecrop forages, molasses and minerals. A buffer is included to keep rumen health on an even keel, particularly through the transition period, and avoid any cud balls. The concentrate feed rate, fed to milkers on a flat rate, is 3.2 tonnes per cow.
Rumen buffer: formulation helps to keep cows cool and maintains intakes
Including specialised rumen buffer Equaliser CoolCow – with its in-built cooling mechanism that keeps cows cool from the inside and helps maintain intakes – has also paid off. It helps to mitigate heat stress and the associated dips in herd fertility during the summer months.
“The effect on fertility of warmer average temperatures throughout the summer became more obvious when we put up a new shed to house transition cows and high yielders in 2019,” says James.
“We were able to keep these cows indoors until they were back in calf. But, despite the new shed being more spacious with good ventilation, we noticed that intakes dropped and there was a dip in fertility. Fewer cows were getting back in calf and we tracked this back to the summer months when temperatures were higher.” Fans were considered, but installation and running costs were high. Instead they took up Jim’s suggestion and introduced the rumen buffer in June 2021.
“We noticed that intakes remained steady and, during the course of the summer, pregnancy success rates stayed more consistent. Cows continued to get back in calf, and we’re now seeing more consistent fertility all year round. Avoiding the seasonal summer dip is good news for us and for our milk buyer."
More housing also enabled them to rear all youngstock on site, and monitor growth rates by keeping young heifers indoors until breeding. “And it reduced age at first calving to an average of 24 months. This is also good for business efficiency as it reduces our heifer rearing costs, and increases the herd’s lifetime daily yield,” adds James. Jim McRobert encouraged them to carry out a carbon measurement in 2021, so they knew which areas to target in order to improve efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint.
“We are doing quite well, but more milk from home-grown forage was one target, as well as adopting energy saving systems,” says James.
“Milk production from forage is currently 2,800 litres. We’re trying an oat, barley and pea wholecrop mixture this year which needs fewer inputs than a wholecrop cereal crop and we hope it will boost output.”
A passion for good bloodlines runs in the Pratt family, and it is not waning as James and Richard tackle the more complex challenges of running today’s dairy herd. They’re adopting new technology and using sexed semen, and all heifers have been genomically tested for the past three years.
“The first batch of genomically-tested heifers are at the end of their first lactation, so it’s early days,” says James. “Genomic data is a tool, but we also use our knowledge of pedigrees and our cow families to make breeding decisions. We avoid extremes and reduce stature a bit. And good type is important, so we’ll look to balance this with health, welfare and production characteristics.” James sees success here being reflected in longevity. “Cows remain in the herd if they are efficient and profitable,” he adds. “We’ve had a few cows reach the 100-tonnes-of-milk milestone, and have a good number in their fourth lactation and above. We’re always keen to have more of this type of cow.”