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Fine-tuning key to reducing carbon footprint (Sept 22)

Updated: Oct 8, 2022

A focus on maximising efficiency and soya-free rationing are contributing to one North Yorkshire-based herd’s low carbon footprint. We spoke to the brothers managing the unit to find out more.


Howard and Tom Pattison manage a 280-cow Holstein herd, plus 120 followers, on their 162-hectare family-run unit near Northallerton, North Yorkshire. During the next three years, as one of two herds to recently become AHDB Strategic Dairy units, the father-and-son team will be sharing the steps they have already taken to reduce their carbon footprint (CFP), as well as their on-going journey as they continue to fine-tune their business to improve their environmental credentials.

The brothers believe that a focus on efficiency, coupled with their intensive system, are behind their herd’s low carbon footprint. The herd, based at Willow Farm, has been closed for more than 30 years, and milkers are fully housed and calve all year round. Herd average yield is 12,000 litres, at 4.02% butterfat and 3.32% protein, on twice-a-day milking. Milk is supplied to Arla, on a Starbucks contract, and the family has recently signed up to the Arla 360 programme.

The Pattisons are using genomic testing to assist them when making breeding decisions for the herd. “All heifers are genomic tested at around 10 months old,” says Tom.

“We began doing this because we wanted to breed from and rear heifers with the highest genetic potential. Before testing we would have to rear between 10% and 15% more heifers than required because several would be removed from the herd during their first lactation. We’re now able to be ‘pickier’,” says Tom.

Genomic testing

“Since we began genomic testing in May 2019, we believe the heifer group is more consistent. A more efficient breeding and rearing programme also goes hand in hand with reducing our herd’s carbon footprint.”

Around 80% of heifers and between 15% and 20% of cows are served with sexed semen to maximise the genetic potential of their replacements. “All other cows and heifers are served with beef sires. The top cows, from which replacements are bred, are selected based on set criteria, including a PLI above 300 and a mastitis PTA of less than zero,” adds Tom.

Herd pregnancy rate is 28%, but conception rate recently dropped to just 33%. The Pattison’s put this down to a silage quality issue earlier this spring. “Thankfully this was isolated to one cut, so we were able to remove it from breeding cows’ diets,” says Tom. The Pattison’s also recently introduced Allflex’s SenseHub system to help improve heat detection and conception rate is now back up to 44%. “The collar-based system also provides health and cow ‘distress’ alerts, and this helps us to monitor them more closely and be pro-active in our approach to cow management.”

The pair pride themselves on tip-top calf and youngstock rearing, which also reduces ‘waste’, improves efficiency and supports the herd’s low carbon footprint. Of calves born alive, mortality in calves up to 12 months old is just 1%. “Each calf receives its own mother’s colostrum,” says Tom. “We test the colostrum using a Brix refractometer and then move on to milk-replacement powder at between five and seven days old.”

Although they aren’t currently weighing calves regularly, improved calf nutrition has reduced calf mortality to below 1%. And they have seen significant improvement in calf growth rates – heifers are reaching bulling size at a younger age. 

Replacement heifers are served at 13 months old and calve between 23 and 24 months old. “The average PLI for the herd is 281, but the average for heifers less than 12 months old is currently 521. They are also showing improved mastitis resistance.”

Soya-free ration

The decision in 2021 to move to soya-free rationing has also contributed to reducing the herd’s CFP. Working with nutritionists at KW Alternative Feeds, the brothers have replaced all soya in dairy rations, while maintaining high yields. The milking herd is fed a TMR comprising home-grown forages – two thirds grass silage and one third maize silage. This is supplemented with co-products from the food industry, including wheat syrup, brewers’ grains, and sugar beet pulp, and these ingredients all have a low CFP.

Soya-free ration: the herd's TMR comprises food industry co-products

“We also use NovaPro – a UK-produced heat-treated rape protein,” says Tom. “This has had a significant impact on our carbon footprint. Before we removed soya our carbon footprint on feed alone was 536g of carbon per kilogramme of milk produced,” adds Howard. “Since taking soya out, we’ve got this figure down to 238g.” Carbon footprint aside, another on-going focus for the Pattisons is clinical mastitis. “Our somatic cell count is low at just 150,000 cells/ml, but we currently see around 63 cases of mastitis per 100 cows per year,” says Tom. As part of the strategic dairy farm programme the brothers have begun working with vet James Breen, from Map of Ag and Nottingham University, to address this. Their goal is to reduce antibiotic use and improve udder health, welfare and profitability.

"Mastitis testing has shown that the problem is exclusively environmental,” says Tom. “Previously, the herd was divided into three groups, each with their own area in the shed. Since working with James, we have opened the shed up to give cows more space and larger loafing areas. “Analysis suggested a lot of the mastitis could have been caused by faecal matter, which was probably picked up from spending too much time lying down in our sand cubicles. Offering more loafing space should give them more space to wander around and this will reduce the likelihood of the beds becoming contaminated because there will be less activity in front of the beds, and cleaner passageways.”

The Pattisons have also changed the type of sand used to bed the cubicles. “When we first put the cubicles in we used beach sand,” says Tom. “When this was no longer available, we tried numerous products. We ended up with a sand more like a builders’ sand, which we were digging out and replacing every five to eight weeks.

“We’ve now replaced this with a sand that is still quarried but has bigger particles and is more like the original beach sand, which is freer draining. Cows have been bedded on this for the past five months and we haven’t needed to dig the beds out and replace them,” he says. “We take samples to test for bacteria regularly and, so far, these have all been stable. When we see a change, we will replace the sand, but it’s expected that this will be every six to 12 months.”

The brothers are rightly proud of their set up and continue to strive to find ways to improve. “Efficiency has been, and will continue to be, key to the success of our business, and this focus has also allowed us to reduce our herd’s carbon footprint. We’re looking forward to seeing just how much progress we can make across all areas of our dairy business.”

Find out more about the herd and dairy business at Willow Tree, as well as future on-farm and online digital meetings, at

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