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Good health key to herd profitability (Oct 2021)

A passion for innovation and improvement has seen one Devon-based producer take herd health, welfare and productivity to the next level. Here he shares his recipe for sustainable success.


Jim Kirk at Heanton Barton, Petrockstow, North Devon

Large-scale infrastructure investment is one option to lift milk production. Combine it with improvements in day-to-day management and it’s a sure-fire recipe for success.

That’s certainly the case at Heanton Barton, at Petrockstow near Okehampton in North Devon, where continuous innovation, investment, and fine-tuning by Jim Kirk has created a high-welfare and productive environment for his cows.

While Jim took on the running of the dairy business two years ago, the foundations for change were laid 25 years ago when his father set up on his own after farming with his three brothers.

Today the unit, which is also an AHDB Strategic Dairy Farm, comprises 285 hectares, 210 of which are owned. They grow 70 hectares of forage maize (and 32 hectares is bought as a standing crop).

The rest of their land is down to grass, which is reseeded regularly to maximise the quality of home-grown forage.

The 606-cow Holstein Friesians herd is housed all year round and averaged more than 11,000 litres, at 4.04% fat and 3.50% protein, with a somatic cell count of 150,000 cells/ml. Milk is sold to Crediton Dairy on a liquid contract.

Cows are housed in two cubicle sheds, in permanent groupings, and also have access to dedicated loafing areas. The unit also has a custom-built calf shed, as well as a spacious maternity wing, and accommodation for young stock and the business’ beef enterprise.

Sexed semen

The milking TMR comprises grass and maize silage, plus soya and rapemeal. This provides maintenance plus 25 litres and cows are then topped up in the parlour with a flat rate 1kg sugar beet. Feeding home-grown forage is cost effective so Jim aims to maximise silage intakes. “Breeding longer lasting cows, with good feet and legs, while maintaining slightly reduced stature has been an area of management we’ve also been focusing on recently,” he says.

“Sexed semen is used on all heifers, as well as some top-end cows. “Cows selected to breed replacements from are inseminated twice with sexed semen followed, if not in calf, by beef semen.” A passion for innovation and improvement has seen one Devon-based producer take herd health, welfare and productivity to the next level. Here he shares his recipe for sustainable success. The unit is home to 300 followers, and replacement heifers calve at 24 months old, on average, and decisions to serve are based on their age and physical size. “Chalking is done every day at 2pm and all AI is done following the afternoon milking, but this is under review. Ovsynch, CIDR sync and Estrumate are also being trialled for any not seen bulling,” adds Jim. Professional support and advice are provided by Genus, as well as the herd vet, who carries out weekly PD checks. A report is generated from VetIMPRESS after each visit to track key fertility parameters, such as submission rate, eligibility, conception and pregnancy rate.

“Pregnancy rate is fundamental to the financial performance of the business because we’re expected to deliver a level production profile on our liquid contract. So any blips in the calving pattern show up clearly on the monthly milk statement.”

Regular monitoring encourages minor adjustments and ongoing improvement, which helps Jim achieve consistently good results. The most recent figures show that pregnancy rates across the herd are 25%. This places the herd in the top 5% of British herds, according to AHDB’s industry KPI targets.

Identify dips

“Measuring pregnancy rate provides me with a good indicator of my herd’s overall health and welfare. I can quickly identify dips in performance and respond accordingly. I know if we can achieve consistently high figures, it’s reflected in herd profitability.”

He attributes the herd’s success to several areas of management and, of course, attention to detail. “We installed fans in the cow house to improve air flow and tackle heat stress, which had become an issue. A curtain was also added to one of the sheds to reduce rain incursion, and deterrents are also used to deal with starlings. They’ve all helped to improve cow comfort and increase efficiency.”

Jim also pays close attention to dry-cow management. Dry cows spend three weeks in a cubicle shed before transferring to loose housing three weeks prior to calving. A low stocking density is maintained and Jim provides plenty of feed space. “We take steps to increase dry matter intakes during transition,” he explains. “Four weeks before calving, the ration contains a high proportion of straw, grass silage, maize, minerals and soya. Post calving, on entering the milking herd, the transition-cow ration comprises maize, grass silage, and a 30% protein blend.

Fresh cows are kept in one group so they can be monitored closely. Herdsman, Harrison Palmer checks them at 12- and 22-days post-calving, using a Metricheck, to identify cows with endometritis and allow appropriate treatment before serving begins.

Team work

Harrison recently went on a study tour of US herds with Worldwide Sires, for a week. He found the trip inspirational and returned with much more knowledge about reproduction and breeding management, particularly about applying and interpreting results when chalking cows, all of which is now applied to the herd. The whole herd management team meet at 10am every morning to share what is happening in each area of the business and plan what needs to be done. The team records calvings, services and treatments in a diary, so it is all in one place.

Jim has invested heavily in recent years, including the installation of a 60-point GEO rotary milking parlour to replace five robots. Automatic milking simply didn’t suit the farm and system, and restricted herd expansion, but the rotary provides unlimited capacity for future growth. Spurred on by a news story about golf courses being too dependent on mains water supplies, Jim also constructed a purpose-built reservoir 12 years ago.

Water is fed from a natural spring and collected from building roofs before being treated with ultraviolet lights to kill bugs and make it safe for the cows to drink. “We are now self-sufficient when it comes to water and this is quite a cost saving,” says Jim.

He adds that he’s continually striving for improvement and his next project will be a new heifer shed. “It’s all about the cows as they’re the most profitable thing. If they’re happy, I’m happy. My ambition is to continue to expand the business profitably and sustainably.”

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