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Optimising efficiency on a high-yielding system (Sept 2021)

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

Adopting new technologies and systems to breed and feed cows for great efficiency is the focus on one Derbyshire-based herd. We look at how the business is evolving to maximise profitability.


Milk production has to be profitable and, with limited land, Richard Ward’s focus has been on maximising individual cow yields as efficiently as possible.

Teamwork: Richard Ward with assistant herdsperson Meghann Boulton

Richard, who farms with his wife Paula and parents Mary and Stuart, returned to the family farm, at Netherseal near Burton on Trent, in the late 1980s, to manage a 70-cow herd averaging 7,000 litres. Today the Ireland barn pedigree Holstein herd is up to 175 cows, with an average yield of 13,000 litres at 4.05% fat and 3.23% protein.

To achieve this required fundamental changes to herd management. “With little to no opportunity to expand the 110-hectare unit, we had to push yield per cow to increase productivity,” says Richard. “And, rather than expanding cow numbers, our focus has been on increasing cow yields and total milk sold.”

The herd has gradually switched from traditional grazing to an all-housed system, and from twice to three-times a day milking. “This has been easier on cows and staff. We have a consistent system that we keep as simple as possible. All milking animals are fed the same TMR ration, for maintenance plus 45 litres, with no supplementary feed in or out of the parlour.” Richard adds that they’ve also bred cows suited to their system. “We want milk, but we’re paid on components, so we cannot sacrifice fat and protein for yield. We need both, and cows that produce this profitably.”

New developments

He signed up as a monitor farm for Cogent’s Ecofeed sires, in early 2021, allowing the performance of these daughters and the whole herd to be measured. “Embracing new developments is key to improving herd and business performance. Genomics and sexed semen play important roles in our breeding policy and have transformed our reproductive management,” he says. “Genomically testing heifers removes the guesswork from breeding and builds a confident picture of the best genetics in our herd. We then target sexed semen to the animals that will produce the best replacements.”

He’s added an additional layer to his breeding selection with data on feed conversion. “So we’re also able to select sires that breed more efficient daughters, by using the Ecofeed index. Climate change and the environment are top the agenda for consumers and milk buyers alike, so we, as producers, need to be proactive and demonstrate we are playing our part in helping to achieve net-zero targets.”

Kite Consulting’s Kaia Hillsmith says Richard’s breeding policy has propelled the herd into the top 1% of UK herds, based on £PLI and kilogrammes of fat and protein. And the herd is in the top 5% for milk yield. “Utilising genomic technology, for example, has rapidly increased the herd’s genetic gain at an exponential rate, rather than a straight-line gain, which is where it has been for many years. It’s a much faster approach to improving the herd, and at a relatively low cost.

Good heritability

“Ecofeed, as part of an effective genetic strategy, offers the opportunity to produce more milk from less feed from healthy, long living cows. This is fundamental to environmental and financial efficiency. The index has good heritability, at 21%, calculated from US data taken from more than 5,000 daughters by 700 sires.

“Richard’s current herd average for Ecofeed is 99.7 and ranges from 89 to 108. The wide range of scores within the herd means Richard can use strong selection pressure to remove or improve the lower scoring animals, while also improving the genetic merit of the top performers. He’s using sires scoring 100+ for Ecofeed to move this figure in the right direction.

“Every 10 points equates to a reduction in daily dry matter intake of approximately 0.45kg or 164kg per cow per year. For Richard’s herd 164kg, at £260 per tonne, is £42.64 per cow or a feed cost reduction of £7,035.” “Producing more or the same amount of milk from less feed is key to the sustainability and economic success of the industry – and our business,” adds Richard. “And this index is helping us to achieve this, as part of our breeding policy.”

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