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Simplicity key to continued success (March 22)

A straightforward system is behind the continued and sustained success of one pedigree Ayrshire herd. We find out how it’s remained the top-ranked herd, based on production, for the breed for four years in a row.


The Astley family says there’s no magic formula – just close attention to detail when managing cows on their simple system – that sees their NMR-recorded Ayrshire herd top NMR’s latest Annual Production Report, ranked on weight of fat and protein, for the fourth year running.

“Topping the list isn’t something we set out to do,” says Laura Astley, who runs the 85-cow pedigree Sunshine herd, plus 55 followers, in partnership with her parents Phil and Jane. “It’s just a happy side effect of how well we manage the cows on a day-to-day basis.”

The Montgomeryshire-based Ayrshire herd is relatively new – just five years old. But the family have been dairying for more than 30 years. Phil and Jane sold the family’s 140-cow pedigree Holstein herd in 2016, because Phil was unwell. And when Laura came back home to farm in 2017 the family made the decision to go back into milk, but with a different breed that they hoped would be easier to manage and better suit the farm and set up.

Ayrshires were top of the list due to their ‘toughness’, according to Laura, who also works as a part-time NMR milk recorder. “They’re easier to manager, slightly smaller and better suited to the farm’s infrastructure than the Holstein, and also offer good feet, legs and udders,” she says, adding that their high milk constituents also suit their butter-making milk buyer Meadow Foods.

Better suited

The mid-Wales based unit certainly sits on heavy land and Laura says the cubicle shed had become a little ‘low and tight’ for the Holsteins. “These medium-sized cows better fit the buildings and facilities, and they’re also more suited to grazing on our land.”

The all-year-round calving herd is currently averaging 8,384kg of milk, at 4.61% butterfat and 3.34% protein with a somatic cell count of 70,000 cells/ml. The top half of the herd, ranked on PTAs, PLIs and performance, are served with sexed semen to breed replacements and these calve predominantly during the summer months. The remaining half of the herd is served to beef bulls. Cows are served with Belgian Blue sires and most heifers are put to Aberdeen Angus. Crossbred calves are sold to the Buittelar Group at around three weeks old. The Astleys have also just signed up to join the company’s Longhorn scheme and will begin using semen from this traditional beef breed on heifers going forward. “The resulting calves produce meat that’s leaner than other breeds and they’re also extremely easy calving sires. If there’s a demand for the calves, then we thought ‘why not’,” says Laura. The herd is managed on a typical spring and summer grazing system at the 45-hectare unit. Milkers are turned out in May, after first-cut silage, and graze until grass growth slows – usually the middle of October.

Soya-free concentrate

During the winter the herd is fed a TMR comprising grass silage and 4kg of a 22% soya-free protein blend, plus minerals. This provides maintenance plus 19 litres of milk and cows are then topped up to yield in the parlour with an 18% protein concentrate. “This cake is soya-free. We’re trialling the concentrate in the TMR and hope to make the full switch in 2023,” says Laura. She says their entire herd management system as ‘very basic’. “I think it’s this simplicity that makes it a success. We’re really not striving for high yields. Our aim is to manage a herd of healthy, fertile and happy cows, and let the milk follow.”

Laura milk records every month and uses the milk samples for Johne’s disease screening every three months. “We’ve had just one positive result, from a cow we bought in, and we removed her from the herd. We’ve not picked up any positives for the past four years. “We also tag-and-test for BVD and, again, results show the herd is clear of the disease. But we’ll continue to test so we can monitor the herd’s health status.”

Transition cow management is high on the list of priorities, as Laura says it is key to a successful lactation and good fertility. “We put in extra effort here, with dry cows fed a 24% protein pre-calver roll for three weeks prior to calving. If we can promote easy calving then cows get off to the best possible start. We want them fit and ready to join the milking herd.”

The difference between the Holsteins and the Ayrshires here is notable. “The Ayrshires just seem to have a bit more fight in them – they’re more resilient and transition more easily. We have very few post-calving issues now. We’ve seen just one LDA in the herd during the past five years. Retained cleansings and other issues are also few and far between. We had far more problems with the Holsteins.”

The same close attention to detail is paid to newborn calves to ensure all receive the required three litres of top-quality colostrum at birth and are colostrum fed for the next three days, before moving to a 24.5% protein skimmed milk powder-based CMR, plus ad-lib 18% starter feed, straw and fresh water.

Future milkers: home-bred replacements have strengthened the herd

“They’re gradually weaned at eight weeks old, onto a 21% protein calf nut until they’re eight months old. And they’re then transitioned onto a mixture of hay and grass silage. The target age at first calving is 24 months old,” adds Laura.

Having built the herd up using home-bred replacements from the original group of 24 bought-in cows from two Scotland-based units, as well as a handful of other bought-in cattle, Laura says they have no further plans to expand. “We can see yields increasing further because we’ve added a high proportion of heifers during the past three years. And some of the second-and third-lactation home-bred Sunshine cows are really flying now. We’re excited to see how well they perform once they start to mature.”

The future will simply be focused on honing current management, continuing to review and make small improvements, and building on the herd’s current success. “We can’t rest on our laurels, but we don’t want to push the cows or the system too hard when it’s working so well. Milking Ayrshires has removed some of the stress of managing a dairy herd. I know I’m enjoying myself and I think the breed – and our success – makes all the difference.”

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