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Team work makes the dream work (March 24)

Lifting this year’s NMR/RABDF Gold Cup was a surprise for a recently formed

Hampshire-based farming partnership, and team work and close

attention to detail are at the heart of this herd and business’ success.


A breakfast-table conversation was just the beginning of this year’s NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winning herd’s journey to lifting the prestigious trophy at Dairy-Tech in February. And producer George Brown, who farms in partnership with Hallam Mills and manages the day-to-day running of the 600-cow herd at Bisterne Farm, says it really was a surprise win for him and his team of seven dairy staff.

“It’s the first time we’ve entered, so we had no expectations,” explains George. “The decision to put ourselves forward for the 2023 competition came about because a producer in one of the discussion groups we belong to had made it to the final round in a previous year, and we were simply chatting about it as a team one morning. The idea grew from there.”

Huge kudos

“Just reaching the final five was an achievement for us. We were extremely pleased with that, particularly because another finalist is a herd we know well and admire as one the UK’s top dairy businesses, so we had no further expectations. Just being on a list with them was huge kudos for us.”

Little wonder then that February’s announcement is still sinking in for him and the team. “We need to stay focused because we have an open day to prepare for now,” he says.

Team work: (left to right) James Dunning, Charlotte Lawder, Adam Reddish, Oli Mears,

Hallam Mills and George Brown

A collaborative approach, built on mutual respect and integrity, is the foundation for the contract farming agreement (CFA), formed between Hallam and George in 2019, on the Hampshire-based Bisterne Estate. Estate owner Hallam was reviewing the direction of his dairy enterprise, it was decided that a CFA would best facilitate the business’s next chapter.

With George Brown on board as his contract-farming partner, the pair have reshaped the dairy enterprise, investing in infrastructure to build a business that will be resilient for at least the next 20 years. The aim is to return a profit from dairy using a holistic approach where the cows and the environment work in harmony. And this was just one of the reasons why the herd and business was shortlisted for the 2023 Gold Cup competition and, ultimately, lifted the trophy.

Shared ownership

The contract partnership means the estate owner provides the land, buildings, houses, and fixed infrastructure for a first-charge fee and George provides machinery, power and labour to the enterprise. 

Ownership of the herd at Bisterne Farm is shared by both parties, with a 10% return on capital (ROC) paid on all capital the farm owner and contractor have employed in the business.  

Now milking 600 predominately cross-bred cows, on 509 hectares within the 1,500-hectare estate near Ringwood, George and his team work hard to optimise all areas of herd and dairy management, but there is a strong focus grazing.

Producing milk from grazed grass is key and the target is to reach 4,000 litres from forage. The herd is currently averaging 6,282 litres, at 5.06% butterfat and 3.84% protein, and milk from forage stands at 3,730 litres. Somatic cell counts average 162,000 cells/ ml and milk is sold to Arla.

Cows yield 550kg of milk solids per cow per lactation, with attention now turning to the genetic and management gains that will enable them to hit 600kg without compromising herd fertility.  

They mostly use New Zealand Friesian sires, with some use of Irish and Kiwi cross bulls. Bulls are selected for: moderate stature, strength, udder attachment, milk solids, fertility, and management traits.

Three-quarters of the dairy semen they purchase is sexed, with British Blue and Aberdeen Angus straws used on lower production and Johne’s-disease infected cows, with beef calves sold off the farm at 10 days old.  

Work is still ongoing to improve the genetic potential of the herd. “There is so much we can do, but we find that really exciting as we can see the clear link between reducing our carbon footprint, becoming more efficient and increasing profitability,” says George. He would like to genomic test in the future and can see the opportunities to further improve efficiency, as well as health and fertility, that this could offer. “But currently there’s no genomic test available for cross-bred cows.”

Grassland management is key to helping cows express their genetic ability and make the most of forage. The team is incorporating more clover and herbs into their swards to reduce nitrogen inputs, making use of the support available under HLS and the SFI.  

Grass-based system

Cows graze across a 190-hectare grazing platform from February 4 to December 21, and the unit has an additional 319 hectares of silage and youngstock ground, which includes historic parkland and river meadows, of which 190 hectares is managed primarily for conservation.

The herd was originally predominately spring calving and out-wintered on fodder beet. But due to the farm’s free-draining soils, growing grass during the summer has been a struggle and silage feeding has been needed. So the herd has transitioned 500 spring-calving cows to a 250:250 autumn/spring split.

“This move has maintained our closed-herd status,” says George. “But extending the calving interval on this number of animals reduced our efficiency during the transition. We don’t have the infrastructure to house the entire herd, which is why we are still split calving.”

Autumn-calving cows are housed during the winter in a 365-cow cubicle shed and fed self-feed grass and maize silage. A recent move to soya-free diets has seen the herd reduce its carbon footprint further, which currently stands at 1.09kg CO2e/kg FPCM, excluding sequestration. Crude protein percentages in winter diets have also been reduced.  

Herd health

Managing cow health is a vital part of the herd’s efficiency, with George and his team focusing on a preventive approach. During winter months, cows are milked out of cubicles and bedded three times a week using sawdust mixed with hydrated lime. Post-milking, the teats are sprayed with an iodine-based teat dip. Cows showing signs of clinical mastitis are isolated into a smaller group where they are milked separately at the end of milking.

Bisterne Farm’s team is hot on mastitis, with any mild cases treated with antibiotic tubes and an anti-inflammatory/pain relief injection. An injectable antibiotic is used for more severe cases and, where appropriate, additional hydration is provided. Once clear of their withdrawal period, cows are tested using the California milk test (CMT) before returning to the main herd. The herd’s current case level is 22.6 per 100 cows per year, and antibiotic usage is at just 7.13mg/pcu.

Paying close attention to detail is only possible thanks to the unit’s strong and dedicated team, which includes five full-time staff and three students working on the farm with George. Seven of the eight workers are from non-farming backgrounds, with the team committed to training the next generation of producers while, at the same time, showcasing what can be achieved in careers in agriculture.

“Our young, ambitious team steers our dairy to profitability. We strive to be an example of a modern dairy business that can face the challenges we may see in the future,” says George. “Our aim is to do the basics well.”

Next generation: business aims to attract new dairying talent

Staff morale

Winning the Gold Cup has also boosted staff morale. “Entering the competition was just as much of a team effort as running the herd on a day-to-day basis. The application and judging processes focused all our minds on the strengths of the business, as well as the areas where we’d like to improve. So, in that sense, it’s been invaluable, as has the ultimate reward for our efforts – being recognised by our peers and the wider industry as one of the UK’s top dairy herds.

“We will continue to host consumer-facing events such as visits from universities, Young Farmers Clubs, and ex-offender charities, and we will build on our successful Open Farm Sunday events. We averaged 3,000 visitors when in the past two years we’ve taken part,” he adds.

“We want to continue to be an employer of choice and maintain the stream of talent coming through our business. Being a Gold Cup-winning herd will certainly help to boost our profile.”

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