Planning persistence and good PR is paying off for one Wales-based dairy business. And it’s also offering long-term dividends in terms of herd performance and sustainability.
TEXT RACHAEL PORTER
Applying for planning permissions will test the mettle of any producer. And it’s certainly been a testing few years for Fraser & Maurice Jones, and their 40-strong dairy management team, based near Welshpool in Wales. Today, the father-and-son team run a total of 1,650 pedigree milkers, plus 2,800 followers and dairy bulls, across a total of nine units and 1,050 hectares, which are all within a seven-mile radius. What would be a big job for a typical dairy business is something that Fraser, after more than a decade of navigating the ups-and-downs of significant herd and unit expansions, takes in his stride.
“The units are all so close together that it’s like managing one site,” he says, explaining that the milking herd is split into two, with 1,000 head milked at Lower Leighton Farm through a 72-point rotary parlour, which was installed in 2019. The remaining 650 head are managed and milked at Calcourt Farm, currently through a 24:24 herringbone parlour, but the Joneses are investing in another 72-point rotary, identical to the set-up at Leighton, which should be up and running by early 2025.
“It’s all relative. Investing in and installing a 72-point rotary is a large project. But this is the second time we’ve done it, so we have experience, and compared to what we’ve already been through and achieved it is, on the face of it, fairly straightforward.”
The Joneses’ other seven units are used for heifer and calf rearing, dry-cow management, and growing forage and other home-grown feed crops. The family owns 910 hectares and rent the remaining 140 hectares. Growth has been ‘organic’ in that the Joneses have bought and secured tenancy on land around their ‘headquarters’ as and when the opportunity has presented itself.
“We’ve been gradually expanding since I came home to join the business in the early 2000s, when dad had built the herd up to 600 milkers. The push to invest in new buildings and infrastructure began in 2010. That marked the start of what was a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, journey for us and our herd and business,” says Fraser.
Securing planning permission can be difficult, but the Joneses had to go a bit further than many to get it granted. “Opposition to our plans to build dairy housing, silage clamps, slurry handling facilities and a milking parlour – a whole new set-up – made it extremely difficult and frustrating. But, after a few years and investing a lot of time and money in surveys, reports, legal costs, I just thought ‘I’m in too deep now and I have to keep going’. It came to a head with a two-week public enquiry.”
Milking herd: new dairy housing at Lower Leighton Farm
Fraser says the Highways and Environment Agency Wales were both on side and they also had the support of many local people, but not all. “It’s important to focus on the legal side as that’s key to getting planning permission – that’s what really counts. We knew we could win back hearts and minds once the farm was built and the scaremongers were proved wrong.” And that’s certainly been the case. It’s been 13 years since their planning struggles and the unit is now running well. “And we’re still reaping the benefits of taking the local community with us on the journey. Communication, openness and honesty was – and still is – key,” says Fraser.
Once building was complete, he had emails from people in the nearby village to compliment him on the improvements they’d made to the farm and unit, expressing their surprise that they’d actually done what the plans had said and apologising for raising objections.
“Attending the public meetings was an eye opener for us, and also underlined how important it is to engage and connect with the public and clear up any concerns they may have.”
He’s certainly done that. Today his wife Claire is a governor at the local school and the school also has an outdoor classroom at Leighton, as well as dedicated forest and garden areas.
There is also a nasty ‘S’ bend in the village, with no path, where someone was knocked down by a car. So the Joneses built a ‘proper’ pathway, suitable for pedestrians and pushchairs, along a farm boundary at their own cost. “It’s important to give back to the community in any way we can.
“Another ‘tell’ that we did things right and continue to work well with the local community and the environment is the fact that planning permission was granted for two more sheds at the dairy in summer 2022 without any objections. Permission was granted in just eight weeks,” says Fraser.
He believes this relationship with the local community also helps when looking for staff for the business’ 40-strong team. “Around 70% of our workforce is British – from the local village and Welshpool, which is just a mile away. People know us. And I like to think we have a reputation as a good place to work.”
The all-year-round calving herd, which is fully housed, is fed a true TMR, with no concentrates fed through the parlour. The ration comprises grass and maize silage, whole-crop wheat or triticale, and a 15% protein blend, Trafford Gold, minerals and a little molasses.
This diet supports maintenance plus 36 litres, on twice-a-day milking. The herd is currently averaging 11,000 litres, at 4.26% butterfat and 3.36% protein, with an SCC of 145,000 cells/ml. The herd’s calving interval is currently 405 days and the pregnancy rate is 30%.
With support from their large team of staff, Fraser has been working hard to improve fertility rates in his Holstein Friesian herd.
“One important factor was eradicating BVD from our herd. We worked closely with our vet to test, identify and remove all persistently infected cattle, which eliminated the source of disease. To prevent future outbreaks, we run a strict vaccination programme alongside continued biosecurity measures.”
Cow comfort: herd health and welfare are given top priority
Health is particularly important when managing such a large herd, so cattle are also vaccinated to control leptospirosis, BRD and calf pneumonia.
Weekly vet visits, by Ollie Hodgkinson and Simon Wilson, also support herd health. “And we have a dedicated ‘fertility and welfare’ staff member on our team – Matt Hicks. He’s an ex-Genus technician and carries out all heifer scanning and other important tasks to keep herd calving interval and fertility performance on track.
“I work closely with my team to emphasise the importance of checking for visual heats, which is critical for the timing of artificial insemination. To support heat identification, a pedometer system that monitors cow activity is also used. This is particularly useful for indicating cows that are having a silent heat,” adds Fraser.
Breeding strong, robust cattle, with good feed efficiency, health and fertility, are all important to the Joneses whose herd, although pedigree, is run commercially. “We don’t chase yield. Strong cows that are fed correctly will produce milk. It really is that simple.”
Genomic testing is helping to take some of the guesswork out of breeding. They first began using this technology in summer 2022, using Genus’ service. Fraser adds that genomic testing will take the herd’s breeding policy to the next level. “We’ll be able to make more informed and precise decisions, particularly about health traits. That’s vital for us.
“We want cows that calve and transition and get back in calf again easily. They’ll be more efficient and this will lower their carbon footprint. And I do believe that improved health will also make cattle less susceptible to bovine TB.”
Staffing also includes a dedicated calf-rearing team: “Because, again, this is a specialised role and requires a different skill set to, say, milking cows. Allocating roles to staff and allowing them to concentrate on one area gives them ownership. My team find it motivating and like to work like this. It’s easier to see how well they’re doing their job – and to reward them for that.”
Sexed semen is used on all heifers and some first and second calvers. “They get two chances and then we serve them with conventional semen,” says Fraser. “And by using genomic data plus sexed semen we plan to cull out/sell our bottom-end cows, which are still great cattle, and increase our rate of genetic gain.”
“If the cows’ environment is right then they’ll be able to express their genetics. We avoid extreme, big and tall cows. We want smaller and ‘wider’ cattle, with strength and resilience, good feed-conversion efficiency, and health and fertility. We want cows to complete five, six or seven lactations – not an animal that breaks down after a couple of lactations.
“I want a cow that looks after herself and that flies under the radar. If she’s ‘invisible’ then that means she’s healthy, fertile and ‘trouble free’. And she’s performing well in the herd.
“We need to meet our own high welfare standards and also stand up to the scrutiny of visitors. And I think we’re managing to do that.”