“Our grass doesn’t arrive until May and the amount of rain we get makes the grazing season unpredictable,” says Yorkshire dairy farmer Georgina Fort. However the benefits to cow welfare and the reduced feed bills during the growing season make it worth persevering with, she believes.
Georgina farms in partnership with her father Edward Fort and sister Rebecca Stapleton at Silsden on the border between West and North Yorkshire. The farm is high and remote, but this doesn’t prevent them from getting the benefits of grazing whenever possible. The ideal is for cows to be out part or full time from May till October, says Georgina. However excessive rainfall often prevents this and sometimes the family resorts to bringing the herd in from August in order to maintain yield and fertility.
“Last summer the challenge was the heat,” says Georgina. “We don’t often dry up here, but we did in 2022 and we had to bring the cows in because it was so hot. It meant we had to start using our winter stocks early but thankfully that hasn’t been a problem.”
Despite the unknowns every year, not grazing is not an option, she says. “We wouldn’t be able to produce enough silage for them if they were fully housed.” If grazing leys were used for silage production it might also pose a problem for youngstock rearing and the family’s 150 sheep too. “We’d also have more slurry to get rid of, but the main issue is the welfare of the cows. We like to graze as much as possible.”
Georgina joined her father and sister as a partner in the business around three years ago although has been involved since childhood. She spent time away from the industry studying for a degree in theatre and performance and after graduating had part time roles with a local farm and auction mart alongside working as an ‘extra’ on ITV’s Emmerdale. Rebecca was already working with their father by then and when the opportunity arose for Georgina to join the business too, she was very keen to do so. She is now in charge of milking alongside taking care of her three young children.
“We farm 280 acres, of which 250 are owned. Dad built the farm up over the years since he took it over from his father in 1992,” explains Georgina. The all-year-round calving dairy herd is made up of 200 pedigree Holsteins and 30 pedigree Jerseys. The latter first arrived on the farm around 15 years ago, initially a small additional project for Rebecca, but later the family decided to increase numbers to increase their milk solids.
“We decided to build up the numbers slowly through breeding, as we wanted to get back to being a closed herd.” Ideally they’d like around a quarter of the herd to be Jersey, she explains. “The Jerseys bring the milk solids up, and are good utilisers of feed.” Milking twice a day through a herringbone parlour yields average 9200 litres/cow/year at 4.4% butterfat and 3.3% protein across the herd.
Grassland management is based on instinct and backed up by regular soil testing, says Georgina. “Dad keeps a close eye on the paddocks when he goes to get the cows in for milking and he decides when they need to be moved on.” Edward has been a keen advocate for liming and credits it to the good soil health on the farm.
“We started soil sampling about four years ago and our ForFarmers account manager David Minish now takes samples from 20% of the farm every year. Everything will get tested every five years and we use those results to decide what specific fertiliser the leys need which David then provides.”
David also looks after the feed requirements for the herd, taking silage samples to calculate the exact nutritional requirements needed from purchased feed. The diet is based around a total mixed ration of silage, Selco Plus and blend and then cake in the parlour, says Georgina. “We started feeding Selco Plus around three years ago on David’s advice following our silage analysis. We had been feeding caustic wheat, but he suggested this would work better and be more cost efficient.
“It’s been a game changer, adding 2 litres per head plus it has really helped keep condition on the cows as well,” says Georgina.
On the breeding side the family uses sexed semen across the herd. “We have always bred for type and particularly look for composition, milk, fertility, legs and feet. The ultimate cow really!" The cows have to be able to walk the distances between parlour and grazing comfortably, she says. “The grazing is about a mile away so they must be good on their feet.”
Future plans include improving facilities with a particular focus on cow comfort. “I would love a new parlour at some point, but at the moment we are upgrading what we have got. We are just putting the finishing touches to a new building and next we want to upgrade the cow mattresses.
“We don’t want to increase cow numbers, but will continue trying to do everything better from a business and welfare point of view.”