Embracing change brings a myriad of benefits

Upgrading the milking parlour was the catalyst for significant changes on one Hampshire-based dairy unit, which resulted in increased milk yields, improved cow fertility and better quality forage.

Dairy Nutrition
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After an unexpected family bereavement in 2018, producer Steve Collis suddenly found himself charged with running his family’s 100-cow Holstein herd. This new-found responsibility, coupled with a desire to secure the long-term sustainability of the business for his sons, led to a raft of changes on the Hampshire-based unit.

“It started with the decision to replace our old milking infrastructure with a new 10:10 herringbone parlour in 2020,” explains Steve, who runs the unit, near Fleet, with help from sons Darren and Andrew. “We went from spending 10 hours milking each day to just a couple of hours. This freed up time for us to work on improving cow performance.”

Prior to this upgrade, herd average yield was 8,000 litres. “But now we’re hitting averages of 11,100 litres, at 3.90% butterfat and 3.27% protein, with 45% of this produced from forage,” says Steve, adding that milk is sold to Arla.

“This yield improvement is the result of a combination of breeding, investing in new equipment and improving the quality of our forages. There have been a lot of changes, but it’s been a positive experience.”

Better breeding

The unit comprises 56 hectares, which is split between grazing, silaging and maize-growing ground. As well as his two sons, Steve’s wife Lou also works on the unit and helps with calf rearing and milking. Cows calve all year round and typically graze from mid-April through until November, if conditions allow.

Main areas of improvement are breeding and youngstock management. Steve’s son Martin, who lives on the Isle of Wight, has helped to refine the herd’s genetics and Andrew has taken charge of AI work.

“Previously, we’d used conventional semen. Heifers were block calved and we used a Holstein Friesian sweeper bull,” says Steve. “Heifer age at first calving was 2.5 years, so we knew we also needed to improve it and get closer to 24 months.”

Conventional semen was used for breeding, but now the best-performing cows are inseminated with sexed semen. The unit’s Holstein Friesian bull has also been replaced with an Aberdeen Angus sweeper bull, reared by Martin, which is used on the rest of the herd and on any of the top cows that fail to hold to service after two or three rounds of sexed semen.

This means we have fewer dairy bulls on the unit and ensures that any dairy beef cattle command a higher value,” says Andrew. “We also aim for a more even spread when calving heifers to speed up replacement rates and improve genetic potential.

“During the past year we’ve also started feeding a TMR to heifers and this has helped to improve growth rates and performance. We’ve seen a significant drop in heifer age at first calving and it’s now almost 24 months.”

Collis herd cow cropped

Forage potential

While milk from forage has always been high on the unit, the focus is now on producing even higher quality forage to support strong milk yields.

“An early decision post-2018 was to increase our investment in reseeding to push grass and forage performance,” explains Darren.

“We carried out a lot of reseeding during the first couple of years and we’re now reseeding between 15% and 20% of our leys each year. As well as growing a break crop of maize between grass, we’re also selecting new high performing grass varieties,” he says.

With advice from ForFarmers’ team of forage specialists, the Collis family is sowing a mixture of mid- and longer term TOPGRASS Trogen grass leys. These varieties produce good-quality grazing and silage leys, while improving soil structure and health.

When housed, the bulk of the herd’s ration comprises a 40:60 mix of grass and maize silage, which is topped up with a custom-blend including ForFarmers’ RapePlus protected rapemeal.

ForFarmers’ Richard Greasley manages the cows’ diet. “We buffer feed with a reduced ration during the grazing period to maintain yields and feed Optima 18 nuts through the parlour to yield,” adds Darren.

“When cows are out, we strip graze to make most efficient use of grass, moving electric fencing after every morning milking. That said, this has been difficult to do this year due to the wet weather and ground conditions.”

Another recent change was investment in forage-making equipment, which began in 2020 with the purchase of a self-propelled forage harvester and mower.

“This has given us much greater flexibility,” says Andrew. “We cut forages when they are in their prime, and this year was a great example. We had a small window to take first-cut grass due to the challenging weather but, because we had the kit, we were able to harvest top quality grass for silage.

“While the main motivation for investing was to improve forage quality, the new kit also allows us to run a contracting business and secure another revenue stream.”

Richard Greasley and Steve Collis cropped

Around 20 hectares of forage maize is grown on a neighbouring unit, and the family now cultivates six hectares on their own land each year.

“We used to select later maturing varieties in the hope of maximising yield tonnage,” explains Steve. “But with the recent challenging weather conditions, we switched to the earlier maturing hybrid Pioneer P7179.”

This can be harvested up to three weeks earlier compared to longer maturing varieties. Given the increasing challenges posed by erratic weather conditions, P7179 gives producers more flexibility with drilling and harvesting dates and, therefore, reduces exposure to weather-related risks. As well as proving a good fit within the existing grass/maize crop rotation on the unit, in 2023 the Collis’ yields of this earlier maturing crop averaged 44.5 tonnes per hectare.

Cow health

All forage – both grass and silage – is now also treated with an inoculant to ensure a rapid initial drop in pH and minimise dry matter losses.

Steve and his sons have been pleased with the progress made so far, but avoid resting on their laurels. “The hope is to improve the unit’s infrastructure with more concrete and a new cow shed,” says Steve. “We want to improve cow health and comfort, and also have space to increase cow numbers to between 120 and 130 milkers.

“That said, we will stay focused on milk from forage. Our current feed costs are 9.69ppl, and keeping this figure as low as possible is key to securing the long term sustainability and success of our herd and dairy business.”

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