Firm focus on feed efficiency, fertility and the future

With the right nutritional guidance and support, one Yorkshire-based producer is now well on her way to realising the true potential of her herd.

Dairy Nutrition
Lucy Woods cows grazing 720

Many dairying families reach a crossroads where they either invest in upgrading outdated farm infrastructure, or decide to leave the sector altogether. For Richard Wood, making the decision to install a new 20:20 herringbone Westfalia parlour represented a significant financial and long-term business commitment. But it was one that reflected the enthusiasm of Richard’s two daughters, Lucy and Emily, and their desire to drive the family’s dairy business forward.

While the installation of the new parlour immediately increased the efficiency of milking and made the day-to-day management of the herd much more enjoyable, Lucy was conscious of the need to maximise the amount of milk her cows produced.

“I finished agricultural college just after the new parlour was installed in 2019 and was then back working on the family farm full-time,” explains Lucy. “The business had been ticking along for a number of years, but we knew there was room for improvement, as well as a need to increase yields to justify the expenditure on the new parlour. Average daily milk yields were down at around 17 litres a cow and we weren’t being particularly efficient with feeding. Our calving index was also well outside the optimal 365 days."

Maximise performance

“My dad runs a busy, successful contracting business, as well as the dairy herd. I hoped that, working on the farm full time, I would have time to focus on the areas of the business that needed it most. However, in order to maximise the performance of the cows, I knew I needed some additional support and guidance.”

With help of herdsman Josh Burton, Lucy milks 80 Friesian cows in partnership with her dad and grandmother, Margaret, at Parkin Hall Farm in West Yorkshire. All milk is supplied to Arla on a manufacturing contract. Cows calve all year round, but the family aims to have all heifers calved during September, to fit in with Richard’s busy contracting commitments. The unit is forage focused and aims to maximise the use of its 120 hectares of grassland; taking three cuts of silage a year and rotationally grazing the cows during the spring and summer months.

“We keep the cows out for as long as possible, usually bringing them indoors full-time by November,” explains Lucy. “Previously, once housed, cows were block fed a mix of grass silage and brewers’ grains, topped up with concentrate through the parlour. All cows were fed at a flat rate and, because our fertility and breeding weren’t great, we didn’t have cows in milk for long. Milk production wasn’t particularly efficient.”

Targeted approach

In 2020, ForFarmers’ Kate Netherwood visited the unit to offer much-needed nutritional advice. “Utilising the new data from the parlour and ad-hoc milk recording, we started to take a more targeted approach to feeding, and fed exclusively to yield,” says Lucy. “As well as the usual mix of grass silage and brewers’ grain, we now feed 10kg of concentrate to high yielders, 6kg to lower yielders, and 3kg to the lowest."

“Kate also produced feeding curves for the cows, which have been invaluable. We now target feed cows at the peak of their lactation, usually six weeks after calving, and then tail off feeding rates as their lactation lengthens and milk production begins to drop. This has also allowed us to prevent the cows getting too fat prior to calving and cut down on calving complications.”

Kate also takes fresh grass samples to aid grass-cutting decisions, as well as carrying out regular silage analysis to help balance ration formulation. Improving breeding and fertility were also priorities, to increase cows’ days in milk and improve the herd’s calving index. “We were missing signs of heat and failing to service cows at the right time,” explains Lucy. “This had the knock-on effect of us not having any choice when it came to selecting replacement heifers, even if they weren’t the best."

A selective approach to breeding

“We want to take a more selective approach and Kate encouraged us to keep more accurate records, including details of when cows show signs of heat, service times, days in milk and past calving information. Heifers were calving at around 33 months old, but age at first calving is now down to 30 months and continues to improve.”

All heifers are served to an Aberdeen Angus bull for their first calf, but are put with a Friesian bull for subsequent services. “We were breeding between eight and 10 replacements a year, but now we are producing around 14 and hope to increase this to 20,” says Lucy. “This will add flexibility – we can be selective about the heifers we bring into the herd.”

Rumen development

Dry-cow management also came under scrutiny, particularly the need to tackle an issue with retained cleansings. “We were calving cows outdoors and bringing them and their calf indoors,” says Lucy.“

"Retained cleansings were a relatively frequent problem, probably due to inappropriate nutritional support in the run-up to calving. Nobody likes to see their cows sick, and it also impacted milk yields.” Now all cows and heifers are housed three weeks prior to calving and, on Kate’s advice, at this point they are fed a specialist TRANSLAC dry-cow feed at a rate of 3kg per head per day. This provides the starch and digestible fibre needed to maximise rumen development and function, and maintain good body condition score, prior to calving.”

A bright future

With cow performance and feed efficiency on the up, Lucy is feeling positive about the future of her family’s business. “Thanks to the changes we’ve made, milk yields are already up considerably and currently averaging around 22 litres per cow per day. And we were hitting yields in excess of 25 litres, earlier in the year,” she says.

“Kate’s help and guidance during the past two years has been fantastic and I am really looking forward to seeing where we can take the business next. The goal is to develop a 100-strong milking herd, with fertile cows producing plenty of milk. With the right feeding and breeding strategy now in place, I am confident we can achieve this.”