Success with improving his organic herd’s productivity and efficiency isn’t down to a single change, but a combination of factors says Graham Jamieson. He came home to the family farm in Ruthwell after finishing university in 2011. Since then he and his parents John and Helen have implemented ambitious plans to modernise the business which trades as Firth Farming Ltd and supplies Muller.
“Our herringbone parlour was 35 years old and long overdue a change,” says Graham. The family was also keen to replace the existing cow housing so between 2017 and 2020 a series of old buildings were taken down and a 40 point GEA rotary and new sand cubicle housing were installed.
Cutting milking time from three hours to one hour has made a significant difference, he says. “We could also see that in the future we would benefit from having a modern setup to attract staff.”
Since moving to sand bedding from sawdust and mattresses he has seen a decrease in mastitis cases and believes the cows are generally more comfortable. “The cows are out grazing for seven months of the year so getting comfort right for the remaining five months is really important.”
The all-year-round calving herd stands at 250 head with 220 in milk at any one time. Milk sales are 8800 litres/ cow/year at 4.15% butterfat and 3.2% protein. The Holstein herd has adapted well to the organic system and has proven, with the right management, to be a very versatile breed. John is immediate past President of Holstein UK and Upper Locharwoods was one of the host farms for the Holstein Celebration in Dumfries & Galloway that welcomed delegates from throughout the UK last year.
“It is always a challenge to see how long we can keep the cows out while maintaining body condition and yield. It’s very much dependent on the weather. If it’s favourable they are out until the end of October but we start bringing them in at night in early October.”
A good network of concrete cow tracks helps as well as a favourable layout with the farm steading positioned centrally within 100 acres of grazing. “Paddock grazing has made a big difference to getting the best quality out of the grass,” says Graham. “We divided our grazing platforms into 5-acre paddocks. They graze one paddock for 24 hours which keeps the residuals at their best.” Graham uses plate meter readings and the Agrinet app to manage the grazing platform. “This is our fifth year in paddocks and this has been very successful.”
Without the use of chemical fertilisers, slurry plays an important role in maintaining soil health and maximising grass growth. Investment in slurry storage in 2019 was therefore another important move. Now with 1.8m gallons capacity they can store it over winter for use the following growing season. “It is then applied with an umbilical system and dribble bar. The next step is to start testing our slurry so we know exactly what we are putting on.” This year Graham increased the number of cuts for silage from four to five. “With feed prices going up we wanted to get as much protein from silage. It means we cut every five weeks rather than every six – not a drastic change but something to push the quality and quantity of our silage.
“We also grow 145 acres of barley for our own use. It’s combined, rolled and used within the diet. Overall we like to keep the diet fairly straightforward with grass silage, barley and a bought-in protein blend from ForFarmers in our TMR. The cows are then fed to yield in the parlour using Natural Cedar Match 18 + Levucell.
“We have worked with ForFarmers for at least 12 years and with account manager Martin Helliwell for the past eight. He tests the silage as we go through the pit to keep an eye on quality and can then adjust feed accordingly.
Indeed the herd is consistently around 10p above the national average for margin over purchased feed. “I think feed to yield plus improving silage quality and paddock grazing all play a part. It’s more than one thing, it is all those small things that have added up to get us to that point.”
Genetics is also a vital part of the jigsaw, he says. “We use genomic bulls and are part of a sire selection programme to fine tune our breeding decisions. We are looking for a strong functional cow with correct udders and good locomotion. With our grazing system we don’t want cows that are too big. The overall package needs to be right.”
In the future Graham is keen to push milk from forage (currently 4000 litres) higher. “It’s all about getting the quality of the grass right. With rising feed costs we need to try and minimise the amount of feed we buy in.
“Organically it is not that easy to grow our own protein, but we’re keen to see what else we could grow ourselves. In the future we are also looking at renewable energy. We already have a 50 kW solar power system but that doesn’t cover all our electricity use. We would like to investigate additional solar panels and battery storage especially with electric prices as they are.”
Despite the extra challenges of organic production Graham remains committed to this way of farming.
“We converted to organic in 1999 for environmental reasons and to access a niche market and that still remains relevant.
“It is still a niche market and it works well for us.”