Robots & direct selling are the ideal combination for the Woodway herd

Third generation Jersey producer Sally Spence farms in partnership with her husband Aaron and her mother Yvonne Liggins in Cosby, Leicestershire.

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Dairy Nutrition
Robotic Milking
The spence family 1 cropped

Milking Jerseys has been a lifelong love for Sally Spence. With her sister Helen she was brought up on the family farm in Croft, Leicestershire which is also home to the Woodway herd. The herd was established by Sally’s grandfather with the initial purchase of a single cow at Reading market. He was farming in Oxfordshire at the time, moving to Fosse Farm, Croft, Leicestershire in 1949 with around 10 cows. Sally’s father John then took over the farm, and the main enterprise was poultry breeding until he decided that dairying offered more opportunity. John continued to develop the herd and the availability of some additional land across the road meant that in 1998 the family could re-site the dairy to Fulmore Farm, Cosby. This included a herringbone parlour and loose housing, but Sally’s father soon became intrigued by automated milking.

The move to robotic milking

“Dad believed that the way forward was to invest in robots,” says Sally who joined the business full-time in 1990. “I wasn’t keen at first because I enjoyed conventional milking.” However in 2014 they took the plunge, building an extension to the cow housing to accommodate two Lely A4 robots which arrived in February 2015.

“We haven’t looked back,” says Sally. “It’s been a real learning curve – probably more for me than the cows but 90% of the cows were going through the robots within six weeks. It probably took me about six months to trust the computer to milk the cows for me.”

Sadly Sally’s father died in 2017 and she took full charge with husband Aaron, and Yvonne, Sally’s mother. Yvonne continues to be involved rearing all the heifer replacements and Sally and Aaron’s two sons Edward (18) and William (15) also help on the farm when possible. “My father did see the robots up and running, but it’s a shame he hasn’t seen how well it has all gone since,” says Sally. “The cows love the robots and people always say how calm and quiet they are. I believe that’s because they are not being herded anywhere.

Jersey cows at grass 3 cropped

“Of course, it is a huge decision to invest in robots. It’s a significant investment and the running costs have gone up with the cost of water and electricity, but then so has the cost of labour so it is all relative. I believe it is a really nice way to milk cows and we wouldn’t go back.” She also believes the robots have played a part in Edward’s and William’s keenness to be involved. Edward helps on the farm as time allows, alongside working for a local contractor. William has become particularly keen on showing, taking animals to Ashby this year and the All Breeds All Britain Calf Show last year. “I don’t think either of them would want to be in a parlour for three hours a day,” she adds.

Grazing for as long as possible

Their system is based on grazing their all-year-round calving herd for as long as possible – this year turning out for the first time in March. They use a Lely Grazeway gate and a network of cow tracks to enable the cows to walk in independently to be milked, eat and shelter or rest in their loose housing. The grazing set up is not an ABC system, but an alternative devised to suit the layout of their grazing block which sits either side of the cow housing.

Paddock grazing had been their approach since before the robots so they continue to give the cows fresh grass morning and night, explains Aaron. “Generally the cows turn right out of the house in the morning and left in the evening,” he says. The cows’ total mixed ration is made up of grass and maize silages, SelcoPlus, blend, molasses, and minerals with rock salt available. This diet, together with the compound feed delivered by the robot, is overseen by the family’s ForFarmers account manager Joe Edge.

Boosting milk yields

Improving milk yields was top of the Spences’ wish list when Joe started working with them in 2022. A forage shortage following dry conditions in the growing season was causing concern, so they wanted to explore options to meet the herd’s needs while also wanting to drive milk yields in the longer term. Introducing moist feed SelcoPlus was the first change Joe instigated, followed by a bespoke blend.

Joe explains: “Using ForFarmers Optifeed programme, we took time to balance the ration’s Total Digestible Protein and MELK, which is More Energy for the Lactating Cow, while also making sure the Rumination Index is right for rumen health.” Recently he also suggested the addition of chopped straw to slow the rumen down after dung analysis highlighted that the diet was passing through the cows too quickly. Further analysis four weeks later showed the improvements with less fibre in the dung as it was being broken down better through the cow’s rumen. Within a year of Joe joining the Fulmore Farm team yields reached 22-23 litres compared to 16-17 litres previously. Once grazed grass is added to the diet the quantity of TMR fed is reduced, but they continue to offer it so the cows can top up when they come in to shelter or to be milked, explains Aaron.

Jersey beef crosses cropped

The jerseys are here to stay

The Fulmore Farm team remain as committed as ever to the Jersey. “Mum really loves them and we find them easy to manage,” says Sally. “They are a lovely inquisitive breed, expressive when they are on heat, and hardier without the feet and fertility problems that some breeds have.

“It’s true the Jersey doesn’t produce the yields of other breeds and we don’t benefit from the cull cow or calf prices they get, but I still think they hold their own in the modern world. The quality of milk outweighs those things.”

Breeding priorities focus on type, explains Sally. “When choosing a bull I want good conformation and positive milk yields with good butterfat and protein. They must have good legs and feet as they have to walk fair distances.

“They need faster milk let down as optimising time in the robot is important. If milk speed is slower across the herd, it would be a problem so I have to be mindful of that. Teat length is also a consideration – we need to avoid short teats as there can be issues with attachment in the robot.”

They use pedigree sexed semen to produce 20 to 25 heifers per year. Everything else is put to British Blue or Aberdeen Angus. “Easy calvings are a priority.” The cross-bred calves are fed milk for their first three weeks of life before being sold at three to four weeks of age, either privately or at market.

Direct selling

The family started direct selling milk and cream in July 2020. “We had been thinking about it for about 12 months but really didn’t know what demand would be like for Jersey milk,” says Sally. The couple pasteurise onsite and have also developed a range of flavoured milk with everything on sale via two vending machines in a roadside shed at the end of the farm drive. “It’s hard work but it is worth it. It’s lovely to see people come and fill their milk bottle, taking a swig before they put the lid on and take it home,” says Sally.

“It’s also fantastic when children want to come and see the cows. It’s so important they understand where their food comes from. In the summer we try where possible to have some cows in the fields near the vending shed.” The direct selling adds significantly to the workload, says Aaron. “But we have got into a routine with it. Generally we understand the demand through the week, but there are times at weekends when we occasionally sell out. It’s really nice when people say that they don’t want to buy any other milk now – it shows that we must be doing something right.”

The next steps

In the future Sally says she would love to add more products to their product range. “I would love to make ice cream, but at the moment we don’t have the manpower.” Despite this the Spences are keen that their sons ‘see the world’, work away from home and not rush to join the family business. “I wasn’t brave enough to do it when I was younger, but there is so much opportunity to travel and work abroad,” she says. They’d also be keen to increase the proportion of milk they sell direct if possible in future, but there are no plans to increase cow numbers as the current herd size is ideal and works well with their set up.

Sally concludes: “We love our Jerseys and really enjoy what we do. We wouldn’t want to change anything.”

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