When Susan and Mark Nutsford arrived at Ravenscroft Hall Farm near Middlewich in 1999 there was 45ha of land, a 16:16 parlour and old cubicle housing. They started milking 45 cows, later adding other animals previously housed on other farms. Fast forward to 2023 and the business is dramatically different. The Riverdane herd is now 650 strong including 200 in milk. The farm has both robotic and conventional milking systems with a further 182ha of land for grazing and forage production. Alongside the farm the couple have also developed a successful embryo transfer business, had extensive success in the showring and are currently preparing for a prestigious sale of livestock and embryo packages.
The two GEA robots and a conventional 20:20 parlour were installed last year, the culmination of extensive building work to increase and improve facilities. The decision to instal robots was based on scope to free up time, but the Nutsfords weren’t tempted to go all in with automated milking. “We wanted to continue milking through a parlour – partly because robots wouldn’t work for every cow – so a fully robotic system wasn’t for us.” Instead around 90 fresh calvers start their lactation in the robotic shed before moving to the conventional system. Now nearly a year in with this dual system Sue confirms it has been a learning curve but is working well. “Our cows are proving to be very versatile,” she says.
“The plan is that later lactation groups will go out to grass, but with the upcoming sale we had to change things around a bit.” The ‘Theatre of Dreams’ sale will see some 150 lots go under the hammer. “It’s been in the pipeline for two to three years and is a mixture of everything from youngstock to high yielding cows.” Their extensive building work has also added extra complications to management in recent years. “We have had buildings being knocked down and new ones going up, all while building up numbers for the parlour and robot and the sale. Towards the end of the project we were putting too many through the old parlour and milking three times a day, while finishing off the various projects. It was hectic, but we made it work!” Preparing for the sale has also been a huge undertaking. “We have been halter training and making the practical arrangements for the sale on 19th August – all while we still have 650 head to look after.”
The Riverdane cow is bred to be a profitable balanced cow; the type that breeds longevity and performs well in the parlour is the ideal. “Mark and Oliver our herdsman make the breeding decisions, looking for a well-balanced cow from good reliable families,” says Sue. Milk yields across the herd average 11,637 litres/cow/year at 4.35% butterfat and 3.28% protein and is collected by Muller for Sainsburys. Show ring highlights last year included interbreed champion and reserve at UK Dairy Expo, best dairy cow at the Royal Cheshire Show, honourable mention (HM) at UK Dairy Day and HM at the All Britain Calf Show. Mark, Susan, daughter Jodie and their team see showing as a ‘shop window’ for their elite genetics. It also boosts staff morale for their daily efforts and attention to detail.
Day-to-day Mark focusses on their embryo transfer business Celltech, while Sue takes charge of the management of the farm supported by four capable and dedicated full-time employees including herdsman Oliver Greenhalgh. Daughter Jodie is also involved wherever possible but is currently particularly busy in her final year as a vet student at the University of Liverpool.
Another key team member is ForFarmers account manager Mark Thornton who has been working with the Nutsfords for around three years. “I came on board on the nutrition side to help Mark and Sue achieve their goals,” he says. “The farm has a bespoke parlour nut and blend created by ForFarmers which we have been using for the past three years with occasional tweaks to suit their home-grown forage. I take silage samples once a month to gauge what is available and how much we can use of each forage,” he continues. Home-grown forage includes grass and maize silage and wholecrop wheat and they buy in lucerne and chopped straw.
Fertility is a priority, says Mark Thornton. “Of course we want as much milk as we can get, but with the embryo transfer side fertility has to be spot on. Then with the show animals too everything has to be just right to cover all areas.”
Sue and Mark particularly appreciate Mark Thornton’s depth of knowledge and practical experience. “We have known him for many years and like that he previously worked as a successful herd manager and really understands the challenges.
“Whatever business you are in it’s the relationships with people that are most important.”