Whole-lactation feeding approach pays off for high performing herd

Brothers David and John (Jack) Brewster, farm in partnership at Boclair Farm, Bearsden, just outside Glasgow. Following the decision to switch to a robotic milking system around five years ago, more focus has been placed on nutrition resulting in improved milk production and increased herd fertility.

Dairy Nutrition

David and Jack farm 350 hectares, of which just under half is used to grow arable crops of barley, wheat and oats. Their 230-head Holstein Friesian herd is milked by four Lely robots and calves year-round. Prior to installing a robotic milking system, the brothers had already established a successful dairy herd and were milking 180 cows, twice a day, on a TMR and summer grazing system. Whilst they were achieving good average annual yields of 10,500 litres a cow and a calving index of 425, they felt the herd could be doing better and started to look at ways to further improve herd performance.

The changes on farm

“Having seen first-hand the success of several robotic systems and looking closely at the direction we wanted to take the herd at Boclair in the future, we made the decision to invest in robotic milking,” says David. “We also began using sexed semen on all cows and heifers, allowing us to be more selective when it came to breeding replacements, focusing on the milk production, health and fertility traits that we feel are most important.”

The family source feed through Quest Farm Supplies, but brothers work closely with Christina Pollock from ForFarmers, who helps to manage cow nutrition. The change to a robotic system gave the Brewsters the opportunity to review their feed plan and come up with a new, comprehensive feed strategy to help improve milk production.

Supporting the whole lactation

“One of our key aims is to provide a ration that supports milk production across the whole lactation whilst also supporting the heath and fertility of the cows,” says David. “Our high-quality forages are the building block on which the whole ration is based, and Christina uses forage analysis data to formulate a balanced ration, that makes best use of this resource.”

The cows’ ration consists of grass silage, straw, dried or crimped home-grown barley, maize distillers, a fibre source - such as soya hulls - and rumen protected fat and rape. A ForFarmers dairy compound from the Maxima range; a high specification feed to help support maximum animal performance, is fed via the robots. All cows also receive Lintec – a feed supplement high in omega-3 fatty acids, that helps to promote fertility and general cow health during the whole lactation.

“We are working with exceptionally high performing cows and as such everything that’s offered at the feed barrier needs to have a role and do its job properly,” says Christina. “We make use of all the available nutritional tools to help inform decision making, including the Optifeed rationing package, Visiolac milk analysis and the Keenan mixer wagon report, and we meet at least twice a month to discuss diet, and more often if there are any challenges,” explain Christina.

From three weeks before calving all heifers and cows receive Translac Advance, which provides extra nutritional support during the transition periods. “With a robotic system, yields can be pretty high right from the start of the lactation,” says David. “Translac helps to prime a cow’s system for this demand and helps avoid health issues in those first crucial weeks.”

Maintaining longevity and breeding success

David is proud of the family’s ability to achieve longevity in the milking herd, alongside productivity, with a replacement rate of only 16%.

“Attention to detail in all aspects of nutrition and herd management has been key to the success and progress of the herd at Boclair,” continues Christina. “David and John consider everything very carefully before making any change on their farm. As a result, it is only clear, well-informed decisions, that will really benefit the herd, that are made and the success of these decisions can assessed by the excellent productivity and quality of their stock.”

The Brewster family is well known for breeding good cows and the family has always run a pedigree Holstein herd, with David and John’s father a past President of Holstein UK. In 2017, the Boclair Herd was named Holstein UK Premier Pedigree Herd, the first Scottish herd to ever win the award.

“As a breeder, this is the award you would love to win,” says David. The previous year, David and John also won the prestigious Master Breeder Award for the second time; an award that can only be won every 10 years. As a result, there is a good market for the Boclair genetics, which now forms a significant part of the business with a number of heifers sold at Carlisle and privately throughout the year.

When asked about the management change the Brewsters were seeking from installing robots, David explains the difference the move to robotic milking has made: “With less rigidity around milking, we now have more time to focus on managing the cows; freeing us up to assess and act on the increased data we receive via the robots and heat detection monitors. It’s not about doing less work, but concentrating efforts in the right areas and being able to be more responsive when it’s needed.”