In this week’s Dairy Focus, Agriland made the trip to meet the McLean family on their dairy farm near Straid, Co. Antrim.
Roy, his wife and their six children are currently milking 85 to 90 mainly Holstein Friesian cows, supplying milk all year-round.
Roy returned home to farm 17 years ago, with many people only giving him six months before they thought he would give up – laughingly commenting on this, he said: ”I have done a bit better than expected.”
Working in I.T
Speaking to Roy about his background and some of the history of the farm, he said: ”My family have been on the farm for at least five generations, with my father farming here before me.
”My father thought that the farm was too small for me to take over so I was encouraged to get a career outside of farming. I worked in I.T [Information Technology] for a number of years, in computer programming.
“But I was never really happy in an office environment and remained involved with the farm in my spare time.
”When my father was considering retiring, my wife and I made the decision that we would give the farming a go,” he continued.
”My parents had been winding down the farm. There were around 30 dairy cows left and most of the youngstock had been sold.
”It was an uphill battle for the first few years. Soon after we started, we discovered that some of the cows were not in-calf due to an outbreak of leptospirosis; we then had an outbreak of TB.
“We bought in a few cows to boost up cow numbers and had to do a lot of investment along the way, which is hard when cashflow was poor starting from such a low base.
”You just have to be as strategic as you can. When milk price is good, you have to move things forward. We have now reached a point where stock numbers are at a nice level for me to manage, with part-time help from my family.
”I am now looking to reduce the workload, particularly mundane chores and improve the resilience of our farm business so that we would be able to cope with unforeseen circumstances such as adverse weather and disease outbreaks.”
Commenting on the system of production currently being operated on the farm, Roy stated: ”We are currently milking between 85 and 90 cows; the farm historically was year-round calving.
”The problem with that kind of system is that it takes all year-round work, so two years ago we decided that we would take a break from calving over the summer months.
“Our milk processor, Dale Farm, is not looking for spring milk suppliers, so we now have no cows calving in March, April, May and June.
”Moving away from year-round calving to a calving season that lasts from July until January; the thinking behind that was that we would be producing the least amount of milk in the spring months.
”With October, November and December being the months with the most amount of milk being produced – which is also when we are getting the winter bonus.”
He explained: ”We had to put a break in somewhere and we have found that our cows seem to show great heats in October and November, with heats not being as easy to pick up in the springtime.
”The system works very well for us. We do not house the cows before calving. Once cows go in the shed it increases the workload, so we are trying to breed a cow that will calf after a two-month dry period at grass.
“The herd average is currently between 8,500L and 9,000L at 4.18% butterfat and 3.37% protein, with 2.5t concentrates fed per cow.
”Our current calving interval is 379 days, with our average age of first calving being 752 days, and we are operating with a cull rate 23.6%.”
To obtain the ideal cow for the production system being operated, Roy uses the aAa breeding tool, which matches each individual breeding female’s needs from six factors: dairy; tall; open; strong; smooth; and style.
Commenting on this, he said: ”I took the artificial insemination (AI) course soon after I returned home and we now use AI exclusively.
”We would swap yield for a healthier cow; I have found that some lines within the Holstein breed need a mixer wagon – we do not have a wagon and only feed silage in the winter and then meal through the parlour.
“A lot of the genetic lines in the Holstein breed seem to have focused on producing a cow more suited to the housed system – that is not the road we want to be going down, we want to maximise grass in the cows’ diet.
”That does not suit a lot of Holstein cow lines; we have struggled to get Holstein bulls that suited our breeding needs, so we have started using British Friesian sires, which has been quite hit and miss.
“We have had some thoroughly brilliant heifers, while we have also had some heifers that we had found it very hard to milk – but generally speaking it has been a success.
”We have also found that the pure Holstein cows tend to lose condition in the spring when they go out to grass, while the British Friesian cows condition seems to improve.
”They seem to be able to handle the protein in the grass better. We are focused on breeding a balanced dairy cow that suits our system.”
Roy uses AI exclusively and has began using sexed semen two years ago to increase genetic gains and obtain more dairy heifers, he also started using Montbeliarde genetics to help obtain his aAa breeding goals.
Reflecting on this, he said: ”We discovered that we were not rearing enough heifers, which means we were retaining cows that we should not have been.
”Cows that had issues in the transition period, feet problems and mastitis – we are 100% AI, so it is easy just not to serve them.
”We kept them mainly because I was trying to save money. I would not keep enough heifers and bred a lot of cows to Belgian Blue sires. The way I was looking at it a Belgian Blue calf would buy a week’s groceries for the house.
”The issue was, if I lost a cow or a heifer to TB, summer mastitis or something else came along that was not expected, you are then down on numbers.
“I also do not want to buy in stock for disease reasons and because in this area, a dairy heifer is over £2,000 and you will be waiting at least three years before she is profitable.
”We now use sexed Friesian and Montbeliarde straws for the first few months of the breeding season and then we switch to Angus.
”This means we are rearing a nice even batch of dairy heifers. Because we only use AI, it means they are all being served around the same time.
“The sexed semen has been very successful. It helped that we were using it on our most fertile cows – we have also found that Montbeliarde bull calves can almost bring as much as a Belgian Blue calf.
”The Montbeliarde calves, I am happy with so far, you nearly need to house them with Friesian calves that are a month older – the heifer calves grow really well, that is all I can say about them so far.”
Three years ago Roy made the decision to purchase a zero grazer for the farm, which is used alongside grazing.
Roy uses a combination of zero grazed grass and grazed grass to feed his cows.
He explained: ”My wife was considering going back to work, which offered us a bit more reliance as a family. With teenagers the need for financial health does not go up and down, it is a constant.
”The grazing for the cows is quite fragmented, with up to five people needed to move the cows down the road. We tried keeping them in at night, feeding them silage and increasing the amount of meal in the diet.
”But I felt, with cost of the extra silage and meal, I would have been better off not milking cows, that system works for a lot of people – but not for me.”
Roy continued: ”So we looked at a zero grazer, we did a farm business plan and decided that we could not wait.
”The zero grazer is now in its third year. It has given us no major problems so far and any issues we have had were down to operator error.
“I have found that the zero grazer is far better at utilising grass. I can put the cows out grazing during the day and be quite stingey with them, which really is not what you want to be doing with high yielding cows.
”But they are going into a big load of grass in the evening and having their rumens filled. I found when I was grazing full-time it was such a balancing act between getting good residual and getting enough grass into them.
”I still would not consider full-time zero grazing. I like to get the cows out during the day, the weather here is not extreme enough that grazing is not a option.
”If our farm had not been so fragmented, the zero grazing probably would not have happened – grazing starts in mid-March for a few hours a day, with the grazing time increasing as weather and ground conditions improve.
“This year zero grazing did not start until April 20; with the cold spring and poor growth you do not want be covering 3ac to get a load of grass.”
Benefits of zero grazing
Roy then spoke about some of the advantages of using a zero grazer, alongside grazing. He said: ”One of the major advantages of the zero grazer is that you can go into a much heavier cover, which means we are getting better use of fertiliser.
”The zero grazed grass has a bit of steam, which cows seem to like – our cows seem to fight over the zero grazed grass.
”The big difference I see is in our autumn-calving cows. Before, when these cows were turned out to grass at night, you would always have an upset cow, but that does not happen with the zero grazer.
“The cows gut fill seems to be much better. I often have to only let 11 cows into the parlour rather than 12, because cows have eaten so much – that is very hard to achieve at grazing.
”At this time of the year the picture changes so quickly, grass can be at the perfect length for grazing and a few days later it has gone too strong.
”Similarly, a field can have nothing on it and then have a good cover on it in a few days, again, this is where the zero grazer helps to control the grass.
”You can use the zero grazer on fields that are nearly silage cutting length and not see an impact in the milk tank.
”We do not operate a two or three-cut silage system, instead we makes bales from the fields that have gone toO strong for the zero grazer. This would be unusual for our area and Northern Ireland in general, where a multi-cut system is becoming very common.”
Prevention is better than cure
Roy’s daughter Abigail is currently attending veterinary college. Roy commented on how having a vet in the house has changed his mindset in terms of animal health.
He stated: ”My daughter Abigail has just finished her fourth year in veterinary college. Since Abigail has gone to college she has really made me start using more preventative measures.
”When you are operating a small family farm on a tight finical budget, it can be difficult to call the vet sometimes – which can lead to more problems.
“Going forward, more than half of our cows will be calving in three months, which is some change from where we were – so there is now a pressure point in the year.
”We now take the temperature of freshly-calved cows everyday to find if there are any issues. Getting a sick cow treated earlier reduces the cost of the overall treatment and it is far easier to treat the cow at that stage, rather than a downer cow.
”A small thing can lead to a big thing; once a cow has rumen upset it can lead to a displaced stomach, acid anemia – it is a snowball-like effect.
”With a few small changes to our herd management most visits from the vet are now routine call outs such as scanning or TB testing, rather than treating a sick cow.
“Last year our calving season went really well because of these small changes, calf mortality was 1.22% for the first 28 days.
”It is important to use preventive measures that do not make your life a torture, you have to find the right solution that works for you.”