Meet the Facilitator for Hesket Farm

KateHello and welcome to the blog for Cumbria’s dairy monitor farm, I’m Kate Gascoyne, the facilitator working with monitor farmers Matt and Sue Bland at Hesket Farm, Dacre, Nr Penrith.

I work for Cumbria Farmer Network delivering the Northwest Livestock Programme in Cumbria, organising business group meetings for the farm where practical advice and discussion with other farmers and some of the best specialists in the UK is helping the farm achieve a healthier and more productive herd.

I’ll be posting updates below as the meetings progress – please contact me for further information on how you can join in… Tel: 01768 881462 or email:

Final open day report – objectives achieved and expansion a success

Four years on from embarking on an expansion plan to double dairy cow numbers at Hesket Farm, Dacre, on the edge of the Lake District, Matt and Sue Bland have achieved most of their objectives while at the same time have maintained milk yields.

Matt and Sue Bland

Matt and Sue Bland

The couple who farm 277 acres of mixed soil type, running from 600ft to 920ft above sea level, one of the few remaining dairy units in the Lake District National Park, became one of six RDPE Livestock Northwest Programme monitor farms in Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire in 2009 and they have had input from both experts and farmers on how to improve their farm’s profitability.

The programme comes to a close in July, and Matt and Sue have expanded the herd from 150 to 300 cows by buying in mostly fresh heifers from France, Germany and Denmark.

In April they had their final open day to invite other farmers to look at the progress made to date, which as part of the programme, saw them set business and performance targets with Promar’s Paul Henderson, vet Victor Oudhuis of Paragon and SAC senior dairy and nutrition consultant Jimmy Goldie, based at Crichton Royal, Dumfries.

Key areas targeted have included making better use of home grown grazed grass, conserved grass and wholecrop which has reduced concentrate use without compromising yield or fertility.

Managing herd health, paying particular attention to transition cows and cow mobility, has also been a major focus.

The exercise has also given Matt and Sue added confidence to manage and expand the business and to employ a full time member of staff, cowman Marcus Fox.

Prior to joining the programme, the Blands installed a new parlour with computerised feeding system and shedding gates. A new dry cow building was also erected and more recently the cubicle housing was extended with a new building.

The Blands decided to sell off their youngstock to help fund the expansion and maximise acreage.

Herd expansion

Herd expansion

Jimmy Goldie said Matt and Sue had managed their expansion plan well. “It will always take longer than you anticipate. Matt and Sue with the help of Promar devised a business plan and they have stuck to it with some modifications as it progressed,” he said.

“It’s a difficult decision when expanding as to what comes first – a new parlour or cows – but avoid overstocking a building. I believe a building has a ‘capacity for milk’ and this has been proven recently when producers have been culling cows because of shortages of feed but their milk production has not been reduced.”

Matt and Sue have maintained yields at around 8,200 litres over the last two years, despite buying in cows for the flying herd.

Milk from forage has increased dramatically over the period rising from 1,868 litres a cow in February 2011 to 2,677 litres in February this year.

One of the first meetings held at Hesket Farm in 2010 looked at getting more from grass. New paddocks have since been created and smaller grazing areas allow the cows to be moved more regularly. Grass is also monitored by a plate meter.

Cows are now split into four groups by yield and fed accordingly. Dry cows are now fed a dedicated ration form the Keenan feeder. Early lactation cows and dry cows are not grazed – only low yielders are turned out.

Attention paid to transition cows

Attention paid to transition cows

Spending time and money on transition cows and cow mobility under the guidance of Victor Oudhuis has helped to improve the cows’ ability to graze and utilise feed better.

Victor scores the cows every three months as part of DairyCo’s healthy feet programme. Managing herd health through the expansion has been a key achievement.

As a result, more than half the herd now has the highest mobility score of 0-1 with only a few still at score 3.

Management of transition cows has also been a target. The new dry cow building at Hesket Farm now needs further expansion to house the 60 dry cows in the herd of 300, allowing nine to 12 square metres of space per cow and a feed space of 70cm per cow.

Victor said the target calving index was 390 – significant reductions have been made since  2011 when was running at 436 days and it is now at 407 days. A simple assessment of which transition cows were not doing well was to monitor which were not eating, he said.

Significant improvements had also been made in mastitis by adopting a proper drying off protocol. Improved parlour hygiene had also reduced environmental mastitis to keep cell counts running at below 200,000.

The herd is vaccinated for Leptospirosis, BVD and IBR and, despite importing cattle to increase herd numbers, disease has not been an issue.

The farm now has a full-time employee trained in foot trimming

The farm now has a full-time employee trained in foot trimming

The Blands’ ultimate aim is to consolidate the herd to achieve optimum production, increase the slurry storage and then invest in cow tracks. In the long term, the aim is to expand to a 400 cow herd, with an additional 100 cubicles and loose boxes and expand the transition housing.

With experience over the expansion period so far, Matt said: “If we were starting again, we would increase cow numbers in one go rather than staging it over an 18 month period. This would aid cash flow by increasing income and reducing some of the financial pressures sooner. Managing cash flow has been one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.

The monitor farm programme has been delivered in Cumbria by Cumbria Farmer Network, with Myerscough and Reaseheath colleges managing the farms in Lancashire and Cheshire respectively.

Kendal milk producer David Martin has gained invaluable knowledge from the farmer meetings he has attended and, in particular, the DairyCo Milkbench+ meetings.

“I have been using the benchmarking system for three years and receiving the data to compare the farm’s performance,” said David, who has been expanding the pedigree Holstein herd at Lords Plain, Levens, to 225 cows over the last couple of years.

“Since I have been attending the meetings over the last two years organised by the Farmer Networkå it has been much easier to see my business’s strengths and weaknesses in discussion with other producers.

“As a result, I have looked closely at variable costs and improved herd profitability.”

It is hoped that the Milkbench+ producer meetings can continue after the programme ends.

“Higher Yielding Herds CAN GET MORE from Grass”

The next monitor farm meeting will be held on Tuesday 19th February, at Temple Sowerby, looking at improving the utilisation of grazing by medium and higher-yielding herds.

The event, which is being funded by the RDPE North West Livestock Programme, will provide dairy farmers with the opportunity to weigh up the costs and benefits of investing in grazing infrastructure such as cow tracks, electric fencing, measuring grass etc.  The topic has been selected in response to one of the aims of the Cumbria Dairy Monitor Farmers, Matt and Sue Bland, which is to make better use of grazing.

The meeting will be led by Ollie Hall, a partner in the Evolution Farming business, which  takes a unique approach to dairy farming in the UK, running 1250 cows on 3 farms and involving other farmers, as well as a UK dairy farming consultancy. Making better use of forage and grazing is one of the underlying principles of their farming and consultancy business. They were recently short-listed for the BBC Food Awards Farmer of the Year and were featured on the Country File programme. Ollie has kindly stepped in to replace the speaker who was originally booked for this event, Piers Badnell, a DairyCo grazing specialist.

Andrew Addison, Spittals Farm, Temple Sowerby is hosting the event, because he also wants to simplify his system and make more milk from grass, with his herd that yields an average 8,3oo litres per cow per year. He has already invested in some tracks, but is planning to increase the area for grazing and expand the herd. Andrew said “I am keen to make more from forage, without seriously affecting yield. I think that my cows have the potential to do it, but I am looking for some pointers to help me to help them to  do this whilst maintaining herd health and fertility.”

The meeting is funded by the RDPE NW Livestock Programme and is open to all farmers with refreshments and lunch provided. Places are free of charge but need to be booked by Monday 18th February on Tel:  01768 881462 or email:

Milkbench comparisons of Dairy Monitor Farm Group

The Cumbria Dairy Monitor Farm Business Steering Group has been comparing Milkbench data for two years and seen the benefits of sharing their own with farmers they know.

This was the first meeting to all Milkbench contributors in Cumbria and the aim was to compare with a wider range of Cumbrian farms, share experiences and learn from each other to improve on farm efficiency and profitability.

11 farmers attended the meeting and introduced themselves, with details about farm and herd size, average yield and level of grazing.

All the data from each farm had been prepared anonymously in graphs by Tina Swainson of DairyCo, graded from the highest number of grazing weeks, to the lowest. Four farmers were unable to attend, but they were happy that their figures were included.

The graphs highlighted each farm business’s type, strengths and weaknesses

Some farmers identified their own figures and explained some of the reasons why they were particularly high or low.

The data was interpreted and the discussion was led by Jimmy Goldie of SAC. Variations were discussed and key combinations of figures outlined.

  • For example, power and machinery costs were found to be significant on most farms, but varied in what they were made up of. The combination of depreciation, repairs, contractors and hire should only have one really high cost in there.
  • Fertility and feed costs, combined with culling rate and reasons for culling (by choice or not) were core to business efficiency.
  • Comparing labour costs encouraged some farmers to look at where most time is spent and where efficiencies would be worthwhile.
  • Concentrate feed rates varied from 0.15 to 0.48kg/litre.
  • Milk from forage varied from 2,500l to 4,500l
  • Money spent on purchased feed was 31% of output on average, ranging from 16% to 46%.

Jimmy provided worksheets for the farmers to use to insert key costs and predict next year’s costs, to help them decide on their own management changes.

Comments about what participants had gained from the meeting included:

  • It’s useful to see where our weaknesses are. I’ll try to use more grass and drop yield back a bit.
  • I’ll have a closer look at all the costs.
  • We’ll have to watch what we are doing more, not change anything drastically.
  • I’m surprised how good our figures are. We are getting a lot out of grass.
  • I need to do better across the board. We are making progress, just need to get the balance right.
  • Dry cow management is key for us.
  • We need to target the feed better, with less machinery costs.

The group decided they would like to have further meetings like this and to discuss key areas of costs in more detail. One farmer offered to host a meeting in January, to look specifically at power and machinery costs, to help him to make a decision about how to replace his ageing feeder wagon.

’Milking the Most From Your Grass’

On Tuesday July 17th the Cumbria Dairy Monitor Farm Group visited the Thompsons, at Greengill Head, Maiden Hill, Penrith.

Robert Craig and Richard Thompson discussing grass cover

The meeting was titled ’Milking the Most From Your Grass’, to reflect the host’s simple, well-managed grazing system, using an autumn-calving herd to make the most from grazing and forage.

At Greengill Head, there are 240 cows, most Black and White x Jersey, producing an average annual yield just over 7000 litres, with butterfat at 4.35% and crude protein at 3.45%. Approximately 4,100 litres is from forage, 2,900 litres from grass, feeding average 1.5 tonnes concentrate/ cow. 235 acres are used as the grazing platform. 1 tonne of the concentrate is fed with grass silage and fodder beet over the winter before turnout. 

Increasing milk from grass and forage is a target for the Cumbria Dairy Monitor Farmers, Matt and Sue Bland, with Holstein cows on a comparatively wetter farm at Dacre. Their plan is to have lower yielders grazing full-time during the grazing season, but this has not been possible in the wet summer so far.

Twenty two farmers attended the event, of which half had cows grazing full-time since March, some would like to have all cows out at this time of year – but had brought cows in due to soil conditions, and others had early-lactation or all cows housed full-time at the moment.

The discussions were led by Robert Craig, grazing-based dairy farmer from Ainstable, who is a local grazing mentor for the British Grassland Society.

Looking at grass, cows and wind turbine

He challenged the visitors to:

  • look at the grass and cows and comment on whether the Thompsons were really making the most of the grass available
  • calculate the amount of grass available and utilised in their own grazing fields
  • calculate the cost per kg dry matter of grass, silage fodder beet and other crops – if the crops were utilised well or not so well and see the difference. The difference became clear when everyone calculated the cost of grass together. If 12 tonnes DM per hectare are grown and 10 utilised, the cost is about 6p per kg DM – but if growing 6 tonnes and utilising 5, the cost is 12p. This is similar to the cost of silage and about half the cost of concentrate. Grass and forage is the main cost on the farm and the one that you have most control over.
  • think about investing in cow tracks, fences and drinking water facilities to maximise grazing in paddocks – where the cows are in a paddock for no more than 4 grazing periods in between milkings. This prevents the cows eating the early re-growth of the ryegrass plants.
  • encourage clean-up by the cows when they have been into the paddocks 3 times or more by mowing and wilting before letting cows in, or mowing after grazing. The grass they leave will not be eaten by them the next time around.


James Major, a farmer from Wiltshire who grazes 10,000 litre yielding Holsteins full-time could not attend the day, but had commented that he saves £1.80 per cow per day when they are grazing rather than housed. It has taken time to adapt to making more from grazing, but he commented that the barrier was his own attitude and once he was determined to make it work, it had.

Full notes from an interview with James Major by DairyCo’s Laura Teasdale:

Why a grass based system? – He wanted a more natural existence for his cows and a cheaper feed cost – he was paying lots of money to contractors to silage grass and spread muck both jobs a cow can do for itself!! This has dramatically reduced his costs.

How do you manage in wet conditions? – Doesn’t feed in parlour – feeds full winter concentrate rates all year round in the form of TMR just follows the same basis of his winter ration through summer but substitutes the maize and silage for grass (still some silage to mix concentrates in). It depends on the grass growth – if it is slower or bad weather more of the diet is made up of conserved forage but tries to get half of the cow’s daily intake of dry matter from grazed grass. He does not find a problem having cows out of a set routine of being out then having to bring them in. He considers it a bit of a myth that there is a settling period on his farm.

James is achieving 4,000 litres from forage with just less than half of this from grazing – he has made investments to allow for effective grazing – such as tracks, paddocks are not set sizes so uses speed reels and just drops wire when not in use and ensures acces to a water supply.

James would not change his system and go back to a nearly fully housed system as he feels the way he farms now is much better for him and his staff as well as the cows – he is currently under negotiation to change from all-year-round calving to an autumn block calving herd believing this will bring further benefits to his grazing system.

He fully believes it is the mindset of the farmer that needs to change most as his Holstein cows are quite capable of grazing, he has invested in infrastructure and most of all learned to be flexible, his cows have been out grazing at some point of every day this season all bar six or seven days when conditions were not at all suitable. He admits that litres do fluctuate and can help mitigate this with his TMR. He keeps a closer eye on cow condition and fertility as indicators of performance.

James started the process of converting to a more grazing-based system by going to see what other farmers were doing and wondering how he could implement lessons learned from the grazing farmers. He had the cows and he had the farm, the only significant things to have changed are the way he brings it all together and his attitude to management.

Cumbria Farmer Network and DairyCo will be following up this theme of making more from grass by Holstein-based herds at a winter meeting. If you are interested in this, please contact Kate Gascoyne on 01768 881462 email:

Slurry storage and utilisation – looking at options for Hesket Farm

Notes from the farm visits during the slurry storage tour on 19th June 2012:to get ideas to develop storage at Hesket Farm. 

Highground Farm, Clifton Dykes  

  • Matt with Chris and Cath Chappelhow
    Matt with Chris and Cath Chappelhow

    The farm has 2 above ground steel slurry towers – the most recent constructed 6 years ago.  The main reason for going with towers was the ease of maintenance of the surrounding area with no fenced areas to keep weed free plus the added safety that the host felt a tower can offer over a fenced off lagoon.

  • They have seen huge benefits in being able to utilise the slurry more effectively on silage fields during the season and are looking at options to increase storage to make even better use.
  • Options for them include roofing silage clamps and adding extra rings to the current slurry stores. 


Lowther Low Moor, Lowther 

  • lined lagoonThe farm has 2 stores – one on the edge of the yard large enough to hold about 1 month’s winter slurry production.  A new lined lagoon with a floating cover has also been built to provide the farm with at least 6 months storage.  Again this farm has seen huge benefits in reduced fertiliser use from using slurry as and when needed across the farm.
  • The lagoon with floating cover has a stirrer to keep it well mixed and consistency was reported to be good on spreading.  Again open yards have enabled the slurry to maintain a good level of liquid so the cover has proved effective in reducing the overall storage required.
  • The farm went for the lagoon construction to be in keeping with the field surroundings as the lagoon has been built away from the yard and is surrounded by fields.
  • It was also a cost effective option and pricing compared well other types of store.


Slurry Production Calculations for 6 months at Hesket Farm

Slurry Production                                                                                m3/year  or Gallons

 300   cows x  180  days housed x_53 _ kg (prod/head/day) / 1000 =      2862        629,640

           cows x          days housed x ____ kg (prod/head/day) / 1000 =         ___________ 

            cows x          days housed x ____ kg (prod/head/day) / 1000 =        ___________

            y/stock x          days housed x ____ kg (prod/head/day) / 1000 =       __________

                                                                 Total High N Slurry                    2862      629,640

Dirty Water

Rainwater on store

Area of existing store 314 m2 x 1000 mm rain / 1000 =                              314          69,080

 Run off from (roofable) dirty yards 1750 m2 x 1000 mm rain / 1000 =     1750        385,000

 Run off from dirty yards 224 m2 x 1000 mm rain / 1000 =                          224          49,280

 Parlour Washings 300 cows x 210 days x 30 l/day/cow  / 1000 =            1890        415,800



______m2 x ____ mm rain / 1000 =                                                                  ___________

                                                                           Total Dirty Water            4178        919,160

Current storage = 1,250m3                                                                     -1250        275,000

                                                                 Total Storage/Handling            5790    1,273,800

                         Freeboard of new storage to be accounted for on top of this figure   

Conversion 1m3 = 220 gallons 


Conversion 1m3 = 220 gallons


Options for Hesket Farm

  • The farm plan is to construct storage and manage slurry on the farm to provide 6 to 7 months of slurry storage – a considerable increase to the current one to two months provided by the current system.  Having just completed first cut silage and running out of slurry to apply across the farm, they can really see where the benefits will lie in terms of utilising slurry fully and reducing fertiliser requirements
  • The main options to increase storage volume involve steel or concrete towers, or a dug out lined lagoon.


  • Benefits of slurry towers over lagoons
    • Less area covered for same storage area
    • Less ‘freeboard’ – the volume built in as contingency
    • Less rainwater collected on the store
    • Easier to keep surrounding area tidy and lower maintenance of surroundings


  • Benefits of lagoons over towers
    • Provide the flexibility of access to remove solids as many systems including lined lagoons can have concreted floor areas
    • Generally cheaper to construct – earth banked lagoons offering the best value
    • Planning permission could be more straight forward in certain areas
  • Costs of different installations highlighted below (for the closed period in NVZs).


  • The construction of an earth banked lagoon is unlikely to be an option due to the limited seams of clay that makes up the soils in the area – this point was highlighted by Chris Turner of Natural England.  Therefore a lined lagoon or tower seems to be the main starting point.
  • Another big consideration for the farm is how much open ‘dirty’ yard area there is – the option to cover the main silage clamps and enclosed an area of 1750m2 would reduce storage requirements considerably and still enable the 6 to 7 months storage.
  • As the farm uses umbilical spreading and plans to continue the removal of more water after the clamps have been roofed may not be advisable.  All the parlour washing will still be stored along with some open yard water so dry matter will still remain around the 4% level.
  • Further options for the farm are separators and irrigators – although both can play a useful part in managing dirty water and slurry the farm feels that for their system they will add complication to the system which they do not want to commit to.
  • Grant funding for different options will also be looked into.  Current options do not cover legislative capital items such as slurry storage itself – but items such as roofing and covers for stores can be applied for and will clearly reduce the overall requirement for on-farm storage.
  • A combination of roofing clamps and constructing a slurry store away from the main buildings would appear to be a good approach – compiling accurate figures on slurry production during the winter months along with a good allowance for the high local rainfall will ensure an adequate system. 

DairyCo Links to useful information - DairyCo has 2 main publications to help with planning and appraisal of current slurry storage

1) Dairy Wizard – CD-rom based tool to calculate slurry storage requirements

2) Cost Effective Slurry Storage – case studies and an explanation of options to increase and design slurry management systems

Next meeting – Slurry Storage – 19th June

The Cumbria Dairy Monitor Farm’s slurry management will be discussed at the next business group meeting, particularly the impact of the Blands’ recent herd expansion on slurry storage requirements.

On Tuesday 19th June 2012, the Cumbria Dairy Monitor Farm group will be doing a “Slurry Tour” beginning at 10.30am at Chris and Catherine Chappelhow’s High Ground Farm at Clifton Dykes. 

Chris Coxon of DairyCo will outline the slurry storage options that the Cumbria Dairy Monitor Farmers, Matt and Sue Bland, are considering as they expand their herd and the pro’s and con’s of the different types of tanks and lagoons. Chris Turner of Natural England will discuss the specific issues of clay lined lagoons in Cumbria and  Rob Hitch of Dodd and Co. will highlight financial issues that farmers are advised to consider when planning new facilities.

High Grounds Farm slurry storage
High Grounds Farm slurry storage

Chris Chappelhow said: “We have made two major investments in our slurry system and have kept it simple to operate, using two metal storage tanks, pumps and an umbilical system. Half the farm is in the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone and we need to make sure that we have plenty of storage for our own advantage and to avoid pollution of the River Eamont.”

After lunch, the tour will continue to Erringtons at Lowther Low Moor Farm, Lowther, to see their lined lagoon with floating cover.

Lowther Low Moor slurry lagoon with floating cover
Lowther Low Moor slurry lagoon with floating cover

Anthony Errington said: “Our lined lagoon with a floating cover was a considerable investment when constructed two and a half years ago. We have found with having the cover, we get very little crusting and the lagoon is easily mixed, aided by adding Slurry Bugs. We constructed the lagoon in the middle of the farm to reduce travelling time when spreading and have found our fertiliser usage reduced by 25% by having slurry available all summer. We are currently not in an NVZ but are prepared when it happens. The decision to construct the lagoon was largely driven by the rising cost of fertiliser and trying to become more self-sufficient and sustainable.”

One of the speakers, Rob Hitch of Dodd & Co, warned that: – “With the high capital cost of constructing slurry stores and handling equipment, all assistance, whether through grant or tax relief is key to minimise the cost to farm businesses”.

To book your place on the Slurry Tour, please telephone Kate Gascoyne on 01768 881462 or e mail:- by Monday 18th June

How to manage staff when expanding your dairy herd

A recent Dairy Monitor Farm Meeting covered the issue of how to adapt to managing the increased number of staff needed with an expanding dairy herd.

At the meeting held in early May, Matt and Sue Bland shared details about their cow numbers and staffing, where they are now and where they want to be with the herd and staff eventually.

Their cowman is Marcus Fox, who works on an LKL Services contract.  Ian Lindsay, Northern Contract Manager for LKL Services talked about some of the underlying principles of staff recruitment, management and motivation and what contract staffing (and LKL) provides.

Colin Dent, from Kirkby Thore, gave an illustrated and entertaining talk about his experience of working with a team of eight, including himself and his son, with 800 cows milked three times per day.

Throughout the presentations and discussions, five key aspects for building a good dairy team became clear:

  • Communication
  • Motivation (including involvement, training and incentive bonuses)
  • Fitting the right person to the right job
  • Reliability (including honesty, time-keeping, self organisation and good stockmanship)
  • Respect (including a pleasant and positive outlook)

And all of these were equally relevant to both the staff and the boss!

Feedback from the 20 farmers attending showed a demand for a further practical workshop on communications and protocols.

 If you are interested in attending future workships, please get in touch with Kate Gascoyne on 01768 881462, or e mail:

Video 2: Results seen following strategic approach to expansion

Doubling herd size in six months has been a smoother ride than Cumbria dairy monitor farmer Matt Bland had expected thanks to taking a co-ordinated approach to his expansion plan and doing everything in sequence. Below, with the help of SAC specialist Jimmy Goldie, he explains how his bulk tank is now twice as full as it was 12 months ago without too many headaches. (Filmed Spring 2012)