Meet the facilitator

Robert Burrow

Hello and welcome to the blog for Lancashire’s dairy monitor farm, I am Robert Burrow the facilitator for the monitor farm.

I am part of the Rural Team, based in the Rural Business Centre at Myerscough College (Tel:01995 642206 / email: delivering the Northwest Livestock Programme in Lancashire. I will be working with the Hartley family at Bashall Eaves, Clitheroe, BB7 3DD for the next three years (2009-2012), organising and facilitating the business group meetings and posting updates here.

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Final Open Day Report: Cow comfort and feeding management pivotal to improvements

The Hartley family

The Hartley family

Improving cow comfort and health, as well as feeding management, has been pivotal in increasing profitability and yields at Mason House Farm, Bashall Eaves, near Clitheroe.

John and Sarah Hartley and son Ben and daughter Louise have achieved their objectives set four years ago on the 325-acre tenanted farm to increase cow numbers in the pedigree Roughwood herd, increase milk yield and improve dry cow facilities.

Ben Hartley returned to work at home after university more than five years ago and a primary objective of the family has been to maintain and increase farm profit to allow for future capital expenditure over the next decade.

Herd numbers have increased from 140 cows in 2011 to 171 cows in May this year. The milking cows are housed year round and milked through three Lely robots.

Out of parlour feeders, which were used prior to the installation of the first two Astronaut A3 robots four years ago and replaced an old abreast parlour, have been kept as part of the feeding system and since replaced with Lely feeders to fit in with the computerised system.

Attention to detail

Milk yields have steadily risen to approach the Hartleys’ target of 10,000 litres a cow – from 7,500 litres four years ago to a rolling annual yield in May this year of 9,538 litres for 152 cows in milk and margins have been maintained, despite the challenging year for forage production.

With the help of Kite Consulting’s Ros Hughes, the Hartleys began by setting targets to improve the business as well as using monthly costings with bi-monthly meetings to help pay more attention to detail.

“Together we identified ‘bottlenecks’ which were holding the herd back and one of the key areas we focused on was dry cow management,” said Ros.

“Previously, the dry cows were run with the milkers so separate dry cow housing was a priority,” she said.

Dry cow management

A new dry cow building was erected in autumn 2010 which was initially tried as a composted bed but this was abandoned because of the damp climate. Other materials tried included straw and sawdust but it was found to be too expensive to maintain long term, lime ash bedding was also trialled.

However, since the installation of 28 cow comfort cubicles in October 2011, deep sand bedding has been used to manage the dry cows more effectively.

“Improvements in dry cow housing were also coupled with targeting dry matter intake in their diet with a more fibrous diet of silage, straw to keep potassium levels down and a high quality dry cow nut. That is working well and we’re seeing improvements in the early lactation as well as reduced incidence of milk fever and metritis,” said Ros.

Feen intake increased

Another area targeted was feed management for the milking cows. Silage and brewers grains are fed through a trough while concentrates are fed through the out of parlour feeders and robots at a rate of 0.33kg per litre.

A weigh cell has also been fitted to the loading shovel to monitor forage intakes.

The previous size of the feed trough allowed less than one foot of space per cow. By doubling the length of the trough to allow two feet per cow, this has improved dry matter intakes, giving cows a more balanced diet, particularly in early lactation.

Overall dry matter intakes have increased from 21kg a head a day to 23kg. The long term aim is to increase intakes to 24kg/ head/day.

This area has since been roofed over to increase the number of cubicles by 20. The open ridge also improves ventilation.

Cow movement and flow in the buildings was also analysed and re-siting the out of parlour feeders, extending the feed trough and installing a third robot in March 2012 reduced standing time and negative behaviour, such as bullying, and improved lying down and cudding time.

Foot treatments have been reduced by 20% with the majority of the improvement being a reduction in sole ulcers.

Worthwhile experience

Ben Hartley said: “Having access to a large network of knowledge from industry specialists to farmers who were willing to share ideas and information has been the biggest benefit of being a monitor farmer. The whole process has been very worthwhile.

“A number of specialists at meetings and Kite’s Ros Hughes, all emphasised the importance of feeding consistent high quality forage and increasing access to feed. We have extended the feed trough and moved from two to three cuts of silage which has lifted yields, while maintaining concentrate feed levels.”

Grassland and Nutrient Management

Grassland is a mixture of permanent pasture and short-medium term leys, including 25 acres of rough grazing. Sheep are taken on short term keep in the winter.

To improve grassland, a limited amount of reseeding and overseeding was undertaken from 2010 to 2012. All fields were soil tested and as a result pH levels were found to be low so lime was applied as required. P and K levels were good so mainly straight N is now applied and compound fertiliser used only when necessary.

With the move from two to three cuts of silage, the fertiliser policy was changed to allow earlier cutting dates.

For the future, investment may be made in zero grazing equipment. During June, employing a contactor on a daily basis, grass was zero grazed to help reduce feed costs.

Rubber matting could be an option to further reduce lameness and out of parlour feeders will probably be re-sited to a better position in the building.

Continued improvement of grassland and a third silage clamp are also long term objectives.

The Future

“We won’t change anything dramatically but we will continue to work with our vet and nutritionist to monitor cows and push constant improvement,” said Ben.

“Next year we plan to erect another building to house all the youngstock at Mason House. Long term we may be milking 200 cows through four robots,” he added.

What other farmers made of the experience

Monitor farm facilitator Robert Burrow, of Myerscough College, said there were 70 farms on the database for meetings and half had attended at least three of the meetings.

“Many of the farmers will have taken away ideas from the meetings and adapted them to their own systems. It has been a good experience to witness the changes made at Mason House and we have had very positive feedback.”


  • Malcolm Leeming, of Wycongill Farm, Bolton by Bowland decided to put his milking herd on sand cubicles when he put up a new shed for 200 cows last year, having discussed ideas at the monitor farm.

He’s also soil tested all his fields and done a lot more liming than he has ever done before.

“Soil testing / liming, and putting in sand cubicles are the two biggest things I’ve picked up from the meetings.

“John was just putting his dry cows on sand at the time when we came to a couple of meetings, we swapped a few ideas and discussed the benefits and decided to put sand beds in. The cows are very clean, cell counts have dropped and mastitis has improved.

“We use silica sand and it doesn’t separate. We mix it up well and we haven’t had any problems spreading it. I believe it’s good for the land too and improves the pH. ” 

  • Fellow robotic milker Chris Halhead, of Newland Home Farm, Bay Horse, Lancaster, took on board advice from the grassland improvement meetings held in 2010.

He said: “I knew about soil structure, subsoiling and aerating, but I didn’t realise just how important it was until I came to these meetings and saw I might have a problem.

“We tried a slitter but ended up buying a subsoiler as we had quite deep compaction. We no longer have any standing water. We’ve used it for a couple of years now and the fields are doing a lot better.”

“We’ve had a good group coming over the years, opening up and getting good discussion going. People say what works and what doesn’t.”

  • Roger Vickery of Hall House Farm, Whalley has learnt from John’s experiences how important space is around the feeding trough.

“We’re looking at more feeding area for the milking herd and by coming to these meetings it’s helped me plan a new building we’ve put in for planning. We’re looking at 2ft per cow for 100 cows rather than 1.5ft. It’s helped me think about pressure points and reducing bullying.

“Another meeting looked at the benefits of growing whole crop, and although it was discussed it wouldn’t suit John and Ben’s system, it’s something we’re going to start doing.”


Production goals and achievements

KPI                 Oct 09       Mar 10      Mar 11         Mar 12        Mar 13          Target           

Annual av       7,763          7,653         8,491            8,894           9507             10,000




Conc cost      10.07          8.17            6.9                7.57             8.55              8                   



Feed rate       0.42             0.43           0.31              0.33              0.32              0.32



Annual            N/A             1,463          1,010            2,359            1,112            2,500 



Litres              26                25.8            27.1             31                 29.4               30



DM intake      N/A                 N/A             21              22                 23                   24





Rolling annual totals (Kite Milk Monitor)

                                               May 2013                              May 2012

Cows in herd                         165                                         141

Cows in milk                         146                                         114

Cow calvings                        112 (68%/year)                     99 (70%/year)

Heifer calvings                      51                                           32

Annual yield/cow/lit               9,538                                     9,042

Annual yield/cow forage      907                                         2,736

Daily milk/litre                       4,311                                     3,470

Conc/per litre                        0.33kg                                   0.33kg

Marg all feeds/litre                19.70p                                   20.31p

Marg all feeds/cow               £1,833                                   £1,833

Consolidate or Expand?

The drop in daily milk yield has finally turned the corner; it has started to rise again and is now close to 30 litres/cow/day.

This is due in the main to the change over from secondcut back to first cut silage which is better quality. Over the past 12 months John and Ben have increased cow numbers by 25 to 165, maintained the concentrate feed rate at 0.32 kg/litre and due to better use of forage have seen the average annual yield rise by 824 litres to 9579 litres.


Future Plans: Add extra cubicles and roof over this spring

Consolidate or Expand 

Ben had suggested that this is something that other group members may also be considering, “what is the best way forward for their business”. The speakers for the meeting were Ros Hughes, Kite Consulting and Graeme Surtees, GSA Ltd, who both work with John and Ben.

The focus of the meeting was to look at the changes and improvements John and Ben have made whilst increasing cow numbers and possible options for the next five years. Should they continue to increase cow numbers or focus on achieving the maximum output from the three robots?



Ros opened by looking back at John and Ben’s key targets when the monitor farm programme started, they were;

  1. Increase daily output to 4,000 litres/day (134 cows in milk, averaging 30 litres/day)
  2. Long term have 160 cows averaging 10,000 litres/head
  3. Improve dry cow facilities
  4. Increase net margin – milk price less feed

Any changes or improvements would have to be on the back of having a premium milk contract with Tesco. As the investment in the original 2 Lely robots committed John & Ben to a high cost base, and the need for top level performance.

Ros stressed that originally the main areas affecting output were:

  • Limited trough space – less than one ft/cow
  • Poor cow flow – creating bottlenecks and increased standing times
  • Poor ventilation within the main building
  • Limited facilities for dry cows – meaning some dry cows were housed with the milk cows
  • Variable forage quality

Over the past three years these have all now been addressed, each one having an impact on overall cow performance.


Dry Cow Housing

The dry cow housing has been upgraded to 28 cow comfort cubicles with sand beds. All the cows are run as one group, but it is flexible enough to allow those nearest to calving to be fed concentrates and a different forage diet containing less straw. 

The sand cubicles and changes to diet have taken a great deal of stress out of the dry cow system, ensuring the cows calve down well and without any problems.



Forage Intakes

Step 1: Monitor forage intakes

Limited trough space was identified by Ros as possibly limiting forage intakes. The first step was to establish how much silage the cows were eating. Through the monitor farm project a weigh scale was fitted to the loadall, which allowed Ben to monitor how much silage was fed on a regular basis.



The average over several days was 4,800Kg fresh weight being fed to 130 cows, which at that time was a mix of dry and milking cows.



To assess if extra trough space would make a difference, two ring feeders were placed in the yard outside the main cubicle building.



Step 2: Ring feeders tried outside

Intakes rose slightly, lifting daily milk yields by one litre/cow/day, indicating the limited trough space could be impacting on performance.



The decision was then taken by John and Ben to move the out of parlour feeders and double the length of the trough from 64’ to 128’ on each side. This was into the field behind the building and is currently open, but will be roofed over this spring.  Step 3: Move out of parlour feeders


The increase in trough length has seen fresh weight forage intakes rise from 37 kgs/day to 45kg/day and contributed considerably to the rise in daily milk yield.


Step 3: Move out of parlour feedersStep 4: Extend feed trough



Ros started working with John and Ben over three years ago and at that time set them targets using Kite’s KPIs that monitor six health and physical factors:

  • Dry matter intakes (kg per cow per day)
  • Average daily milk yields
  • Number of confirmed pregnancies (monthly)
  • Number of mastitis cases/month
  • Percentage of cows mobile
  • Fresh cow index


A full explanation of the benefits of each one can be found in the report from the meeting back in April 2010.


The chart below shows the targets set in agreement with John & Ben and where they are now.




Dec 2012

Dry matter intake – kg/head/day

24 kgs

24.5 kgs

Milk sold – litres/cow/day

28 ltrs

29.8 ltrs

Fertility – confirmed pregnancies/month



Mastitis – %/herd/year



% cows mobile – score of 0/1



Fresh cow index – culls in the 1st 60 days of lactation/head/year




In March last year a 3rd Lely robot was installed which, with the extension of the feed trough and the moving of the out of parlour feeders, all helped reduce bottlenecks and improve cow flow within the building. This should lead to a long term improvement in the mobility of the cows, which is one area not quite on target. The other target area is the fertility which was negatively affected by the dry cow diets not quite being correct 2 – 3 months ago, this has now been rectified.


Good Base


Step 4: Extend feed trough

Overall Ros felt that John & Ben had done very well to keep making improvements to performance, whilst increasing cow numbers, providing a good base to push milking cow numbers up further.


Negative Technical Efficiencies


Graeme started by asking the question “why expand”, and commented that the technically efficient businesses are those that are usually most profitable and will continually grow and grow.  When planning any expansion it has to be well thought through otherwise it can have a negative effect, creating new pressure points on the system and lead to lower yields.

  • Can the slurry system cope with the extra demand and disposal?
  • Is there enough forage storage or will it create more waste within the clamp?
  • Will it bring more disease risk within the calf rearing system due to increase throughput?


Do not expand for expansions sake or for peer pressure because it’s thought to be the right path to take. Expansions often change the dynamics with staff in the adjustment from managing cows to managing staff. Knowing what needs doing, delegating and then making sure it has been done can be difficult, as you have to inspect rather than expect. Don’t create a situation where it is them and us or it can lead to an added drop in efficiency.




Graeme went on to explain that there are positives when expanding, providing it is well planned and carried out within budget. The timing of any expansion is critical and can be easier if it is done modular, similar to what John & Ben have done by gradually expanding the buildings and increasing cow numbers.


 Expansion can bring increased profit, creating more “free cash” and a change in the work life balance due to farmers taking a more managerial role. It can also bring efficiencies through keeping the system simple, using larger more efficient machinery for feeding or by having new equipment with less breakdowns and unnecessary hassle. This is providing that more cows means that the farm is more efficient and there is less time wasted.


Technical Efficiency Versus Profit


Not everyone can expand and in considering the options for consolidating Graeme felt that it can soon lead to a point of diminishing returns. In trying to push for the extra litres or another 5% increase, without often assessing what it will cost.


It can work for example if the roles of partners within the business are changing, but it can also need extra capital or involve more time. Some businesses are not always in a position to expand or change the way they work but there is no “silver bullet” that will solve everything. It is often easier and more cost effective simplifying the system rather than over complicating it.




Future Plans: Add extra cubicles and roof over this spring

Graeme concluded by saying that, typically there is no right or wrong answer. Each farm has to look at its own situation; will the land carry more livestock?, are there adequate facilities?, can the business service any more debt? Consider what the options are for the future, and look forward 10 – 20 years.  


Over the next few years the plan at Mason House is to keep pushing cow numbers up. Another 20 cubicles will be installed as part of the building work roofing over the outside trough. This will allow the milking cow numbers to be increased to maximise the efficiency of the 3 robots. The plan is then to expand the buildings further, including a 3rd silage clamp, dry cow and youngstock housing, and eventually adding another robot which could possibly be run as a separate group for heifers.


Over the next few years the plan at Mason House is to keep pushing cow numbers up. Another 20 cubicles will be installed as part of the building work roofing over the outside trough. This will allow the milking cow numbers to be increased to maximise the efficiency of the three robots. The plan is then to expand the buildings further, including a third silage clamp, dry cow and youngstock housing, and eventually adding another robot which could possibly be run as a separate group for heifers.


Breeding policy and bull selection

Following the successful meeting on silage quality and feed intakes the effects of feeding more of the second cut silage at Mason House has had a detrimental effect on the daily milk yields seeing them drop by up to three litres/cow/day.

The silage was cut mid-July but is not feeding as well as the analysis would suggest. This beggars the question for more accurate rationing should wet chemistry be used instead of the NIR methods, which are now widely used due to lower costs and the timescale involved.

The annual rolling average milk yield is currently 9,617 litres/cow, which has been achieved whilst maintaining feed rates at 0.32 kgs/litre. Although this increase will be difficult to maintain going forward with the current drop in yield/cow/day.


Current Breeding Policy and Future Bull Selection 

The aim of the meeting was to look at current bull selection, the effects it might have on the future cows and identify any changes that might need to be made to the criteria for future bull selection. The speaker for the meeting was Marco Winters, head of genetics at DairyCo.


Top tips from the meeting

  • It only takes a minute to breed a cow, but it can take a lifetime to breed out the problems created by poor breeding decisions.
  • Choosing the right bulls is very important.
    • Use all the information available.
  • Don’t ignore the offering of Genomic bulls.
  • Identify your herd strength and weaknesses.
    • Only breed from your best cows.
    • Set your own breeding goals.
    • Choosing the right bulls that fit then becomes easy.

 Marco opened by discussing the role that DairyCo play in genetic proofing of bulls in the UK, remaining totally independent from semen and embryo sales.  Collaborating with the breed societies and milk recording organisations, DairyCo continues to develop the UK genetic evaluations.

These profiles are available through the Profitable Lifetime Index (PLI), allowing comparisons across and within the different dairy breeds. Over recent years the focus has been on increasing the reliability of selection for traits to produce more robust, productive and longer living cows.

The chart below gives a representation of proportional weights of traits in PLI, and a breakdown of the Profit Index £PIN.


 PLI Points Make Profit

Due to changes in breeding involving a number of different components, which could potentially be positive or negative, it is almost impossible to put a financial value on gains made through breeding improvements.

A study in 2011 by Promar over 400 herds on the economic effect of PLIs, found that each PLI point is worth an additional £4.21/cow/year, through extra production, lower cull rates, and improved disease resistance. This means that the difference in a 100 cow herd between the top and average PLI, is close to £25,000 extra margin/year by using better genetics, making choosing the correct bulls important.

Marco stressed that you can’t select for type alone, as it can create future problems. The first step in planning any breeding improvements is to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses that are in the herd. Avoid focusing on too many traits as it can make the improvement slow, likewise concentrate on too few and any major improvements may be at the expense of other desirable characterises.


 Don’t Guess

Use all the records available to help with bull selection, milk records, culling records, fertility records, lameness (mobility scores), classification records and herd genetic reports. DairyCo can provide a herd genetic report for all milk producers who milk record free as part of their levy payment. The report lists all the cows individually and groups then together by lactation, giving and instant picture of progress within the herd.

The part of the first page of the Individual Genetic Report from Mason House.

This information is important as it allows the genetic improvement within the herd to be monitored over time, helping to identify the best animals that can then be selected for breeding the next generation of replacement heifers, and can be used to benchmark against other similar milk recorded herds.


The Herd Genetic Summary at Mason House shows the split between the groups of cows.

The report shows an improvement of kg milk over the generations, but is showing a slight decline in components in younger animals. There is also a good proportion of older cows within the herd suggesting good longevity.

Marco explained that the bull genetic evaluations are based on pedigree information, performance recording (eg. Milk, SCC, Type) and the progeny performance. This is a proven methodology and accurate, but takes time to build up data on individual bulls. This has now changed with the introduction of genomics and adding another tool in the selection for future generations.



Genomics uses the animal’s own genetic make-up (DNA).  A genomic Predicted Transmitting

Ability (PTA) looks just like a normal PTA. It is in fact the same but now calculated with an additional new piece of information. There is no guarantee that a genomically evaluated sire is a better bull, it simply allows predictions of genetic merit to be made earlier without any progeny or performance information.


Selecting Future Bulls

By using the Holstein Herd Standards report which shows the percentile levels required for a herd to be considered in the top 1%, etc, of the population, the traits that need improving can be identified. The herd averages have been calculated from live cows with reliabilities of 30 % or more. Each trait has been calculated independently, thus a herd can be in the top 1% for milk yield but be in the top 10% for protein yield.

Using the averages for Mason House, Marco recommended that future bull selections should focus on; 

  • Improving

ö  Fertility Index (+1.0 or better)

ö  PLI (110 or better)

  • Continue improvement on;

ö  Lifespan (+0.1 or better)

ö  SCC (-10 or better)

  • Consider selection on;

ö  Protein% vs. kg Milk

  • Additional robot considerations;

ö  Milking Speed

ö  Teat Placement and Length

ö  Feet and Leg (Locomotion)



When choosing any bull Marco suggested using 4 simple steps;

1. Always look in top 50% PLI bulls

  • Proven bulls > £110
  • Genomic young sires >£160


2.    Select Fitness traits based on your herd needs

  • e.g. SCC, Lifespan, Fertility Index


3.    Choose Type to suit your herd

  • Only after completing step 1 and 2!


4.    Choose an easy calving bull for maiden heifers.


Choosing the right bull is very important, set your own breeding goals, use all the information available and don’t forget what genomic bulls might have to offer. Always identify the strength and weaknesses of the herd and breed only from the best cows. Then choosing the right bulls that fit the herd becomes easy, remembering it only takes a minute to breed a cow, but it can take a lifetime to breed out the problems created by poor breeding decisions.

What farmers have taken from the group experience

From ventilaition, herd health and cow comfort, to forage quality and nutrition…”It’s all about fine tuning” – that’s what Bay Horse dairy farmers Richard and Ian Gorst have to say about the information they’ve picked up and then applied to their own farm from attending dairy monitor farm meetings at Mason House Farm, Bashall Eaves.

The effects of silage quality on feed Intake and animal performance

This was the first on-farm meeting since April, during this time there have been a number of changes to the system.

The third robot was installed in March, since then cow numbers have been increased to 165. Numbers will be increased further once the yard around the extended feed trough has been roofed over, which will allow further cubicles to be installed down the far side of the building.

The annual rolling average milk yields continue to rise, having increased by 975 litres per cow, although the daily yields have fallen slightly recently due to the quality of the second cut silage, something affecting a considerable number of dairy farmers this year.

The Effects of Silage Quality on Feed Intake and Animal Performance

Mason House Silage Analysis

The aim of the meeting was to look at quality of the grass silage, what influences the different parts of the silage analysis, what can or can’t be influenced and what has the biggest impact on overall performance.

The speaker for the meeting was Dave Davies, from Silage Solutions Ltd. Dave worked for IGER, Aberystwyth for 18 years and the Silage Advisory Service, and now works independently.

Top tips from the meeting

• Keep the system simple and cost effective
• Silage quality is key to feed intakes
• Silage additives will not compensate for poor management
• Good clamp management is key when making silage
• Feed the rumen not the cow
• Palatability is worth ££££

Dave opened by looking at the key aspects of silage analysis and what affects the making of good quality silage, essential to ensure maximum livestock performance. All conserved forage, whether silage or big bales should be analysed on a regular basis, so that it can be used as a guide when feeding stock to ensure that it is feed effectively.

Modern analysis NIR (Near Infra Red) methods are not as accurate as wet chemistry, as it relies on analysis of silages of known quality as the reference point. Dave advised that farmers should ask for crude protein analysis to be done by traditional wet chemical methods and not NIRs, as it gives a more accurate prediction.

Forage Analysis

Forage analysis can be split into three sections; the quality and stage of growth of the grass when cut, often dictated by the weather. Fermentation which is determined by the clamp management and additives, but using silage inoculants will compensate for poor clamp management, plus dry matter and which fall into both.

1. Grass quality
• D-value – the digestibility of the dry matter, closely related to the maturity of the grass at cutting.
• ME – Metabolizable Energy is the energy value available to the cow after loses in dung, urine methane.
• CP – Crude Protein, not a true measure of true available dietary protein.
• NDF – the Neutral Detergent Fibre of the grass, required to promote good rumen function.
• ADF – the Acid Detergent Fibre measuring the cellulose and lignin.
 ME, CP, NDF and ADF all affected by the stage of growth when the grass is cut, and not influenced by additives.
• Ash – high Ash levels are an indication that there is soil present in the silage.

2. Fermentation
• Lactic Acid – the main acid in a well preserved clamp and is the best indicator of the silage fermentation.
• Ammonia-N – used as an indicator of secondary fermentation.
• VFA – Volatile Fatty Acids comprising of Acetic, Propionic and Butyric acids.
• Ethanol – associated with the growth of undesirable yeasts that could cause heating during feeding.

3. Grass quality/fermentation
• DM – Dry Matter, the amount of material left after all the water has been removed by drying, as a quick guide;
 Below 25% moisture runs through fingers as silage is being squeezed. When pressure is released the ball of chopped forage holds its shape, and a lot of free moisture is present on hand.
 25% – 30% Ball just holds its shape, no free moisture expressed, and hand moist.
 30% – 40% Ball falls apart slowly, no free moisture, little or no moisture on hand.
 Over 40% Ball springs apart quickly.
• WSC – Water Soluble Carbohydrates, the amount of residual sugar, important as a valuable source of readily available energy for the rumen. Grass should be cut in the afternoon when the water soluble sugars are highest.


Dave explained that high yielding cows need grass silage that is; very palatable to enable the cows to eat enough, which if it has been clamped poorly and has high levels of Acetic acid will affect intakes as will more mature grass when cut. Has a high D-value and energy levels to ensure that they obtain maximum nutrients out of each kilo eaten and what he called “S**tability” for the cow to excrete it slowly enough to get the goodness out of what has been eaten.

Palatability is worth £££’s


The palatability can be influenced by controlling the fermentation of the silage, the quicker the better, by successfully dropping the pH. When clamping the grass, the main objective is to create a suitable environment as quickly as possible to ensure the sugars are fermented into acids which, in essence, pickle the crop. If this is prolonged (e.g. poor consolidation, sealing, insufficient sugars or the grass is too wet) insufficient acid is likely to be produced allowing secondary fermentation to take place.

Dry Matter intake is increased by the silage having a low Ammonia N level (less than 4%), low levels of Butryric and Acetic Acid, higher levels of Lactic acid, higher true protein and higher sugar levels.

Which for the second cut silage currently being fed at Mason House, for every extra 1 kg of DM intake it should give; 12.2 MJ energy = 2.2 litres extra peak yield = 525 litres extra/ lactation, which @ 28p = £147 per cow /lactation, plus lift the milk proteins, reduce weight loss after calving and help improve fertility.

Feed the Rumen Not the Cow

Feed the rumen

The key Dave stressed was to feed the rumen not the cow, comparing the cow’s rumen to a 45 gal fermentation vessel. But the energy and sugar that preserve the silage during fermentation are the same as what the cows needs. Therefore the quicker the fermentation the more nutrients that are left for the rumen, and less chance of nutrients being converted to undesirable ‘smelly’ products that reduce silage intake and palatability.

The right inoculants can help create a rapid fermentation provided they include the good bugs;
Pediococcus acidilactici or pentosaceus, Lactococcus lactis or Lactobacillus salivarius, avoiding any that contain Lactobacillus buchneri, brevis or collonoides, helping to retain more essential nutrients. Which means the crude protein does not break down as much, more true protein and sugar is retained in the forage and less ammonia accumulates as a result.

Silage inoculants will not however compensate for poor management during the clamping of grass or if the grass is older grown when cut. When looking at the silage being fed at Mason House, Dave commented on how well it had been clamped, with very little waste on the shoulders or top of the clamp, without John and Ben using plastic side sheets.

Effect of additive

This year across all three cuts approximately 400 tonnes of brewers grains were added. A bucket full was tipped on each load of grass before it was buck raked onto the clamp. The aim being to feed 8kgs/cow/day to give a more balanced diet and reduce some of the concentrates fed in the OPF and robots.


In summarising the silage making and feeding at Mason House, Dave liked the simple feeding system used by John & Ben. Stressing that it was all a matter of balance, the silage they have is very digestible, possibly short of being “scratchy” to keep the rumen churning, but he liked the way they feed part of a big bale each day to add long fibre in the diet. Dave recommended they use an inoculant next year to reduce the fermentation time, saving more of the valuable nutrients in the grass, making them more readily available for the cows.

Next Meeting: More milk from silage

The speaker for the meeting will be Dave Davies, from the Silage Advisory Centre and I.G.E.R. The focus of the meeting will be making the most of grass silage, which this next winter for some farmers will be difficult due to the poor weather, affecting both quality and quantity.

Where: Mason House, Bashall Eaves, BB7 3DD

When: Wednesday 26th September registration 10.45am for an 11.00am start.

This will be the first on-farm meeting we’ve held for a while and over recent months there have been a number of changes made to the buildings.

A third robot was installed back in March, allowing milking cow numbers to be increased to 145 and total numbers to 165. Sand cubicles have been installed in the dry cow building, which have been split into two groups to allow better dry cow management. Three cuts of silage have been made again this year, with brewers grains included at ensiling to produce a more balanced forage.

Over the past 12 months the rolling average yield has risen by 939 litres to 9466 litres/cow while maintaining concentrate feed rate levels and increasing cow numbers - all down to the improvements and changes John and Ben have made.

After the meeting I would like to take the opportunity to speak with you all about your thoughts for the future of the monitor farm business group as the funding for the RDPE Northwest Livestock Programme will come to an end next summer. I personally feel that the group has been, and continues to be, a real success and has given everyone the opportunity to share ideas and experiences as well as accessing the knowledge of industry specialists. Please have a think before you come along as to whether or not you would be interested in the group continuing in the future and if so any ideas you have for moving forward.

Booking is essential for the meeting to guarantee lunch, therefore please ring Robert at the Myerscough Rural Team office on 01995 642206, e-mail

Feeding for Profit

Dairy Monitor Farm meeting at Fell Side Farm, Bleasdale Road, Whitechapel, Preston, PR3 2ER by kind permission of Anthony Bretherton and family on Monday 30th July registration 7.15pm for a 7.30pm start.

The farm walk is to look at how the cows at Fell Side are fed on a grass-silage based system aimed at producing 40 litres, and discuss options for maximising intakes on a grass-silage based system.

Booking is essential for the meeting to guarantee supper, therefore please ring the office on 01995 642206 or e-mail


Video 2: Balancing performance

Below Ben Hartley and vet Rob Howe address acidosis and loose muck in the dairy cattle caused by increased energy from the improvements made to the silage, before looking with Promar advisor Andy Taylor at how the right fertiliser and nutrient management plan has made financial and environmental improvements. (Filmed Spring 2012)

Report: Is calf and heifer rearing affecting future milk yields?

This was the first on-farm meeting since June, allowing everyone an opportunity to see the changes that have been made over the summer to the feeding trough in the main building and the ongoing work in the dry cow building. The cows are milking well, a credit to John and Ben’s hard work, and averaged 31.9 litres/cow/day in October.

Dairyco's Chris Coxon talks calf health at Mason House Farm (see below)

Dairyco's Chris Coxon talks calf health at Mason House Farm (see below)

The feed trough has now been extended into the space outside the building, with the cows having the chance to feed outside and enjoy the fresh air. Ben is monitoring the amount of silage fed each day to see what effect the trough extension has had on intakes.

The large six inch step on one side of the trough had been reduced to 1.5 inches, and it will be interesting over the coming months to see if the changes to the trough have an impact on the cow’s feet, as lameness is currently the biggest health issue within the herd.

John and Ben have decided to install cubicles in the dry cow building for the transition group and those nearest to calving, whilst keeping two bedded pens at one end of the building. This has been brought about by the current cost of straw and not being able to find a suitable alternative, having tried several different types of bedding and composting over the past 12 months.

The cubicles will be large cow comfort ones with straw beds, with the transition group and those nearest to calving standing head to head, to reduce the impact when changing groups after calving.

This year’s DairyCo Milkbench+ figures have shown a significant improvement for John and Ben and there are now nine group members who have gone through the process with Tina Swainston.

To enable everyone undertaking the benchmarking to make best use of the figures, there will be a meeting in January next year to go through them and discuss any issues they might throw up. This will be a closed meeting only for those who have gone through the process, and will hopefully create some useful discussion that will be of benefit to everyone.

Milkbench+ is a free service from DairyCo, paid for out of the levy and is well worth undertaking. If anyone else would like to be involved please contact me at the college.

Optimising Calf and Heifer Rearing to Maximise Future Yields

This was the first meeting dedicated solely to calf and heifer rearing – one enterprise on many farms that is often overlooked. Our speaker was Chris Coxon from DairyCo, who travelled up from Somerset where he is one of the extension officers for the South West.

calvesTop tips from the meeting
• Cost is important – but heifer rearing is a long term investment
• Good quality colostrum is key to ensuring continual first rate health
• Only 40% of calves receive adequate colostrums in the first 24 hours unaided
• Get the balance of milk and concentrate feeding right in the first 4 weeks to stimulate good rumen development
• Heifers calving at 24 months are the most profitable long term
Chris opened by looking at the key aspects of any youngstock rearing system;
• Colostrum
• Efficient growth – milk feeding / concentrate
• Achieving bulling weights and fertility
• Housing / environment
• Targets – assessment of success

All of these will greatly affect the age at which a heifer calves, and Chris explained that the age of calving and culling rate vastly affects the number of youngstock on the farm at any one time and the cost of rearing them.

For example a 100-head herd calving heifers at 24 months, with a culling rate of 23% would have 48 head of youngstock of varying ages, compared to calving at 30 months when there are 60 head. This will all put extra pressure on time, cost and buildings.

The variable costs for rearing a heifer to calving down are on average £1200 – £1550, depending on age. If a heifer calves down at 3yrs it costs an extra £350, whereas one calving at 2 yrs has already covered the cost of rearing by 33 months of age.


In a recent DairyCo study;
• 4% of heifer calves died in the first 24 hours
• A further 14% failed to reach first lactation
• After calving another 15% did not reach 2nd lactation
• Totalling 33% of heifers that fail to reach second lactation

These high mortality rates can often be attributed to a large number of calves having a poor growth rate in their first 6 months, due to diseases like pneumonia and rotavirus.

View Chris Coxon’s presentation>>chriscoxonpres

3 Qs

Chris stressed that to help reduce the impact of poor growth rates and mortality it is essential that calves receive adequate colostrum, which he described as the 3 Qs.

• Quality It is essential to feed calves with high quality colostrum
• Quantity 4 litres in first 12 hours or 10% of bodyweight in 2 feeds
• Quickly At least 2 litres in the first 2 hours of life and at the latest 6 hours after birth

Only 40% of calves born will receive this unaided, therefore it is better to “snatch” the calf at birth, milk the cow or heifer and then feed the calf using either a bottle or tube. Research in 2005 showed that calves that receive 4 litres against 2 litres of colostrum in the first 12 hours, grew faster by 0.2kg/day, had lower vet costs and yielded higher in their second lactation by 1,350 litres.

As there is no placental transmission of antibodies before the calf is born, it has no immunity and is totally reliant on the colostrum. The calf’s ability to absorb antibodies starts to decline after 6 hours and after 24 hours has reduced by 50%.

Quality colostrum is rich in the necessary antibodies that protect the calf from diseases in early life, before its own immune system starts working. This is also important as the first source of nutrients after birth.


Chris then highlighted that the bacteria in colostrum double every 20 minutes, so if it has to be kept for feeding later it should be cooled quickly using something like a bag of ice and then reheated for feeding. The quality can vary considerably and should be checked on a regular basis using a colostrometer or blood test (6 calves at 7- 10 days old) to give an indication of the antibodies present.

calves2At Mason House as soon as the calf is born it is taken away and then the cow is then milked through the robots. The calf is then fed two litres of fresh colostrum using a tube and a further two litres several hours later. Chris said that “the way John and Ben feed the calves now is a good way of ensuring the calves receive enough colostrum and with very little scour present a good indication it was good quality”.

Once the calves are established they are fed ad-lib milk, using a plastic five litre drum with a teat, before being grouped together in fives and housed in hutches. Once they are about 14 days old they move into a larger group and are fed using an automatic machine.

Growth rates

Calves have the best food conversion rates of any animals on the farm at 1.25 to 1. Research has shown that calves that are heavier at one month old are consistently heavier at six months, at bulling and again at calving.

To maintain good growth rates calves should receive adequate milk or milk replacer, clean water and an 18% concentrate from two weeks of age to stimulate rumen development. They should only then be weaned when eating 1kg/head/day for several consecutive days.

One issue that does occur now and then at Mason House is the odd case of pneumonia, which Chris explained could be down to in the main to over stocking the building used from two weeks old to weaning, recommending that they have at least 1.5 m2 per calf. John thought the pneumonia could be due to keeping all the bull or beef calves until they are 4-5 weeks old, before being sold in the auction.

The extra value though of keeping these beef calves for a further 20 days does not compensate for the reduction on growth rate, extra vets costs and potential loss in yield, caused by pneumonia in the heifers. That is estimated in first lactation up to 4%, while even greater reductions of around 8% occurred at the second lactation.

Following weaning the calves are grouped together in cubicles on concentrates and haylage, silage or out at grass depending on age and time of year. The aim is to have them calving down at two years and the average age of heifers calving over the past 12 months has been 26 months.

To optimise fertility Chris recommended that heifers are 55% of adult weight and 75% of full grown height (at the shoulders) at first service. The aim is then to serve them on the third cycle, which is when they are most fertile. Therefore to have heifers calving all the year round, they need to have a good balanced nutrition six weeks post service.

At present the growth rate is not monitored, as the farm has no facilities to weigh cattle. Therefore Chris suggested using a weigh band, as a guide to measure the calves and heifers to ensure adequate growth rates are being achieved, as most people often underestimate cattle weights and it reduces the risk of under dosing when treating for any diseases or ailments.


On the whole Chris felt that the calf and heifer rearing at Mason House was good, but there was still room for improvement. The main focus should be on rearing only the heifer calves, the beef and bull calves should be sold as soon as is practically possible. This will then allow the calf buildings to be rested and cleaned out in between batches, as it can be difficult when the herd calves all the year round, and it will help reduce the possibility of overcrowding and the risk of pneumonia.