Roger Hildret (UK pilot farmer): Lessons from the European Dairy Farmers visit to Northern Ireland

20 August 2018

My name is Roger Hildreth, I’m a EuroDairy pilot farmer. Home at Curlew Fields Farm in Yorkshire we run a 120-Pedigree Holstein herd that calve all year round. Currently they produce 10611 litres/cow/year, at 4.10 per cent fat and 3.21 per cent protein. Through the EuroDairy network I have recently attended exchange visits to Northern Ireland and the Netherlands. I’m here to share my learnings from these exchange visits.
In this first blog, I joined the UK branch of European Dairy Farmers (EDF) visit to Northern Ireland in April 2018.

The day started with a trip to CAFRE Greenmount Campus, Antrim where there was a chance to look around the new dairy facility, completed in 2013.
The 180-cow herd has a strong genetic emphasis placed on sire selection to improve milk protein, fertility, health and lifespan traits. The herd is used to train students in practical dairy skills, including milking, feeding and health management. There were lots of features that a farmer could take home and implement from the new facility These include the use of rubber matting, bird proofing the shed with netting, a bull pen designed to get cows in and out safely, the well laid out calving pens to maximise welfare and an efficient milking parlour for labour efficiency. The 20:20 herringbone milking parlour, part of the new site development allows the herd to be milked in less than 2 hours.

Cairngaver Farm, The McCracken’s
The first farm visit was to the McCrackens at Cairngaver Farm, a EuroDairy pilot farm. A family farm since the mid-1800s, today they have 270 spring calving New Zealand (NZ) Friesian Kiwi herd, plus youngstock, on 140 hectares.
The McCrackens chose to use NZ and Friesian genetics to increase milk production. They have invested in a heat detection system and are already seeing good results.
The farm is very focussed on efficiency and cost of production. They have recently invested in shedding gates, that recognise which cows are ready for service and sheds them automatically.
Whilst on the visit, they also discussed how they maximise their resources; they use the calf shed for storing straw, then fertiliser followed by calves in a rotation. The McCrackens decided to raise the roof level on their youngstock building to improve the ventilation, which has helped to improve the herds health and reduce vet costs.
Like many others, the McCrackens have faced challenges along the way, the poor weather at the end of winter and in spring has held back the farm this year, they managed later turnout and poaching was part of the discussion on the day due to the season. Another challenge for the McCrackens is the fact that their neighbouring farm uses their yard to transfer cows to the summer graze, which can often cause stress to their herd.

Rowreagh Farm, the Steele’s:
The second visit took us to another EuroDairy pilot farm Rowreagh Farm, ran by Thomas and Sam Steele. The Steeles began farming in Rowreagh in 1980 with 70 cows and has since grown to 500 cows yielding 10,500 litres per cow per year. The expansion created a need for new housing, which has been designed purely for cow comfort. Since bringing together their two herds in 2007, it was necessary to build 200 more cubicles for the cows to optimise their comfort and welfare. n 2009, the Steele’s also built a new 60-point rotary milking parlour, which allows all the cows to be milked in two hours, three times a day.
The Steele’s herd are permanently housed and adopt an all year round system. Their indoor system allows the cows to be fed and monitored as individuals where they are weighed every day, which has significantly helped them to optimise their process. The weighing system allows them to identify when a cow has gained weight, therefore meaning they can identify the best time to inseminate each cow whilst they are waiting to be milked.
The Steele’s optimisation of reproductive management system has seen a huge reduction in the amount of straw they use during each pregnancy. Prior to their updates, they were using 3.1 straws per pregnancy, they are now down to 2.1 per pregnancy.

Both farms were exceptionally well managed by great dairy people, doing a very good job with different system. Overall, I found this study trip around Northern Ireland to be of great benefit. It was a great opportunity to chat and network with other farmers; we compared systems and learnt the odd tip or trick from each other. I found the EDF style of cost of production really interesting and it’s something I am keen to try out on my own farm.