May 2017 Gold Cup Comment: Heifer rearing under scrutiny

This month 2016 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winner Simon Bugler from Dorset discusses the latest news from Pilsdon Dairy Farm and looks forward to the Gold Cup open day in June.

While writing this month’s article we finally have some rain, which is very well timed for the end of April.  It has been a great month of weather which has supported an early start to the field work.  A large amount of our first cut is done with some more planned as soon as the rain stops.  This time last year we hadn’t cut any grass, so that has to be a bonus, whatever is to follow!

We’ve managed to get some maize in the ground but with the majority still to do.  Some of this will have to follow the next silage cut.  We have had a really good impact on the slurry storage with plenty of slurry and dirty water both spread on to cut grass and maize stubble.  Hopefully the rain will pass and the sunshine will return to allow us to work down the heavier clay soils that we had partially worked. 

This is where our heifers that are grazing have to be managed carefully.  It’s good to turn them out early and lighten the work load, but they must be carefully monitored.  Without rain and warm temperatures the grass has been eaten faster than we had expected so the heifers have had to be moved on quicker than we had hoped.  This is where we meet a pinch point in our drive for 22 to 23 month calving and utilising hill grazing at reduced rearing costs.  Difficult to achieve! 

We recently had a small group of farmers visit the farm for a day to hear an American vet, Dr. Scott Abbott, talk about different KPIs he looks for in his dairies in the US.  We also discussed our herd performance and where we could make improvements.  One area that was easy for Scott was our average age of calving.  We need to improve this but only if we can achieve growth rates that deliver a 610kg heifer or 140cm at her withers at calving.  If we are going to achieve this with the use of hill grazing we will need to manage their grazing really well.

The other important aid was the weighing of heifers through rearing, to recognize whether we are achieving growth rates of one kg daily from day 61 to 120 and 0.9kg from 121 days until calving.  This has been on the shopping list for a while and is something I know we need to do.  The only reason I haven’t is because when I invest in a weighing system I want it to be efficient.

I have been in talks with our dairy software provider because what I really need is the electronic ear tags to auto record the weights and to be compatible with our software so the information can transfer straight across.  If weights need recording with pen and paper or numbers need punching in—it’s not going to happen!

The other area for improvement was our near calving cows which he recommended needed a lower stocking rate or more feed rail space for improved intakes.  This would further improve fresh cow health and post calving intakes to deliver better yields and herd fertility.  He felt we were losing 0.5 body condition score in the post calved group which could impact fertility. 

Well space is something we can hopefully address now that we have planning permission for a new building to house cows.  This will allow us to destock some of the barns (as long as TB stays away) and it will be very interesting to see if this leads to improved performance of both fertility and yield.

It was really useful to have Scott on the farm for a day scrutinising what we do.  Many of the things he commented on made sense and in some cases we have heard these suggestions before.  Unfortunately it is not easy to change things over night especially when you start talking about planning permission. 

Our planning application went relatively well considering we are in an AONB.  The complication for us was a 70m stretch of hedge.  It required an ecological and dormice survey before an application could be made for a translocation of the hedge.  The result of the survey created huge delight for the ecologist as six dormice were found—not in the hedge we wanted to move but an adjoining hedge.  This automatically meant we could not start the build last autumn, but had to wait until this spring.  Not great for my cows but the optimum timing for the dormice.

I did suggest to the ecologist that our farming practices over the previous decades must have been complimentary to the dormouse population, in fact yearly hedge trimming clearly hadn’t affected their survival but actually helped develop a genetically elite hedge trimmer proof strain of dormice. 

With our farm carved up by numerous well used footpaths and under the watchful eye of passers by and the occasional drone, we do our very best to farm responsibly using the best possible farming practices.

Along with two other farming businesses in the Marshwood Vale we recently received the same anonymous letter suggesting that they would like us to stop using large machinery, take two hour lunch breaks and stop work at the weekends because of the disturbance we cause to the local community.

Joking aside, I think it is extremely important our farming practice exists along side a healthy wildlife and local community.  It does seem like we are being increasingly judged by others while we farm.  Certainly there are some very difficult challenges ahead to keep all parties happy. 

With the Gold Cup open day fast approaching (June 28th) things are coming together well.  There are four excellent speakers who will cover topics which offer good advice on opportunities available to us all to improve our management by identifying areas for marginal gains.  As well as this, they will address the importance of putting time to longer term planning for business succession.

We will be working hard to make the day enjoyable and useful to everyone that can join us.  Link for pre-registration is 

As you can see from the photo three little helpers are looking forward to seeing you, especially the car park attendant.

Reprinted from the May 2017 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website.