That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Holly Atkinson, who works on a farm with her husband, Adam, in South Devon, in the UK in this week’s dairy segment.
“I have worked on farms since I was fifteen. I am a vet – a Bristol University graduate – that worked in a small and farm animal practice.
Also, I have a small animal medicine certificate and worked in two more small animal practices. I helped on-farm where possibly whilst working as a vet.
However, I became a mum and have taken a career break from veterinary. For the last two years, I am a stay-at-home mother who has worked on-farm, mainly as a calf rearer/youngstock rearer.
UK dairy farm
I am involved in running Caulston Farm – which Geoff Sayers owns – with my husband, Adam (farm manager); five team members work on the farm.
Adam has always worked within the dairy industry, including dairy farms in the UK and New Zealand. Adam – who holds a national diploma in agriculture from Lackham College – is also a part-time consultant for Promar. His father was also a dairy herd manager.
We have a son, Abel, and are expecting another child in January 2022.
The farm is home to 600 spring-calving Jersey-cross-Friesian cows across 900-acres (stocking rate of 2 cows per ha). In recent years, there has been no expansion as TB breakdowns have restricted this.
The main reasons for selecting this cow type are their ability to convert grass into milk solids and good fertility. Also, they are well proven to perform in a spring-calving, grass-based system and are aggressive grazers.
Breeding programme and calving season
Our breeding programme takes place over 9-10 weeks AI, i.e. three rounds using proven genetics from New Zealand kiwi-cross sires (CRV/LIC).
We have moved away from stock bulls but used 2 Speckle Park bulls this season on the heifers (R2s) after two rounds of sexed semen AI.
Calving begins in February and takes place over ten weeks. Our six-week calving rate is 87% on cows and 82% on heifers.
Due to our location in the south of the UK, we get good, early grass growth, so we try to maximise the use of grass, i.e. as soon as the cows calve, they start grazing.
Our ideal cow is approximately 540kgs live, is deep-bodied/has high body capacity, has good legs/feet due to distances walked and high butterfat and protein.
We rear all dairy heifer calves on-farm as replacements and calve these at 24-months-old.
On the other hand, we sell all male dairy calves and beef calves to an organic, grass-based beef rearer in Cornwall.
We have a 48:96 swing over, Dairymaster parlour with milkrite-InterPuls units (cluster exchange), ACRs and in-parlour feeding. We are planning drafting/shedding gates. 2 people milk 600 cows in 2 hours.
Here are some average performance figures (concentrate input level: 630kgs per cow per year) from 2021:
- 5,250 litres sold per cow per lactation.
- 4,300 litres of milk from forage.
- 4,30kgs of milk solids per cow.
- Butterfat: 4.54%
- Protein: 3.76%
Last year’s performance figures:
- 5,250 litres per cow per lactation
- Milk from forage 3933 litres per cow
- 419kgs of milk solids
- Butterfat: 4.3%
- Protein: 3.54%
Grassland management is important; we undertake a weekly farm walk/grass measure.
We use Agrinet to analyse the data and make grazing plans, feeding decisions and identify poorer performing paddocks for reseeding. Also, we have a spring and autumn rotation planned with Agrinet.
On average, we have 12 hours grazing breaks all season for cows and adjust according to weather conditions etc.
Parlour and infrastructure
In terms of infrastructure, we have enough housing to house all the herd and youngstock if needed. We have a mixture of cubicle housing and loose yards.
Furthermore, we are using technology, including Herdwatch for cow records and, as mentioned, Agrinet software for grass management.
Also, we have installed CCTV in calving sheds, have drafting gates planned and have GPS collars mainly to monitor distance walked.
There are seasonal changes and challenges, but so many opportunities within the industry.
Losses from TB is the biggest stumbling block. As a result, managing the effect of TB breakdowns has been the biggest challenge we have had to overcome since embarking on this journey.
We are a certified organic operation with accreditation from Organic Farmers and Growers. We receive a premium for our milk.
Being organic dairy farmers means that all skills go into naturally growing and managing grass without chemical fertilisers.
We feed organic cake, have home-grown organically grown silage and do not use herbicides, pesticides, or non-organic fertiliser.
We value our FYM and slurry as our fertiliser and capture nitrogen using clover in the grass leys. This farm has always been involved in organics.
This is an interesting and rewarding way to farm as lots of skill is needed to use the tools available to grow as much grass as possible.
In essence, there is more money in organic dairying, but there are more costs as stocking rates are lower.
I believe the dairy industry’s future is positive with lots of opportunities for skilled people with better progression ladders ahead, i.e. share milking.
Our short-term plan is to prepare for next year’s calving season, and long term, we aim to increase milk solids per cow and individual cow performance.
Overall, we are aiming for more output with the same numbers through breeding programmes.
Our target production figures are 450kgs of solids per cow and 4,500 litres of milk from forage.
Women in ag
Life as a woman in agriculture is good; I do not let it define me. As a teenager, I was once met with a couple of negative comments at first for being female and wanting to work on a farm (from an elder relative on the farm).
However, I was given a chance (by the son who had not made the comments) to prove myself, and the dad took it back and apologised!
As a farm vet, our farmers were supportive. My ethos was to be a good vet regardless of gender.
I believe agriculture should be open to anyone; gender should not be a factor.
We have a mix of females/males in our team. People are defined by their skills and work ethic; gender definitely does not correlate with their ability.
Farming and parenting involve making plans, time management, being realistic in what is possible, teamwork, communicating and organising between ourselves.
We try to focus on our mental well-being and make time for us as a family and do things we enjoy.
We have both taken the opportunities presented at the time—each decision we have made led to our current home and work life.
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