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7th-gen dairy producer aims for 10,000L/cow and sells electricity back to the grid

Feature: Jamie Sproule, Foggyhill Holsteins

In this week’s dairy series, That’s Farming speaks to Jamie Sproule from Foggy Hill Holsteins, Killen, Castlederg, Co. Tyrone. We discuss choosing the Holstein breed and using genetics to improve performance, autumn calving, herd performance, on-farm infrastructure, and goal setting for the future.

Jamie Sproule, who is a seventh-generation dairy farmer, farms a 100-strong Holstein herd, alongside his father, John, in Northern Ireland.

The milk producers farm over 185-acres in Co Tyrone, with Holstein being the predominant breed, along with a small number of pedigree Brown Swiss cows.

The father-son duo has always been involved in dairy farming; they have been milking 100-Holstein cows as a goal figure for the last number of years.

As Jamie is a new entrant to the family farm, his focus has been on producing quality milk, rather than the number of cows.

“Through my studies in Greenmount Agricultural College and my work at Prehen Holsteins, I developed a keen interest in the Holstein breed,” he tells That’s Farming

“I decided to follow this route at home on my family farm,” Jamie tells That’s Farming.

 Calving bonus

The autumn calving herd has chosen to calve down during the August to March period to “take full advantage of winter milk bonuses”.

Autumn calving also allows for greater flexibility in spring, when the farmers are putting cows to grass. Moreover, in autumn, the cows are housed and calf-down inside.

The breeding programme in place uses two straws of sexed semen; this is followed by the use of a beef AI bull. Aberdeen Angus, Belgian Blue and Charolais are the breeds used for breeding purposes.

On the farm, they use sexed dairy and beef semen as part of their breeding programme.

Generally, they retain high-EBI female dairy calves, and they bring male progeny through to slaughter as bulls.

The utilisation of sexed semen allows Foggyhill Holsteins to produce quality replacement heifer calves from top-performing cows within the herd.

With a calving interval of 393 days, the Sproules aim to calf down replacement heifers from 22 to 26-months old.

“All female dairy calves are genomically tested, and high-ranking calves are retained and bred to sexed semen. The bottom 20% are used as embryo donors.”

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Performance

With cow performance being steady across the herd, the cows are currently producing 9,249 litres with 4.24% butterfat, 3.22% protein and a somatic cell count of 107, respectively.

Furthermore, data from the milk producer’s co-op report showed a slight increase in yields, as well as quality.

Last year’s figures showed cows producing 8,901 litres with 4.20 butterfat, 3.25% protein and an average somatic cell count of 111.

In terms of an ideal cow-type, Jamie looks for “a medium-sized cow, with a wide chest that has great feet and legs, also aesthetically pleasing cows with great udders”.

1

Infrastructure

Grassland management is an essential element of the everyday running of the farm. The farmers conduct regular soil sampling, liming and, reseeding as appropriate.

These management decisions are carried out to ensure that cows have access to lush pasture while grazing, as well as producing quality forage for winter feeding.

“We currently have a DeLaval 14×14 parlour. The cows are milked twice a day and it takes approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes per milking.”

The housing infrastructure is comprised 110 mattress cubicles, 30 of which are easy-fix plastic cubicles.

“Robotic scrapers, a telehandler, heat detection collars and, a weigh scale crush are other technology we have recently incorporated onto the farm.”

The robotic scrapers which have been introduced to the farm allow for an improvement in cow hygiene, seeing a positive influence in milk quality through SCC.

A heat detection collar is worn by a teaser bull. Meanwhile, cows and heifers for breeding wear associated eartags. The collar uses bull proximity, mounting behaviour and bull activity to determine when the females are in heat.

“We currently have a 250kW wind turbine on the farm, which is supplying the entire farm and farmhouse with electricity.”

“Excess electricity is sold back to the grid, creating extra income for the farm. In addition to this, there is also a small number of solar panels located on the farm.”

In the future, the farmers are investigating the potential introduction of robots on the farm.

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Goal setting and hurdles

Foggyhill Holsteins is also a Business Development Group (BDG) member.

Knowledge transfer through Business Development Groups (BDGs) is a scheme that is part-funded by the EU through the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme.

Covid-19 has impacted dairy producers throughout the country through the rising production costs.

Coupled with Brexit, Covid-19 has been one of the biggest challenges that Foggyhill Holsteins has had to overcome since Jamie embarked on his dairying venture.

In 2021, Foggyhill Holsteins were awarded the Best Small Herd in the junior section of the Holstein NI Herds’ competition.

Breeding, achieving results when heifers start milking, goal setting, and the challenges of improving every year are the aspects that Jamie most enjoys about dairy farming.

Looking towards the future

No doubt, Jamie has set ambitious targets for the years ahead, for both himself and the farm.

“Short term, I would like to hit the 10,000-litre herd average whilst improving milk from forage.”

“Meanwhile, long-term, I would like to improve farm infrastructure by installing two robots, expanding housing facilities.”

The introduction of robotic milking into Foggyhill Holsteins will improve the lifestyle of both Jamie and John, who are the two sole members of the dairying team.

Jamie would like to focus on expanding the dry cow and heifer accommodation within the farm.

Increasing cow numbers to 120-strong is a possibility in the future. However, at present, the father-and-son duo are quite happy with 100-cows.

While uncertain of what the future holds, Jamie comments on how the dominant fertiliser prices will impact their farm.

“I will respond to this by utilising the soil sample results obtained and treat each field accordingly.”

“From 2015, I am excited to have taken the herd from a commercial Holstein-Friesian herd, which was averaging 7,000 litres on 2.5 tonnes of concentrates.”

“To the current performance, which is 9,300 litres on 2.7 tonnes of concentrates.”

Jamie concludes, “this has been done through genetics and better herd management. I have invested in top Holstein genetics from across the world and implemented in the herd that I have today.”

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