In 2000, Brian McCracken, who farms with his wife Lynne and son Ewan at Cairngaver Farm outside Newtownards in Co Down, made the final switch to spring calving from an autumn-calving system.
“It’s a decision I have never regretted. I enjoy trying to manage grass,” he told visitors to his farm as part of the recent British Grassland Society summer tour.
The McCrackens farm 360 acres of owned and conacre land, milking an average of 230 New Zealand Friesian and Kiwi-cross cows over the year.
The philosophy on the farm is to try to limit any drudgery and to be as time efficient as possible.
There is a defined start and finish time (6am to 6pm), with the cows moved over to once-a-day milking in December, ahead of being dried off for eight weeks in midwinter.
Cows are milked through a 30-point Dairymaster swingover parlour. There is no feeder wagon, with cows offered block silage when housed.
The farm is in a dry area and the soils are generally free-draining but shallow, so it is well suited to spring calving. However, it runs from 420ft to 720ft above sea level, so there is a limit to the amount of grass the farm can grow. In a good year, 12t dry matter per hectare (DM/ha) is possible. Other years, especially if it is dry, it might average 9t to 10t.
With a shorter growing season and lower soil temperatures, especially in the spring, limiting grass growth, calving due date has been pushed back to 26 February, and the bulk of cows calve in February (80) and March (140).
“The cows are highly fertile, have great longevity, are light and they suit us and suit the land. There is a lot of walking up and down the 4km of lanes on the farm,” said Brian.
In 2021, the herd produced 6,050 litres on 1.1t meal, at a butterfat of 4.55% and protein of 3.66%, which works out at around 500kg milk solids per cow. Grazing is stocked at around 2.7 cows/ha.
In 1997 New Zealand genetics were introduced. At the time, butterfat on the farm stood at 3.98% with protein at 3.16%. It took six to seven years to really lift milk solids and Brian’s aim is now to push on towards 5% butterfat and 4% protein, which would add 6p to 7p/l onto base price.
“Solids is the game. It’s the future, and it insulates you when milk prices are volatile,” he said.
A SenseHub heat detection system and Saber drafting gate are used during the breeding period. Breeding started on the 20 May, with 100 cows and 67 maidens served in the first week. This year, 140 dairy straws were used, and after that it is Hereford and Belgian Blue AI straws. Replacement heifers are synchronised using CIDRs and are served with sexed dairy semen and swept with three AA bulls.
This spring 96% of heifers and 88% of the herd were calved in six weeks. Empty rate typically stands around 7.5%.
Plan to establish more clover in swards
To help keep costs down and also make the farm more environmentally sustainable, Brian’s son Ewan is keen to get clover established in grazing swards.
Already, clover has been stitched in across 50 acres this year. Swards did receive 23 to 28 units of Nitrogen per acre in the spring, but very little since then, in an attempt to give the clover a chance to establish.
“It has been a learning curve for us, and quite a challenge to manage it. Anyone thinking about doing it – maybe take a smaller bite in the first year,” suggested Brian.
A dry season so far with only 245mm of rain since January has meant the farm was tight for grass at the end of June (average cover just under 2,000kg DM/ha).
Across the farm, 130 acres has been reseeded in the last five years, and 90% has been reseeded in the last 10 years. Aber varieties are currently used (AberChoice and AberGain). Brian’s preference is to reseed a field, deal with subsequent weeds, and then stitch in clover the following year.
Training cows to use up feed
“While high costs are a concern for all farmers at present, the key is to manage those things within your control,” said Brian.
On the grazing platform that means not wasting grass. “If it is not cleaned out, the cows just don’t move on.”
The milking herd has been out night and day (and have not received any silage in their diet) since 18 March 2022, and it would only be if Brian had no other option (due to drought) that he would introduce a buffer feed.
“Silage is a killer for getting them to clean out paddocks. If I put in silage, cleanout is over,” he said. As a result, cows do not automatically go to fresh grass after each milking, and might have to return to a paddock for a few hours.
In total 130 acres of first cut was recently ensiled. It was cut six weeks after grazing, so the quality is good, “but we don’t need rocket fuel”, said Brian.
Water recycled through a wetland
When cow numbers were increased in 2003, a standoff pad was utilised to accommodate the extra animals.
At the same stage a four-acre constructed wetland was also created to deal with the associated nutrient runoff.
The standoff pad was subsequently replaced with a 200-cubicle house in 2008. As a result, the wetland is now used for soiled water – once through this wetland, clean water is recycled back to the yard.
“It cost me £20,000 to £30,000 at the time, but it saves £5,000 in a water bill every year. Every farm could benefit from a reed-bed system,” said Brian.
He pointed out that he is the only farm upstream of a local river.
“Being close to a large urban population, we try to be good stewards of what we have responsibility for,” he added.