There is no substitute for top-class genetics when breeding livestock, and an Bellemont pedigree Holsteins owned by the McCollum family is proof of the pudding.
Based on the outskirts of Coleraine, the current herd has grown to approximately 500 cows, managed in a high-input, high-output indoor system.
However, the focus is not just on pumping out litres. There has been a massive effort put into breeding dairy cows with high milk solids and excellent fertility traits.
Established back in 1986, the herd is currently managed by the father-and-son team of Norman and Nathanael McCollum.
Since it was founded, the herd has forged a strong reputation for selling top-class dairy stock that can serve as foundation breeding females for both pedigree and commercial herds.
In recent years, the biggest market outlet has seen the farm selling freshly calved cows and heifers to new entrants and established dairy units utilising robot milking systems.
Move to robots
Like many dairy herds, Bellemont Holsteins have expanded in numbers over the past decade, most of which has occurred within the last five years.
The herd is touching 500 cows, up from 350 back in 2018, a year which saw a major change to the milking system on-farm.
Up until then, cows were milked through a dual line herringbone parlour, that provided 24 milking points, with 12 units on each side.
The time and workload taken up by the milking routine made the operation labour intensive, pushing Norman and Nathanael to reconsider their options before going down the route of herd expansion.
They looked at various parlour options, from herringbone to rotary units. But in the end, the decision was made to install robots.
“With the parlour options, two people would be needed to milk cows and one person doing all the outside work, like bedding cubicles and feeding calves.
“We also would have had to build a new unit to accommodate a bigger parlour, plus collecting yard. The robots were able to be installed in the existing sheds with little hassle,” said Nathanael.
Four Lely A5 robots were installed in December 2018, with a further two units added in early 2019.
“We didn’t have to get rid of any cows when starting off, they all took to the robots.”
Moving from the conventional parlour to the robot system means cows are now milked three time per day. In recent years, the herd has settled at an annual yield in and around 11,500 litres/cow. However, while cows are consistently achieving high yields, the most pleasing aspect is that fertility and milk solids have not suffered as a result.
Cow fertility is also excellent at 382 days and reflects the efforts made to select sires with proven reproductive traits, as well as general management such as nutrition.
As the herd is managed in a year-round indoor system, silage is made over four cuts. First cut was harvested at the end of April, with all 500 acres farmed cut for silage.
Each subsequent cut is reduced by around 60 acres, with the fourth cut harvested on just over 300 acres. Silage reserves are boosted with 80 acres of whole crop rye ensiled.
Huge emphasis is placed on forage quality to maintain yield, milk solids and cow fertility. Cows-in-milk are currently eating second-cut silage at 35% dry matter, 16.5% protein, 11.45 ME and 71.5% D-Value.
Soya, maize meal and sugar beet pulp are fed through the diet feeder at a rate of 7.25kg/head on a daily basis, along with 3kg of whole crop rye and silage. Meal is topped up through the robot at a rate of 0.4kg/litre of milk produced, up to a maximum of 9kg/head/day. Over the year, cows consume just over 3.5t of concentrate, giving approximately 3,800l of milk produced from forage. Diets are reviewed every month with the help of an independent nutritionist, Fergus Crouch. Heifers are run as a separate group to prevent bullying at both the feed face and entry point to the robot from mature cows. The main cow herd is one single group.
For just over a decade, the breeding programme has seen 100% use of sexed Holstein semen using high profitable lifetime index (PLI) sires.
Given the size of the herd, and use of robots, cows calve all year round, as does breeding with DIY inseminating carried out on farm.
Several cow families dominate the herd with Idaho, Phyl, Zadia, Avery, Froukje and Arctic bloodlines prominent.
The Arctic family goes back to when the herd was established and has a heifer on-farm that is currently ranked third in the UK for PLI and top ranked UK heifer on GTPI.
Traits selected include yield, fertility, milk solids, feet, teat placement and size, udder shape and milking speed.
Cows are also selected for medium size, with mature animals typically 600kg to 650kg liveweight, giving an impressive 1.3kg milk solids per kilo of liveweight.
Cows are fitted with collars monitoring rumination and heat activity, with the data collected through the robots.
The use of sexed semen facilitated the herd expansion from 350 to 500 cows over the last five years. It has also provided a valuable income stream from selling cows and heifers in-milk. The farm now specialises in selling “robot-trained” cows to new entrants and to repeat customers looking to expand numbers.