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  • Hannah Dugdale

Expansion and effective high yielding cow nutrition helps accelerate parlour investment plans...

A bold herd expansion strategy and the successful pursuit of higher yields per cow without compromising fertility has enabled the Mitchells to bring forward plans for a new milking parlour at their family-owned dairy farm in Cheshire.


Tom and Dan Mitchell, both in their twenties, recently took on responsibility for running the farm from their father Steve, who was looking to step back. Tom tends to focus on the cow feeding and machinery work, while Dan oversees the livestock management.


“Dad’s still very much involved in the background, as is our Mum, Julie – but both were keen to let us move into the driving seat to take the business forward,” says younger brother Dan.


Tom (left) and Dan (centre) discuss feed ration performance regularly with Philip Jackson from HJ Lea Oakes

Having taken on a local farm tenancy in 2018, Tom and Dan now milk 230 all-year-round calving Holstein Friesians at SJ Mitchell & Co., Fields Farm, Hatherton near Nantwich. In 2010, Steve was milking just 90 cows on the primary family holding. At that time, each cow was still yielding around 5,000 litres per year on traditional grass-based system.


“Our grandfather bought the farm about 70 years ago and for many years he and my father successfully ran a pretty extensive system. But Dan and I both decided we wanted to be in dairy farming full time back at home and consequently felt we needed to be more ambitious if the business is to support more family units in the future. Mum and Dad have been great and are really keen to support us,” says Tom.


Julie and Steve Mitchell (left) with their sons Tom and Dan, plus Philip Jackson (right)

The hard-working Mitchell brothers certainly have big expansion plans. “We were fortunate to be able to take on the 160-acre tenancy three years ago, as the holding is only seven miles away. We’d already expanded the herd slightly from the original 90 milkers and also managed to buy some more cows from a local retiring farmer; getting ourselves up to 230 cows. But, ultimately, we’d like to be running up to 450 high yielding cows plus followers,” says Dan.


Such business growth ambitions have already put significant pressure on the farm infrastructure, particularly the cow housing and Fields Farm parlour facilities.


“We knew the traditional home parlour would need replacing at some point but have had to wait until we can afford to borrow the money needed for what is going to be a significant investment. We’ve already invested in a new building as we moved from the previous low input system,” explains Dan.


Investment at Fields Farm has already included a new purpose-built shed for the high yielders

However, the move to a more intensive system is already paying off. As yields started to rise, the brothers pushed the efficiency envelope further by refining cow feeding, starting to milk three times a day and using sexed semen. The Holstein Friesian cows are now split into high and low yielding groups and fed accordingly. Lactating cows are now averaging just under 10,000 litres a year with the aim of eventually delivering up to 12,000 litres. The Fields Farm Milk is sold to Muller.


“Unfortunately, our small, antiquated parlour is the weak link at the moment. Throughput is very slow and we’re spending 12 hours a day milking cows, which is clearly unsustainable.


“The good news is that the refinements HJ Lea Oakes have been making to the supplementary nutrition – to help us make the most of the forage and other home-grown feed crops available – have really allowed us to push the yields up without compromising fertility; so much so that our accountant is now telling us we can start looking at new parlour systems. Ideally, we’d like a swing-over herringbone, rapid exit system – this should allow us to milk 180 cows an hour, which will be so much more efficient,” says Dan.


When it comes to nutritional input, the Mitchells work closely with local HJ Lea Oakes representative Philip Jackson and one of the feed company’s nutritionists, Andrew Waterhouse.


Dan Mitchell

“Having spent nearly 30 years managing dairy herds, Philip really knows his cows and we value his practical advice, particularly when it comes to maintaining cow condition and fertility. And in Andrew, Philip has the expert nutritional back up that’s so important these days – particularly when bought it feed protein raw material costs are high,” says Dan.


Philip says he is always keen to help dairy farmers make the most of what they can grow on their own acres. To this end, Dan and Tom have started a multi-cut silage system with the aim of boosting conserved grass quantity and quality.


“We are now taking four cuts a year, about once every five weeks over the growing season. Over the last three years we have also been growing maize and now sow about 60 acres each year. We harvest this quite green too. We also grow 40 acres of wheat,” says Tom.


The main challenge with repeatedly ensiling young, leafy grass is its acidity and Tom says their conserved forage does tend to analyse out at about 3.7pH. “Acid silages are not ideal for optimum rumen function, so we rely on Philip and Andrew to mitigate the risk of acidosis and formulate the right blend to balance up the high starch-based semi-TMR we are putting in front of the cows,” says Dan.


High yielding cows receive 10kg per head of this bought-in blend, which is mixed in a wagon with the home-grown forages and then fed down a feed face. High yielders, some of which are giving 75 litres a day, are also fed compound to yield in the parlour at each milking


Since October 2020, the bought-in TMR blend has contained Alkagrain 150, which Andrew says is an important alkalising feed including Home n’ Dry.


“Alkagrain 150 is a high starch and protein feed that is treated with Home n’ Dry at five times the strength of normal grain to enable us to produce alkaline buffered feeds suitable for dairy, beef and sheep feeds. Its inclusion within a proprietary TMR blend helps dairy farmers to effectively alkalise high yielding cow rations on forage-based set ups, simplifying delivery of the system when they don’t have the opportunity to self-alkalise any home-grown cereals,” he explains.


“We have a huge responsibility to help our customers feed their cows for optimum rumen function. And to support this goal, there is an array of alkalising options available to them – to help balance acidic forages, for example – but also to effectively balance high starch home-grown cereals. But alkalisation via the blend certainly gives us more headroom with the ration when we are trying to push cows safely for higher yields. Home n’ Dry also contributes cost-effective protein to the diet, which is also important when protein prices are so high,” says Andrew.


“Our mission is to help them produce as much high-quality milk as cost-effectively possible without compromising cow health, condition and fertility.”


The feedback from the Mitchell brothers certainly suggests HJ Lea Oakes are meeting this objective. “The cows have been milking really well recently, but we also know that if we do get a dip at any time that Philip is always on hand to help us get things back on track. He also helps us with our monthly costings and the latest figures have certainly put a smile on our accountant’s face.


“We will have to borrow a lot of money to be able to make the necessary investments we need for a more sustainable future, but thanks to Philip and Andrew’s input we are certainly more confident about the future and will even be able to move forwards sooner than we had originally planned,” says Dan.

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