Dolphenby Farming Partnership, Cumbria

Tue, 2016-05-03

Dolphenby: Putting the Airy into Dairy!

As we approached Edenhall my colleague commented on the agricultural nature of the atmosphere, presuming it to be evidence of our impending destination.  I urged him to reserve judgement, and we passed the offending pig farm around the next bend! We soon reached Dolphenby and the air was as fresh as the proverbial daisy, perhaps not surprising when the 400 or so cows plus maybe 150 followers have 675 acres to wander over. What is more, and in direct contrast to the air, the pasture gave little hint of daisies or indeed anything other than verdant and well-tended leys, essential if one is to achieve such a high stocking density. There was no need to consult the pre-visit notes to know that this was a grazing-centred enterprise.  So, time to come clean and confess that I for one can see considerable virtue in well-managed intensive housed dairy units. Am I the right person to sing the virtues of Dolphenby? Well actually, yes, because I like to see virtue in well-managed dairy units of any description, and it was evident from early in our visit that this particular farm was exceptionally well managed.

We were met by our local host Robert Craig and his Staffordshire business partner Stephen Brandon, soon to be joined by Stephen’s wife Lesley. Hearing the enthusiasm in their descriptions of what was for all of them a second farm, I found myself looking forward immensely to the tour, and vowed to show especial interest in the particular grass mixtures that were being employed in the different parts of the farm. I have forgotten them all, sorry! However, there is much that does stick vividly in my mind, starting with the realization that as I listened to Steve I was looking across to pipelines and clusters in an open sided milking parlour. These cows are not only out for most of the year (February to November), when they come in to be milked they are not “in” as such! Nor are they there for long, the 80:40 herringbone and two milkers see to that. The staff completely shared Steve and Robert’s enthusiasm, even maintaining that milking en plein air was a pleasure even in the depths of winter. Not that this happens too much; the cows all calve in February to April and will be dry when housed. It was all beginning to fit together. If you reduce everything to basics and keep the system as simple as possible, you end up with a minimum of trouble. Stressless in Settle! (well, almost, and I shall not let geography spoil a good “tag”!) This impression was confirmed later when we met the rest of the workforce. Almost certainly the youngest large herd I have ever come across (the partners took over the tenancy in October 2011 and stocked it with heifers the following year), these cattle showed every bit as much enthusiasm as their owners as they strode purposefully back to the grazing paddock after milking. Strode is a bit of an understatement. They were running. Joyfully! Maybe my new-found enthusiasm for grazing is running away with me, but there is no doubt that the cows were fit and putting that fitness to good use in their desire to be first back to the fresh grass. Which, of course, is the next part of the jigsaw puzzle. For a grazing system to be run optimally, the paddocks must be grazed rotationally and intensively, and for Dolphenby this entails having 50 paddocks each of around 5 acres, all committed first and foremost to grazing, all monitored closely with rising plate meters and data input into a computerized grazing management system. Decision making reduced to minimal worry once again.

Have computers also taken over in the parlour? Not at all! The farm has a target of 480 kg of milk solids/cow/year, at an average of 6000 kg of milk of 4.5% fat. What the individual cow achieves is immaterial in this set-up and is not monitored, performance is at the level of the farm and the hectare of pasture. To maintain the total solids content, Steve and Robert employ the “KiwiCross” genetics approach of Holstein/Friesian crossed to Jersey. Deeper enquiry revealed the highly scientific approach that if the animal to be bred looks a bit milky, the semen will be Jersey, whilst the stockier cow will be bred to H/F. The overall target is 75% H/F, 25% Jersey, but given that the heifers run in large groups with both types of bull present, the obvious variation in individual “Jerseyness” is only to be expected. Calving ease is prioritized, not surprisingly when 400 or so cows and maybe 130 heifers are going to calve in a few weeks. Did I say stressless? Well, we did not witness calving time, but we were there slap bang in the middle of the breeding season. Surely Steve and Robert will have pedometers to help manage inseminations? No, it’s the simple approach again; all the cows wore a mount-detector pad, although Robert is interested in an automatic pad-reading technology to reduce the cost of shedding in-heat cows manually. The walls of the farm office were covered in inspirational entreaties, and at this time of year the emphasis was inevitably on heat detection. The target? More than 400 cows to be inseminated in 3 weeks. No stress at all then!

The explanation for the totally relaxed atmosphere probably lies in the overall Dolphenby philosophy: top of the Farm Target whiteboard list was “Simple and Enjoyable”, followed by no less than four smileys! Profitable milk production, 90% calved in less than 6 weeks, less than 10% empty rate, no more than 20% replacement rate, more than 14T DM/ha/yr, 910 kg milk solids/ha are some of the other targets I noted. I came away extremely impressed by what Steve and Robert are achieving, but would I take the same approach? Almost certainly not! As an animal scientist, the cow is always going to have more fascination for me than the sward, and I would be itching to know more about individual performance, especially when the genetic variation was very obvious. But my concerns can be summed up in one word: risk. We have too much of it in dairying, and when low milk price is top of the risk list, minimizing production costs is an obvious response, provided that one remains in control and can consistently deliver the product that is desired. So, how are Dolphenby doing in the “risk stakes”?

Dolphenby do not deliver a consistent product. First Milk will love their fat-rich spring and summer milk, but hate the poor protein quality of their late-lactation autumn milk, and complete lack of winter milk. Maybe not a big problem, until others emulate the highly seasonal approach.

Not long before our visit, Dolphenby lost control of part of their operation, when the River Eden flooded the low-lying pasture. The effects were costly and will have disrupted the reseeding strategy. Now imagine what will happen when the weather throws a prolonged drought rather than torrential rain (sooner or later it will, believe me!)

Yes, I loved visiting Dolphenby and wish them continuing success, but here is my bottom line. Airy is wonderful, provided you can live with the occasional Hairy!