Elmore Back Farm, Minsterworth, Gloucestershire
John Round insists that, when it comes to breeding high-yielding dairy cows, size isn’t everything.
Certainly his cows are well filled-out. But they are not the giants one might expect from pedigree Holstein Friesians delivering more than 11,500 litres a year.
The Roundelm herd has been build up “organically” over the past 20 years. “Initially we aimed for increased production using high-index bulls,” John says. “But once ‘willingness to milk’ was established, more attention has been paid to functional type and longevity.”
Low production is no longer a reason to cull, while features such as foot angle, rear udder height and support have taken over as key characteristics.
“Traits we try to avoid are large increases in stature and large negatives in butterfat deviation,” John explains. “Medium-sized cows with plenty of capacity for massive dry-matter intakes, leading to long lives of trouble-free milk production, are what we are after.”
The cows are housed all year round in three groups – low yielders, high yielders and fresh calvers. The sturdy animals are in superb condition and defy any suggestion that intensive farming, with zero grazing, is detrimental to animal health.
Indeed John prides himself on the low culling rate – about 15% – and the longevity of his animals. There are currently 15 cows in the herd that have achieved more than 100t of lifetime production, and there is even one combination of mother and daughter that have both passed this landmark.
While breeding is crucial, the other key to success is maximum dry-matter intake. “That’s our goal, so palatable forages are the most important factor in our feeding regime, along with a constant diet, with few changes.”
John oversees the ration selection himself – a job that fits in well with his role as straights buyer for his local buying group. “I also do 95% of the feeding, so I am on the button when it comes to matching intakes to milk output.”
Maize has become the main source of forage, with four varieties grown and some fields yielding 24t/acre. The cows get 30kg/day of maize silage, along with 15kg of grass silage and a wide range of straights, including 2kg of molasses to boost intakes.
But as well as being passionate about his cows – how they are bred and how they are fed – John has a keen business head on his shoulders.
“Profit and net worth growth are always going to be the target,” he says. “Spreading fixed costs over more and more litres of milk is the rule, so increasing yield a cow has been crucial – particularly their lifetime yield – as well as increasing numbers.”
Getting the best price possible is another priority, something that prompted John to switch from Milk Marque to Dairy Crest in the early days, and more recently to join the Sainsbury’s Dairy Development Group. This delivers him a 1.5p/litre premium and has helped him achieve a gross margin over well over 18p/litre.
“Over the past 12 months I have gained a great understanding of the consumer’s demands and also offered, I hope, a measure of the farmer’s needs to the retailer.”
This is something Sainsbury’s acknowledges too, praising John’s enthusiasm for the dairy industry and his “passion for improving the landscape for dairy production in the UK”.
John is an active member of the SDDG steering group. But he is also a countryman at heart.
He has recently joined the Entry Level Scheme and takes pleasure in the fact his farm is characterised by small fields, numerous hedges and water-filled ditches. “There are several small orchards, full of old plum and cider-apple trees, making a great habitat for woodpeckers. Barn owls are often seen hunting over wetland pastures.”
But there is one wildlife species he does not appreciate – badgers.
“There are no setts on the farm, but last year we had one diseased badger that had been displaced from its social group and entered one of our feed passages at night.”
He subsequently lost 36 cows and heifers to TB. “The outbreak cost us £40,000 in terms of lost value – more when you factor in replacement cost and lost breeding.” John says it is especially galling when 40 miles away, across the Bristol Channel, Welsh farmers get full compensation.
But, typical of his “can do” approach, John has worked with the NFU to co-ordinate a local group of farmers, ready to apply for a culling license on their “island” between the River Severn and the Gloucester/Sharpness canal.
Unfortunately for John, and thousands of his fellow dairy farmers, DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn has different plans for tackling the disease.
- 107ha (265 acres) rented, 48ha (120 acres) owned
- Alluvial soils on the River Severn flood plain
- 306 pedigree Holstein Friesians producing 3.5m litres
- Two full-time herdsmen, one general farm worker and two part-timers
- Milk sold to Sainsbury’s
WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED
- Superb-quality cows that thrive in a zero grazing system
- Good cost control and high technical efficiency
- Sensible approach to investment, using profit not borrowings
- Pioneering approach to business, looking for ways to maximise milk price
- Displays a “can-do” attitude