Taking a more natural approach to running a herd of pedigree Holsteins means sacrificing litres in the tank, but the benefits of a higher-than-average conception rate is worth more, according to a Pembrokeshire milk producer.

Arfon Phillips, who runs the Pedran herd with his parents, Tom and Susan, knows the herd is genetically capable of producing more than its 9500-litre average.

But he insists he would rather let cows milk naturally, without putting too much pressure on them. “There are a lot of demands on a cow – she has to calve down well, recover quickly and from that point on she is expected to milk, eat well and start the cycle all over again within a few months.”

His approach is rewarded with an average conception rate of 70%. Good nutrition and looking after the health of a cow before and after calving are crucial to maintaining that figure, reckons Mr Phillips, who farms at Ty Mawr, Llanfyrnach.

He admits it is a challenge because his 220-cow herd calves all year round. “It’s a bit easier when cows are out at grass because they can dry off and go out. In winter it’s a lot tougher because we only have the space to keep one dry group,” he says.

Cows are housed on straw four weeks before calving on a diet of silage and dry cow minerals, with particular emphasis on selenium. Mr Phillips aims for a feed intake of 25kg dry matter a head.

Health after calving

He pays close attention to cow health after calving. He likes to see cows cleansed within 24 hours and separates them for a couple of days.

“I like to make sure their appetite is good, particularly for older cows, before they join the main herd. And if there is any sign of metritis we have them washed out,” he says.

Mr Phillips shares AI duties with his father and aims to start serving cows 45-50 days after calving. “When a cow is bulling within 45-50 days it is a sign things are back to normal, she is OK to start working again,” he says.

“When she is showing signs of heat at that stage I like to AI, otherwise it would be an opportunity lost.”

Although Mr Phillips doesn’t formally condition-score cows, he keeps a close eye on their weight to ensure they are in peak condition for calving down and getting back into calf. Feed inputs are controlled through the parlour ration. “When a cow is overweight she won’t get cake in the parlour, all her energy requirements will come from the TMR mix,” he says.

Grazed pasture is at the foundation of the Phillips’ milk production system. Cows graze on a paddock rotation system, on a 28-day rotation by day and 21 days by night. “The herd doesn’t spend more than three days in one field to give the grass plenty of time to grow back.

“We use the fields closer to the farm for the night-time grazing because it takes less time to get the cows into the parlour in the mornings.”

A network of tracks links the paddocks to the parlour and keeping cows’ feet in good condition is a priority. Although Mr Phillips does some of the trimming himself, this is done professionally bi-monthly.

Foot care

“The cows have to walk a fair distance on stone tracks. I know that if I look after cows’ feet the cows will look after me,” he says.

The health of the herd is evident from cell count readings. The Phillips family has won the First Milk regional milk award for north Pembrokeshire for the past two years. This award reflects cell count and bacteria levels and gives an overview of the general health of the cows.

Mr Phillips admits he is fussy in the parlour. He pre-sprays with iodine solution, wipes the teats and post-dips. He also foremilks cows for the first 100 days of lactation. “There is a certain level of bacteria in the teat after calving, even when there are no visible signs of infection,” he says.

One of the toughest issues he has to deal with on the farm is bovine TB he has lost many of his best cows to the disease and the farm has been subject to 60-day testing for the last three years.

Not only is he losing productive milking cows when stock are slaughtered, but 35 years worth of pedigree, too. For this reason he is very selective with replacements.

“We are careful where we get our replacements from. We always try to buy something that matches the quality of our cows. If we lose a good cow, we buy a good cow,” says Mr Phillips.

Some the replacements are home-produced, reared in hutches for the first 12 weeks where they are fed powdered milk and a mix of water and coarse mix. They then move to another shed where they are housed on straw in batches of six and their diet is a more mature blend to achieve the necessary liveweight gains. The target is to get these heifers calving at between two years and two years four months.

The Phillips’ best cow, sixth-calver Pedran Integrity Clover, has for the last four lactations scored EX96, producing 75t of milk.

With milk prices rising Mr Phillips admits it is tempting to push cows more. But with quality grass at the cornerstone of the system he says the increased costs of a high-input system, coupled with the risk to the cows’ health, keeps him focused on the system he has developed.

“If I wanted to get more out of the cows I would have to put more into them,” he says. “I am getting good results from a relatively low-cost system, and I am certain we would get more health problems in the herd if I pushed the cows harder.”