Six top dairy farmers are in the frame for this year’s NMR/RABDF Gold Cup and each are in with a chance of winning this top award with all demonstrating excellence in herd management

  • David and Jane Homer, Marlborough, Wiltshire

A well-known couple in the dairy sector, David and Jane Homer are tenant farmers based at Marlborough, Wiltshire, and run a high-yielding herd of Holsteins, which averages in excess of 10,000 litres.

But this isn’t a herd immune to grazed grass and cows spend most of the year at grass, resulting in a £65-a-year saving on ration costs. Alongside this, strategic use of white clover and slurry injection has resulted in a 40% saving on artificial N fertiliser use.

Current breeding goals are focussed around longevity traits, with the couple looking to increase the number of lactations per cow. Sexed semen is also being used on maiden heifers to increase heifer numbers as a second tenancy is being taken on to increase herd size and allow diversification into beef production.

Herd records are also crucial and David was one of the early adopters of InterHerd and believes it is an invaluable tool when managing herd health.

  • Andrew Guilding, Bridgewater, Somerset

As farm manager for F H Hill and Son’s herd of 200 cows which average more than 10,500 litres and with 30 years of herd management behind him Andrew Guilding is adamant of the need for herd management to be a team approach.

Input from the farm’s vet, nutritionist and consultant are all valued with communication between these specialists and Mr Guilding and the herdsman viewed as paramount to the successful management of the herd. The herd is housed year round and fed a TMR for maintenance plus 40 litres.

When it comes to breeding, Andrew is aiming for a less extreme type with Dutch genetics favoured, the aim being to consolidate and improve efficiency and productivity before expanding the herd further. Plans for the future also include a new parlour.

  • Ian and Joyce McLean, Bushmills, Co Antrim

A second successive year in the final six is the reward for Ian and Joyce McLean’s high quality management of their herd at Bushmills, Co Antrim.

Cows in the herd are bred for type, with the aim being to produce large, tall cows with ET work being used to develop cow families within the herd. Recently the couple, who manage the herd with Mr McLean’s father John and help from their three children, have invested in an automatic cluster-flushing system in the parlour and this has helped slash SCC levels to an all-time low of 60,000 cells/ml.

The calving age for heifers has also been reduced, with all heifers now calving at 24 months – the next aim being to get them calved between 21 and 22 months old. This has been achieved as a result of changes to calf and heifer feeding. The calving interval has also been reduced in recent months, since the introduction of Heattime, a heat-detection aid. This has cut 36 days off the calving interval and the target is to take another 30 days off the current 401-day interval in the next 12 months.

The farm also has a continued focus on environmental stewardship, with 1100m of hedgerow renovated in recent years and a futher 400m of new hedge planted.

  • Stephen Bendall, Marksbury, Bath

Another second time finalist, Stephen Bendall last made the top six of the competition in 2005, since then herd management has undergone a significant change with the herd now milked through a voluntary milking system – robotic milking.

This, Mr Bendall believes will result in several main benefits, most importantly freeing up his time to actively manage the herd and the business. The move was also spurred by continual problems finding milking staff.

The switch to voluntary milking should also enable yields to be steadily increased with the aim to reach about 11,000 litres as cows are milked more frequently.

On the breeding side, Stephen is aiming to produce more robust cows by selecting for both type and yield and he admits to wanting the best of both worlds – lots of milk over several lactations. With the farm run with help from Stephen’s father, brother and nephew, Stephen is keen to ensure a return on the VMS investment and says he will continue to tweak management to maximise herd and business efficiency.

  • Geoff Spence, Northallerton, Yorkshire

As a former Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year Geoff Spence is no stranger to the limelight and has worked hard in recent years to ensure his 370-cow herd is being managed at the highest level of both efficiency and productivity with welfare also a key consideration.

Cows currently yield an average of 10,400 litres with recent changes to cow accomodation held accountable for improvements in cow health and productivity. New buildings have seen cows switch from straw bedding to sand cubicles with a resultant drop in mastitis cases from 46 cases for every 100 cows, to 7.7 cases for every 100 cows. Cell counts now stand at an average of 135,000 cells/ml.

Milk from the herd is sold to Arla on an Asda contract and the herd is now twice the size it was 10 years ago. On the feeding front, cows are fed with out-of-parlour feeders and a TMR – a system which has seen a 30% lift in yields.

  • Tom King, Dorchester, Dorset

Year-round calving is the key to maximising income for the Tom King, who runs a 120ha farm at Martinstown, Dorset, in partnership with his father Alan. Like many producers, Tom is firmly fixed on achieving the best possible milk price and all-year calving leads to a level production which is ideal for the farm’s Sainsbury’s liquid contract.

The herd is also milked three times a day as aid to maximising production, a practice which has resulted in a 1500kg jump in yields with the herd average, with the 200 cows averaging 11,134kg in the year ending September 2008. With herd health an obvious priority in developing high yields, Tom switched the cows to sand cubicles five years ago. This results in a halving of SCCs, with the herd currently averaging 68,000cells/ml.

Breeding is also targetted at these production and health goals, with any bulls negative for lifespann, positive for cell count or below -6 for fertility avoided. Proven sires with reliability are favoured over new kids on the block too. The aim is to produce hassle-free cows capable of producing at least 50t of milk, the level Tom considers to be the minimum for a cow to pay her way in the herd.

Click here for more on the Dairy Event and Livestock Show 2009