When the judging panel met this year’s Dairy Farmer of the Year finalists at the start of June, innovation, drive, passion and a love of cows defined each of them. And those qualities still shine through despite the fallout from recent milk price cuts. Gemma Mackenzie reports on the farmers whose excellence and diversity epitomises the spirit of the British dairy industry

Thomas Steele
Rowreagh Farm, County Down

Dairy farm management is no longer reliant on a pen and paper approach, and computerised technology is now paving the way in modern dairy farming, as Thomas Steele has shown.

A firm believer in making the best use of the technology available to him, together with his father and brother, he has developed a technology-led dairy farming system for his herd of 400 high-yielding Holstein Friesian cows.

And following a series of investments in the past few years, including new housing, a 60-point rotary parlour and innovative dairy farm management software, this Northern Irish system is certainly paying its way with a profit before drawings of 6p/litre.

In fact, this DARD Focus Farm has been designed with future expansion plans in mind – the family want to reach the 500-cow mark – and scope for add-ons, including a special foot-trimming crush area beside the parlour.

And the real crème de la crème in this system is the AfiMilk computerised farm software, probably the first of its kind in the UK and Ireland, originally developed in Israel. Using cow pedometers, it would seem there isn’t much this system can’t detect.

Cows are mobility scored using a weigh scale as they leave the parlour, and conductivity is assessed during milking to allow early detection of E coli mastitis. What’s more, the information gathered allows the Steeles to feed each cow to her individual needs.

Thomas explains: “Cows are fed by yield, days in milk and weight.” He says the use of this technology has enabled him to use the information gathered to identify any problems early.

None of this would work without close collaboration with the nutritionist who comes every six weeks and vet who visits fortnightly. High herd health is a top priority and a comprehensive health plan is in place covering all aspects of cow management from routine vaccinations to screening for diseases.

When it comes to breeding, Thomas is looking to breed type into his herd; desired traits include good milk production and strong feet, legs and udders. All AI work is carried out by farm staff, after the farm management system picks up on bulling cows; thereafter it provides conception rates for different bulls.

The cows are split into two groups – high and low yielders – with the high-yielding cows (more than 30 litres a cow) housed all year round, and the low yielders grazed outside from February until October.

And making the most from grass is a key philosophy of the Steele family, whose herd averages 4,330 litres from forage out of the 10,555-litre herd average. And to achieve this the family aims to produce enough good-quality first-cut grass and maize silage to feed the high yielders all year round.

To reduce the impact of farming on the landscape, 12ha of the farm is set aside as part of a Countryside Management Scheme. In addition, all roof water is recycled for use in washing down the parlour and a heat recovery system has been put in place.

The family farm is also heavily involved in the community – more than 1,000 farmers have visited the farm as part of the Focus Farm project, and after-school clubs visit along with pupils from the local secondary school on work experience and vet students from the Edinburgh Vet School.

When he isn’t busy playing dad to his three children and being dairy farmer, he’s studying business development in Agri-Food Msc at Ulster University Jordanstown or taking part in discussions with Lakeland Dairies producer committee.

A word from our sponsors

marks-and-spencer-logoDairyCo is delighted to be able to sponsor this award once again. This is a great opportunity for dairy farmers to show they are proud of what they do and get the recognition they deserve for investing in their future and the future of dairy farming.”

Hugh Black, DairyCo

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Meet the other 2012 finalists

Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details on how to books tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash