REARING REPLACEMENT heifers can be costly and time consuming and not for everyone, particularly when there are constraints on labour, housing and acreage.
This is the case for Tim and his father Frank Juckes of Tredington House, Tewkesbury, who for the past 30 years has been running a flying herd. “Any available space is taken up by increasing the herd, so it would be hard to justify the capacity or time required for rearing replacement heifers on farm,” explains Tim Juckes.
They bought two entire local herds in the last 18 months to push cow numbers up to 350 on the 75ha (185-acre) owned farm. And now even dry cows are taken off the farm to one of these dairy units. The farm”s owner returns them a couple of days after calving, keeping the calf as payment, explains Mr Juckes.
A Charolais and a Piedmontese bull run on the herd as well as using Belgian Blue semen inseminated by herdsman Phil Sadler. “This way bull costs are kept to a minimum and we can provide a quality calf in return for calving the cow,” says Mr Sadler.
Calving cows off-farm allows them to concentrate on the milking routine, leaving adequate time for general management issues such as foot trimming dry cows due to leave the farm to calve. “Two men can milk 280 in-milk cows in two hours in the 32:32 parlour,” he adds.
Mr Juckes also brings up to 60 heifer replacements into the herd each year. These have previously been sourced through a dealer, but have recently been found through word of mouth.
Supply is currently strong, particularly with many farms quitting dairying. Mr Juckes is not concerned heifers will be overpriced in the future as fewer become available.
“For years, industry insiders have warned of high prices and shortages of heifers, but as we have seen in the past, prices hit 900-1000 and producers buy from Holland and the price at home comes down. This is likely to be the same in the future,” he believes.
Heifers or second calvers of any breed are purchased, providing they will milk well, for a cost of between 550 and 750. “The beauty of the second calver is that she settles into the milking routine quickly with limited stress. However, the heifer does give you that extra year in the herd.
“For ease of management we are prepared to pay more for cubicle trained heifers, as they tend to have harder feet than those reared on loose straw yards,” he adds. Currently, 200 cows are run in cubicles with 80 in a yard, but there are further plans to convert yards into cubicle housing which will also allow for an expansion in cow numbers.
Although breed is not necessarily a determining factor in the heifers bought, Mr Sadler prefers them to be of an average size rather than a Canadian Holstein or small Friesian style. “The Holstein does not provide you with longevity. But a smaller Friesian tends to be too small to fit with the rest of the herd as well as cope with a high protein based ration fed to all stock,” he says.
Concern over health issues, such as bovine viral diarrhoea, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis and leptospirosis may be on the minds of some producers thinking about flying herds, but the Tredington House herd has not suffered such complications.
“Even bringing so many in at various times of the year to suit a level milk profile, health problems have not arisen,” says Mr Juckes. Coupled with that, as cattle are brought in there is a constant level of resistance and immunity being built.
“Cows have to be bought in as and when the milk profile suggests and those giving less than 10 litres a day and pregnancy diagnosed negative are culled,” adds Mr Sadler. Most cows are providing a seven-year lifespan.
Supplying local milk processors Cotswold Dairy on a year round liquid milk contract is completely suited to a flying herd, he reckons. “This way we can expand the herd as and when our milk buyer requires.”
But Mr Juckes appreciates a flying herd is not for every farm situation, particularly for pedigree breeders who wish to keep a closed herd and are attached to certain family lines. “Some breeders spend their dairying life committed to breeding, so a flying herd would be out of the question.”