It is hard to spend an hour in Anthony Wills’ company and not feel enthused about the future – he not only talks about exciting new plans – he is investing in them, here and now.
It is his drive, and that of his whole family, that has seen the family farm in Cornwall expand from a 20-cow herd in 1969 to 1000 pedigree Holsteins housed in a state-of-the-art unit now.
“Six generations of my family have farmed at Trevelver Farm near Rock – and I still live there now,” says Anthony. “We started milking in 1969 and built a new unit with 120 cubicles when I returned from school – my father always said that would set me up for life.”
Anthony’s brother Jim then got involved in the business and they gradually increased cow numbers to 200. In 1993 Jim and his wife Vicky bought Pawton Farm, Wadebridge, with 1000 acres of arable land, but no dairy.
“As the milk and grain prices dropped in the 1990s and with five of Jim’s and my children wanting to come home to work on the farm, we arrived at a crossroads,” says Anthony. “We were farming 2000 acres and with a big family it wasn’t profitable enough to continue. We either had to give up or take the plunge and expand.”
So, after three visits to the USA to study dairy farms, the brothers opted to install a Californian cubicle design to house 1000 milking cows throughout the year at Pawton Farm. Complete with a 60-point rotary parlour the unit was finished in 2004. “We based a lot of the design on what we saw in California,” says Anthony. “We were particularly impressed with the roominess and cow comfort of this design.”
Milking cows are split into four groups housed in two vast sheds measuring 132.6m x 30.5m (435ft x 100ft) each. Ample skylights and opening shutters mean the sheds are light and airy and a complete Canadian fan system will soon be installed to cool cows during summer.
A flushing water system is used to keep yards clean and a large sand cubicle and locking yoke is available for every cow, enabling easy and stress-free handling without the need for a separate race.
“The yokes are one of the most important facets of the whole dairy – we can lock every animal in, so all the clipping and vet work is done in situ, which is a lot less stressful for cows and easier for us.” Anthony’s son Robert handles all the scanning, pregnancy diagnosing and preparation for embryo transfers, saving considerable vet expense.
A separate footbathing area ensures healthy feet and a meticulous milking regime keeps mastitis and cell count problems to a minimum. “We pride ourselves in looking after cows well,” says Anthony. “We think prepping cows pre-milking is critical.” Eight Slovakian workers milk the cows three times a day using a New Zealand rotary deck and Baumatic parlour equipment.
One foremilks and pre-dips cows and leaves them for a minute to let their milk down. Another wipes teats, the next cups up one cow every three seconds and seven minutes later after milking teats are dipped again. “We think this regime is important for cow welfare, cell counts and mastitis control,” says Anthony. “On our volume of milk the bonuses in those two areas are huge and we cannot afford to lose that amount of money.”
The pedigree Holstein herd has a rolling average of 11,500 litres of milk sold – to Milk Link – with a cell count of 140, Bactoscan of 20, butterfat at 3.8% and protein of 3.35%. With year-round calving, the youngstock and dry cows are turned out on one of the three owned and rented farms.
Over the past two years the brothers have invested considerable resources into buying high quality cows to build both herd numbers and genetic quality. “A lot of people have laughed at the amount of money we’ve spent on cattle – but it’s a two-pronged approach,” says Anthony. “We want to improve our own cattle and develop another income stream from selling embryos, heifers and cows as they become surplus.”
Both Anthony’s sons – Robert and Matthew, who run the dairy – are interested in breeding and the family has bought top cows from some of the country’s leading herds, including Stardale Leader Roxy Ex95 and Roxette Faber Rachel VG89. “We’ve had a huge amount of interest in the progeny of these two cows already and have a good run of Shottle calves and heifers in the herd now.”
Robert flushes a nucleus of 60 cows every six weeks and is now starting to sell the first embryos and surplus heifers. But Anthony’s main ambition is to improve longevity and productivity of his own herd. “We want to make sure our herd is fit and healthy – and if they are bred, fed and housed properly the yield will come naturally. We produce milk for profit rather than vanity – which leads to cash, which is a reality.”
While Anthony refuses to divulge just how much his new unit cost, he is confident it is a good investment for the future. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t profitable. What we’ve done here is cost-effective, but it wouldn’t work for everyone. We needed a large unit for greater income and economies of scale – and it’s just not practical to milk 1000 cows three times a day unless they are kept indoors.”
Not content with running a profitable dairy, the Wills family also runs a large commercial partridge shoot, rents out part of the dairy office as a conference room and shows about 2000 visitors around the farm each year.
Anthony now wants to develop the farm’s infrastructure to further cut costs and possibly produce carbon-neutral milk. “We’re aiming to have a completely recyclable dairy – it’s amazing what we waste at the moment. If we could harness everything a cow produces it would be wonderful.”
The farm already produces all its own cereals and forage and recycles 3.5m gallons of rainwater a year to provide drinking water for all cows. Water from the dairy’s plate cooler is also used for drinking water or washing down.
All dirty water is collected and put through a separator – the liquids from which go through three settling lagoons before being used to flush the yards again.
The solids are composted using a £38,000 French composter, with half spread on the 749ha (1850 acres) of arable and pasture land and the other half about to be allocated as cubicle bedding. “We’re phasing out the sea sand bedding now and will use compost instead. It will save us £45,000 a year in sand and the savings on the wear of the machinery will be immense. The compost can then be recycled and used again.”
Anthony hopes to install an anaerobic digester over the next 18-24 months, which would generate electricity to be sold onto the National Grid, and heat, which would be used in the dairy. “The subsidies for renewable energy are looking quite attractive and we will go and have a look at some USA plants this year. We’re even looking at ways to clean the methane and use it for mains gas rather than convert it to electricity, which is an inefficient process.”
With further herd expansion looking likely – the parlour can cope with 2000 cows – Anthony is looking to invest up to £1m in a 1MW digester. “The greater the investment and the more cows we have, the bigger the output. We hope to be up and running by spring 2009,” he says.
“It’s a really exciting avenue, having a 2000 cow unit that produces two-to-three times more heat and electricity than it requires, as well as enough nutrients for all the crops. This is the only way we can be sustainable – and I think the future on a well run dairy is still looking optimistic.”