AT a time when the UK milk price was crashing and many producers were making the difficult decision to leave the industry, you might think any potential producers looking to set up a new dairy enterprise on an existing beef and sheep unit had lost their marbles. 

But, with a great deal of careful planning when it comes to buildings, budgets and herd management, that is exactly what Jon McCosh did at Culter Haugh when he took charge of the family business back in April 2015.

The farm near Biggar has been in the McCosh family since the 1960s and formerly supported flocks of Texel and Blackface sheep as well as an Aberdeen-Angus cross suckler herd; but, after a spot of restructuring when Jonathan stepped up as a director (with his wife Eilidh and brother Ben also becoming directors after the remaining family members retired out of the business) he looked at other ways of turning a profit.

That way, funding permitting, was the dairy way, and so Jon, with assistance from Alan Stannett, of CARA Consultants, compiled a business plan prior to investing. This met with agreement at Graham’s Dairy, which would become the sole buyer of the milk produced, and work began on converting the existing sheds in to a functional dairy unit. 

Jon explained those initial steps: “We met with Robert Veitch, of Ve-Tech Concrete Ltd, to discuss the design and build of the new dairy shed. He has great knowledge and was versatile as changes were being made, enabling us to do exactly what we wanted. 

“For example, the water level under the shed was an issue when digging out the slurry reception pit, so we made it narrower and shallower to compensate against the water level. The costs we saved enabled us to clean up the design and install more cubicles.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Once the shed was up and running it was time to look at the finer details and the all-important milking herd. Danish Jersey Exports sourced high health, in-calf heifers from 15-20 farms which were delivered in five groups to found the Kingsbeck Jersey herd. This started with a batch of 86 in December 2015, and will end with the final delivery later this year so that the current herd of 160 milkers and 40 dry cows will increase to around 180 milking females.

“They’re all of great quality and backed by great genetics. We’ve produced stellar results with our first years’ heifer production, averaging 21kg per day at 6% BF and 3.9% P on 3.3 milkings per day with a second lactation target of 23.5kg at 5.7% BF and 3.85% P,” said Jon, who admits he takes an oversight role leaving dairy manager Jenny Ogg to it, with help from Ally Howitt and Robin Paterson.

“This first year we have averaged a bactoscan count of 12 and a somatic cell count of 83 which we’re more than happy with,” Jon pointed out, adding that the aims for the third lactation sit at 25kg per cow with a total yield of 800kg of solids per cow throughout the herd – as good a performance as any other Jersey herd in the country.

The Scottish Farmer:

As for the breeding, sexed Jersey semen is used on the top quarter of the herd – using proven and genomic sires picked for their frame, legs, fertility, udder, milk quality and quantity – followed by conventional Jersey semen, then any back in oestrus are covered by an on-site Limousin bull. The remainder of the herd is AI’d to British Blue bulls, with a sole buyer so far securing all the calves at a few weeks old. The target here, however, is to sell calves at three to four months for a better margin.

“We plan to breed more pedigree Jerseys than we need. We’ve already sold bulling heifers, in-calf heifers and in-calf cows, and hope to be able to offer more in the future. If we could find more of a market for pure Jersey calves then we would breed more, but it’s simply not cost effective as things stand” commented Jon.

It’s not just the strong genetics that have got this young herd to where it is, as a nutritional diet specially formulated for the Jerseys by Eoghan Mullery and Bryn Davies at ARN, coupled with a Lely robotic milking system and other recently introduced improvements have all played their part. 

The Scottish Farmer:

“We researched six or seven different types of milking robots and visited a few farms with Lely and another company as well as a few off our own back, but we concluded the Lely gives more freedom of movement and a more natural environment for the cows.”

“When you mimic a natural environment, or provide a more comfortable environment it results in more milk.” Jon pointed out, adding that the team is also looking at the nutritional status of soil and silage as “the final product is only as good as the parts that lead you there.”

“We’re on a real push to improve the nutritional value and growing value of the ground as in order to produce good grass and silage you need to look at the soil condition – the physical, chemical and biological status all need to be right,” Jon highlighted. 

“We are looking for approximately 25% air, 25% water, 5% humus and 45% mineral for the microbes to work properly. Knowing that we suffered from compaction, we bought an Aerworx aerator and were just about laughed at but it improved the soil quality and grass growth almost immediately – following the cold spring last year, we couldn’t get the grass grazed fast enough once it started growing.” 

As well as aerating, soil samples were sent off for analysis with results highlighting imbalances of calcium and magnesium, as well as potassium and sodium – of which the ideal ratio is 4:1 but one field came back at 0.8:1. 

Likewise, the ideal calcium to magnesium ratio is 68:12, but some of the worst fields at Culter Haugh were the complete opposite which, if left unchanged, could have led to the dreaded milk fever or staggers. 
“We have to pay tribute to the support Robert McCoull, from Glenside Group, has given us in modifying our fertiliser purchasing to best effect,” added Jon.

With better soil came better silage, and the first harvest of whole crop barley silage taken last year proved a huge success. Within the first two weeks of feeding, the herd’s butterfat content had increased by 0.3% to 5.7%, and then further increased to the current 6%. The grass silage is cut from a predominantly red clover crop but the team is still debating on the number of cuts to take. 

“If we need three cuts then we will take them; otherwise we’ll adjust our fertiliser application accordingly. We’re currently using 160 acres of grass and 50 acres of whole crop to feed the cows, and need to produce 1800 to 2000 tonnes of silage overall,” explained Jon, adding that the cows are thriving on the highly palatable red clover silage that has a metabolisable energy of 11.5 to 12MJ per kg DM and a protein content of 13g to 16g per kg DM.

“Jerseys are selective in their feeding, so if you give them good food they’ll give you great results. Using the Keenan PACE box and InTouch systems to give an accurate account of what’s going in to the cows, we’re getting feed conversion efficiency (FCE) of 1.6. Again, we’re delighted with the results that we’re getting – it’s not about maximum output but maximum efficiency,” he added.

The Scottish Farmer:

“To make the TMR we mix our silage with a custom blend made by Mole Valley for ARN. We are currently feeding 20kg grass silage – typically a mix of two pits to ensure old poorer quality silage is eaten – with 5kg whole crop silage as well as the custom blend.”

With the cows, shed, robots and diet all set, it was time to look at the finer details and how to further improve yields and constituent content. One of these improvers was the Lely Juno, a feed pusher that travels the length of the double-sided feed passage every hour and reduces wastage. This addition alone paid for itself in six-and-a-half months because the milk yield increased by 0.75kg milk per cow.

Another improvement to be implemented this year is the introduction of split lighting. This will see cows given 16 to 18 hours of 200 lux light during the day reduced to 50 lux for the remaining night-time hours. The dry cow shed will have opposite daylight hours to give a seasonal difference.

Jon reasoned: “It’s thought this will boost the milk yield by 10% to 12%, and so we hope that this will pay back the installation costs within six to eight months.”

As well as the young dairy enterprise taking off, there are two flocks of sheep to tend for as the hill ground supports a 1600-strong flock of Blackface ewes while the lower land is home to 1500 commercial ewes, mostly cross-bred Texel, Scotch Mule and Lleyn. Added to the other enterprises within the business and it gives Jon plenty to work on. 

It’s Jon’s ability to take a step back, assess the pros and cons of each option, as well as the financial outcome, that has allowed such swift progress at Culter Haugh and as the cogs in his brain keep turning, there’s no doubt that in the future you’ll be hearing a lot about Kingsbeck Jerseys.