Few people would consider a complete turnaround from beef farming to dairy given the turbulent times the sector has faced in recent years, but it is one that has paid off for Alan and Kate Gamble, who are no looking to expand their 250 cow dairy herd.

Initially, when the couple took over the 440-acre tenancy of Palace Farm on the Lothian Estate, near Jedburgh in 2010, the plan was to develop their renowned herd of 60 pedigree Simmentals under the Farnell prefix as the unit operated a traditional mix of beef and cereal production. However, a combination of low cereal prices and wet inclement weather conditions, raised concerns over the long-term viability of the mixed enterprise.

“Despite the milk price challenges in 2013; we decided dairy farming provided a better long-term foundation for the business and, for our family,” says Alan.

“We sat down and did our own costings and business plan. The farm could grow good quality grass, especially clover and slowly but surely, we began to realise that dairy production offered a fresh challenge and this would result in a change of business direction."

Palace Farm had a range of traditional facilities and an existing wide-span building that was converted to house the dairy herd. The Gamble’s wanted the flexibility offered by a robotic milking system and this would allow the pair to run the arable enterprise as well as, the heifer-rearing side of the business.

The Gamble’s installed a Lely robotic milking system at one end of the widespan building and constructed an adjoining building to house the milk tank.

Admittedly, Alan had previous experience of dairy farming and technical support and pointed out that the robot’s computerised data monitoring has proven invaluable.

“The system monitors and constantly provides data on milk yield and this helps identify any signs of cows coming into heat or on-coming health concerns. The cows adapted to the system extremely well, especially heifers, and cows get robotically milked three times per day on average."

The Gamble’s initially purchased 55 fresh cows and 10 in-calf heifers from Ireland as well as, 12 in-calf heifers from Holland and started milk production at the end of May 2013. The dairy herd was fed through a Keenan Mech-Fibre 300 mixer-wagon, that had originally been purchased in 2010 for the beef herd, and the Gambles were delighted with the results.

After milking 70 cows for three years, and buoyed by increasing milk price, the pair decided to further expand the dairy unit and increase the herd to 130 cows. On this occasion, Alan visited Holland to purchase additional animals and another existing building was converted to house a second robotic milking system in December 2016.

The herd’s expansion also resulted in the decision to purchase a new Keenan Vertical feeder wagon incorporating state-of-the-art In-Touch technology.

Alan explained: “We had outgrown the existing Keenan 300 in terms of capacity and the larger vertical feeder saves a lot of time and money. We make 1900 round bales of silage per year and the vertical system is ideal for our needs. We mix and blend the ration on a once per day basis with the herd being fed a TMR ration twice-daily.

“Keenan’s In-Touch technology has proven to be a huge asset with our ration and feeding regime with the results being constantly monitored over the internet. Adjustments to the diet and ration consistency is imperative to maintaining high yields and quality milk components. We’re delighted with the new vertical mixer-wagon and mixing the silage, blend and straw for the herd only takes 20 minutes.”

Unbeknown at the time to Alan and Kate, the pair had the first commissioned Keenan Vertical feeder in the UK. The results have been encouraging to date. Feed Conversion Efficiency subsequently increased from O.94 to 1.25 and when the herd went out to grass feed costs reduced from 15.66ppl to 10.37ppl. Meanwhile, milk production increased from 21.9 to 23.7 litres with components slightly increasing to 4.32%BF and 3.51%P.

The herd is fed concentrates via a specialist robot-blend as well as a separate wagon-blend supplied by Roadhead Farm Feeds.

Kate added: “We have a separate blend for dairy cows being fed through the robot to prevent any system blockages. We aim to keep our ration simplistic with cows receiving grass silage; bruised barley, beet pulp and distiller’s grains.

“We make our own silage with first-cut generally taken mid May. We aim for three cuts on 110 acres with two-cuts of 40 acres on the new seeded grassland. By doing the work ourselves, we have greater flexibility and the operations are carried-out when the grass and land conditions are correct. For our system, it’s essential that our forage and ration formulation is the best we can achieve.”

Alan and Kate have now set new targets and are aiming to complete conversion to organic milk production in January 2018. Milk is supplied to Graham’s Dairy and organic milk production is expected to realise a premium price of approximately 40ppl. The pair’s long-term business plan is to construct a purpose-built facility for 250 cows incorporating four robotic milking stations and averaging 8500litres.

“The past few years have demonstrated that we can operate a successful dairy unit on the farm,” says Alan. “A few years ago, a husband and wife team may have had difficulty solely operating on their own. However, with modern feeding advances via Keenan’s In-Touch technology combined with robotic milking systems, we have the confidence to further increase herd numbers to 250 head.”