As this is my first go at writing this feature, I think I should start by giving a brief overview of who we are and what we are about ...

I farm in partnership with my wife Joyce and daughter Carolyn at Nether Affleck which is in the Clyde Valley within sight of Lanark, sitting around 700ft above sea level on the north-facing bank of the river.

The Scottish Farmer: Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124257 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124257 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

The farm extends to just over 250 acres, all in grass – around 210 acres of that we would call our platform. It is reasonable medium loam soil, ploughable and cutable fields, and all within walking distance of the steading for dairy cows. The remaining 40 acres is steeper and much heavier, and only suitable for grazing young stock and dry stock.

We are currently milking around 250 cows, operating a back-end block calving system. The target of calving is October 1, with a view to be calved up by the turn of the year. Our philosophy is to milk cows fairly well through the winter months and try to have them all in-calf before they go out to grass, hopefully in early April. Once at grass they are rotationally grazed and supplementation is steadily cut through the summer to match their declining milk yields heading to drying off.

The Scottish Farmer: Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124264 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124264 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

I am a massive fan of block calving – dealing with one job at a time it keeps us sharp and focused. For the first half of the winter, it is all about getting cows safely calved and settled into milking, as well as giving calves the best possible start to life. For the second half of the winter, the focus is entirely on getting cows back in calf as quickly as possible. The summer months are more relaxed and are primarily about managing grass effectively and trying to make good silage to fuel the system.

I often think we have a kind of split personality. For the winter months we think and act like a housed high yielder, feeding a total mixed ration and trying to get cows to peak as high as possible. But for the summer months we switch to thinking like a spring block calver, focused very much on grazing intensity and grass utilisation.

I believe autumn calving gives the opportunity to get the best of both worlds. However, it does require a strong focus on technical efficiency and cost control, since we have both the in-built costs of the housing infrastructure and feeding equipment of a high yielder, and also all the tracks and water trough infrastructure of a spring calver.

The Scottish Farmer: Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124266 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124266 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

One very significant benefit of block calving is the simplicity of managing calves and young stock. It is so much easier to manage only one batch of replacement heifers each year, all born within a month of each other. Also, facilities are rested and calves go through the system so quickly that there is less build-up of the kind of calf bugs that seem to plague all-year-round calvers.

We try to breed a middle-of-the-road cow that can perform in both the housed and grazing environments. For many years, we worked a two-way cross-breeding policy with dual-purpose type genetics, mostly Montbeliarde and Norwegian Red. The back cross was predominantly with New Zealand black-and-white genetics, but there is also a smattering of British Friesian and Holstein blood in the herd. This might sound like a proper mixed bag, but by continually crossing back and forth looking for the middle ground, it is surprising how consistent the herd is.

The aim is to breed a robust, mid-size cow that gives a reasonable yield, grazes aggressively, gives us very few problems and, most importantly, gets in-calf easily. We have consistently been working with a replacement rate around 25%, with single-figure deaths per year, so cows are generally lasting. Our calving block has been becoming tighter so hopefully fertility is heading the right way. The fact that all our replacements come from the first cows calving in the block each year should also helps to self-select for fertility.

In recent years, we have trended towards using all black-and-white genetics. Rationale is looking for maybe a few more litres of milk and possibly thinking that the dairy genetics industry has a better handle on indices on longevity and fertility traits than perhaps it once had. That may be folly, and if I feel we are starting to lose some of the durability and vigour we have built up, I will have no qualms about going back to cross-breeding.

The Scottish Farmer: Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124251 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...Jim Baird from Nether Affleck farm Ref:RH230124251 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

We have been working the same farming system for a number of years now and I suppose we understand the areas we need to focus most on and what makes things tick. We are fairly maxed out in terms of carrying capacity, but, that said, everything is currently in reasonable balance. By that I mean our cow numbers relative to land availability and purchased inputs. Also, our shed space, slurry storage, milking times and milk tank capacity are all fairly optimised/full.

Our focus is therefore very much about making tweaks or improvements to the system that might allow us to make either a bit more, use less input, or preferably both.

A big driver of performance in our system is silage quality. Back-end calving cows eat a lot of silage and the perennial challenge is always to make enough but of the required potency. We make four cuts of around 100 acres a year. First cut will hopefully be early to mid-May, and subsequent cuts will be every five or six weeks thereafter. Our stocking rate is fairly high so to support that we buy in a good chunk of brewers’ grains and also hay. The draff is layered underneath the silage during ensiling, which gives us a consistent product to feed through the winter months. It is a bit extra work and hassle at pitting time, but it works really well feeding out.

Our target is to get 8000 litres per cow per year from a concentrate feed input of 1500kgs per cow. We have achieved this at times in the past, but it is a fair ask. Cows need to peak on average at around 33 litres, which needs silages to be tip-top and everything else to be going exceptionally well. It doesn’t look like this year is going to be of that vintage. We were caught by a thunder plump ahead of chopping third cut and silages in general don’t seem to be feeding out just as well as we would have hoped based on their analysis.

Cows this winter have peaked at just over 32 litres and currently our rolling 12-month numbers are 7870 litres of milk from around 1600kgs of concentrate. Milk from forage is a key performance indicator we focus on to assess our technical performance.

The numbers I’ve mentioned suggest a milk from forage of over 4500 litres/cow. This is a contentious number within our benchmarking discussion group, with a ‘healthy’ debate about where draff should sit I this calculation. My argument is that we buy draff as a forage replacer, at the price of a forage.

However, there is no doubt that it is a contributor to our technical efficiency and our milk from homegrown forage probably works out the best part of 1000 litres per cow less.

Ultimately, it is about what it costs to produce a litre of milk and I am reasonably content that our total purchased feeds per litre sits under 10p/litre.

I have mentioned benchmarking discussion groups and this is something that I have become quite heavily involved in. I have always been focused on the financial side of the business and working with spreadsheets and the likes. This led to me developing a programme for our discussion group to use for benchmarking.

Long story short, this has grown arms and legs and I am now involved in the benchmarking of six discussion groups covering around 60 dairy businesses. It is both a privilege, a responsibility and a huge learning experience to get such an insight into so many strong businesses. The benefits you can get from the camaraderie and challenge of a good discussion group cannot be overrated. This is an area I will hopefully draw from and expand upon in future articles.