There is no doubting dairy farming has become a multi-million pound industry supporting numerous businesses geared up to sell the latest hi-tech machinery, equipment and feed stuffs which in turn have helped bolster levels of efficiency and milk yields. But there is still a lot to be said for good stockmanship and attention to detail – at all times.
You only have to look at the Millar family’s 250-cow Holstein herd at Trailflat, Lochmaben, Dumfries, where milk yields and cow numbers have gradually improved over the years and now stand at 11,400litres at 4.2%BF and 3.3%P on a twice-daily milking regime. Somatic cell counts are consistently low at 90 and mastitis levels have dropped from 40 to an average of 25. 
It’s not just the stats from the milking herd – which boasts a calving index of 373 days – that are impressive though. Such is the care and attention to detail in all age groups, that calf mortality is especially low at 0.5% and heifers join the milking herd at just 22.5months. 
More notable however is the fact that the family, Keith and Irene and their two sons Donald and David, pretty much attend to all the work themselves and without the use of electronic identification devices, heat detection or in parlour milk testing. Instead, the business which won the AgriScot Dairy Farm of the Year honours in 2016, is built on good stockmanship, modern genetics, top quality home-grown forages and pure hard graft.
“Last year (2017) was our best ever but that was down to a number of factors to include the completion of a new cow shed with automatic curtains and LED lighting, good silage, modern genetics and attention to detail,” said Donald adding that the next step is to install a new parlour to replace the 40-year-old 14 x 14 herringbone, which at present means milking lasts four hours – morning and night.
Needless to say, cattle are completely naked of transponders or any other electronic devices, and are identified only by their ear tag or freeze brand. The milking herd is split been pregnant and non-pregnant cows with all fed the same total mixed ration (TMR) for maintenance +35litres to include top quality grass silage, maize meal, soya, dark grains, beet pulp, rolled wheat, fodder beet, megalac, draff and minerals. They also receive 1/2kg of an 18% protein concentrate in the parlour, purely to entice them in. 
Superior quality grass silage made from young leys has always proved key to producing high milk yields at Trailflat but, with the farm comprising 250 acres of which only 180 are ploughable, and a further 40 rented nearby, this means the Millars aim to take at least four cuts every year to ensure a sufficient amount is produced when cows are kept inside 24/7.
“We always look to produce the best quality silage we can from young grass leys. Normally, we would aim to take four cuts and while last year our first two cuts were great with dry matter levels of up to 35% with 77-78 D Value and ME of more than 12MJ/kg/DM, the third cut was not nearly as good with an 25%DM; ME of 11 and 68D Value. We also grow whole crop wheat, which is low in potassium and good for feeding to the dry cows,” said Donald who is also particular about the varieties of grass sown.
As it is, fields are reseeded every four years with the family selecting their own mixes to include late heading perennials and tetraploid varieties only without clover, from AgriVista. They also do a lot of soil sampling – every two years to ensure optimum levels of nutrition and grass growth. All slurry is analysed before being spread too, which has enabled nitrogen fertiliser requirements to be halved.
“Ten years ago, when we were still grazing cows outside and milking half the number of cows we do now, we were buying two loads of an NPK compound fertiliser. Now, we buy one load of urea only, but then we have applied a lot more lime depending on soil analysis and we’ve even seen the amount of lime required go down,” said Donald.
While a huge amount of care and attention is put into producing the best silage crops – with assistance from local contractors who are brought in to harvest the crop only – an equal amount of time and consideration is spent feeding it to boost intakes and save waste, with the TMR pushed up at least 11times a day which has been proven to increase dry matter intakes as cows have access to fresh feed on a regular basis.
Donald added: “We aim to maximise milk yields during the first part of the lactation by relying on good quality forages, which last year saw the herd average 37.5litres last summer, whereas this year that figure is nearer 34.5litres but then we haven’t calved as many in the spring compared to previous years.”
Instead, the business is looking to calve more in the summer, thereby producing more milk when national milk yields are on the slide, which in turn will hopefully ensure more of their milk attracts a higher price through Muller.
Outwith the increase of cow numbers and milk yields, fertility has also improved by culling those that fail to hold to AI at 200 days+ and by retaining more home-bred replacements that are calving that bit younger and bred from high genomic bulls.
“We have been using genomic sires for a number of years, and I do think their female progeny does better than the heifers bred from conventional sires,” said Donald. “We’ve also been genomic testing our heifers and serving up to 90% of them to sexed high genomic sires, which has helped increase the genetic potential of the herd at a faster rate compared to breeding replacements from the older cows.”
While most of the heifers and the very top end of the cows are served to sexed semen, from a mating programme, the remainder are AI’d with Aberdeen-Angus or British Blue semen. 
There’s a bit more to calving heifers at 22.5months than just genetics though and while the Millars do push their heifer calves from birth to optimise growth rates, there is no fancy electronic feeding machine. Instead, Irene looks to feed all new born calves their mother’s own cholostrum within the first half hour of being born and for the next two feeds, before going onto powdered milk. Kept in individual pens for the first two weeks, such calves are bucket fed and bedded with fresh straw twice a day before being batched into similar aged groups of five. Calf jackets are used when required and concentrates are introduced virtually from day one with weaning taking place at 10-12weeks of age. 
It’s at this stage that all British Blue cross Holstein calves are sold through Carlisle which recently has seen the bull calves sell at up to £505 per head at three months of age, while heifers of the same age were making £420. Aberdeen-Angus cross calves are sold at a younger age privately through Blade Farming.
Holstein heifers to be retained for breeding go on to an 18% protein feed which they are fed right up until calving.
In contrast, to most units that calve in straw-bedded courts, the Millars calve all cows and heifers on sand, which they believe the cows prefer and which has also helped to reduce mastitis levels. However, once calved, they then go into a straw-bedded pen until they join the remainder of the herd at the next milking.
They also dry off cows seven weeks pre calving instead of six. For the first three weeks, depending on the weather, they are dried off on the rougher hill ground at Trailflat, before coming inside for the final four where they introduced to a TMR comprising straw, whole crop wheat, third or fourth cut silage, water and a Bio-chlor pre-mix which has been shown to reduce the levels of milk fever and retained cleansings, which last year saw herd levels at 1% and 3% respectively. 
With few if any calving difficulties and infections, conception rates have also improved, with 37% cows holding to first service at 56days with the overall pregnancy rate standing at 28%. 
Mastitis levels have also improved since the family started taking extra care and attention in the parlour to strip out each teat to check for lumps in the milk before using an iodine spray and individual cloths to clean and dry each one before putting the clusters on.
Furthermore, instead of using sawdust to bed down the cubicles, envirobed paper bedding topped up with a further light dressing of a bio powder disinfectant is used.
Consistency is paramount at Trailflat so milking starts at 2.45am and 2.45pm every day with feeding taking place at the same time every day too. Water troughs are also tipped out on a regular basis to ensure a more constant supply of fresh water. All milking cattle regularly get their feet trimmed too by a contractor at 100 and 200days post calving and at drying off. 
Attention to detail indeed, and the Millars are not finished yet - despite being curtailed by the size of the farm at just 250acres.
Once they have installed a new parlour, they hope to introduce three times daily milking, which coupled with a few more dairy cows, will increase milk yields further.
So, who said there was no hope for the family-run farm? While the Millars are looking to invest in the most modern machinery and equipment to further improve levels of efficiency and output, they’ve also proved you can make a pretty good job without it…