Producing highly nutritious, superior quality silage is part of the course for any dairy farmer, but it is imperative for the Willis family’s successful organic herd from Glasgoforest, which regularly produces rolling milk yields of 7500 to 8000 litres on a twice daily milking regime.

Regular winners in the North of Scotland Grassland Society’s annual silage competition, last year’s mixed May (middle of the month onwards was pretty wet in Aberdeenshire), saw the family – Anne and sons William and Angus – bag yet another supreme overall, despite key members being away on holiday!

And, with wet weather fast approaching, a concentrated effort by local contractors, Will Youngson of Youngson Auchronie Services ensured a winning first cut which analysed out at 30% DM with an ME of 11.6MJ per kg of dry matter and protein levels of 129g per kg of DM. The intake factor was 106.

This compares to the average pit silage in North of Scotland which produced an ME of 11.29, protein levels of 110.6 with intake and dry matter 28.1% and intake factor of 99.6? and 28.1%

“The season is so short up here so we always aim to maximise acres and produce the best quality first cut silage possible," said William, adding that Glasgoforest forages usually feed better than the analysis because there is so much clover in it.

“Over the last few year we have focused on extending the grazing season therefore reducing amount of silage required to feed the cows over the winter period allowing us to focus on producing high quality silage, which has allowed us to significantly reduce bought in winter feed costs."

The switch to block calving from April through to July, has also allowed the team to cut down on feed costs.

"Block calving is definitely more profitable as we've got a lot more time to concentrate on the things that matter at any particular time. Managing the herd is far easier too as we can feed them as one group, and, we only have two groups of heifers – in calf and maiden," added William.

By relying on that ‘spring flush of grass,’ when their cows are freshly calved enables the family’s 150-cow Holstein Friesian herd to produce 20 litres per cow per day from summer grazing, with anything yielding more than that, fed according to yield in the parlour at 0.4kg per litre per head. During the summer, this is made up of a 16% protein cake, while in the winter, the protein percentage goes up to 18%.

“We don’t buffer feed in the summer but being organic, we have to increase the nutritional value of our leys by incorporating more clover into the soils thereby increasing nitrogen levels which helps improve our silage crops and the quality of the grass being grazed.

Needless to say, they are unable to apply artificial fertilisers either, with only slurry used at 2000 to 2500 gallons per acre via an umbilical cord in March, with a similar amount applied immediately after first cut.

Last year's winning silage analysis was taken from 160acres of grass cut on May 24, with a Krone mover mower conditioner, which was then tedded out an hour later. The next day, local contractors had two self-propelled choppers, two rakes, eight trailers and two buckrakes in two pits going from nine in the morning and they were finished by 3.30pm.

"We arrived back only to see the contractors sheeting up!” grinned William.

There was no additive used this year either and the pits were sheeted with double black plastic and weighted down with a green cover and inside out lorry tyres on the side walls and tops, to weigh down the crop.

Key to organic production is good quality grass growth and the family is able to take advantage of this by block calving. So while cows are wintered inside in a big open cow shed with cubicles and mattresses, they do get access to old grazing ground when they have are been dried off – from March onwards depending on the weather.

During the dry period they are provided with average quality third cut round bale silage and old grass. Three weeks prior to calving, the diet is altered to include haylage, which has not received any slurry; 2kg of dry cow rolls and 100g of magnesium chloride flakes per cow per day. Cows are calved outside too which ensures a healthier cow and calf.

It’s a system which is certainly bearing fruit as first service is mid-July, which last year saw 42% of 140 head hold to AI, while 61% of the 80 AI’d at second service conceived and 67% of the third service batch of 31 held.

The first two services are with sexed semen too, with the third to British Blue bulls. Cows still showing heat after a third service run with a sweeper Beef Shorthorn or Hereford bull.

Resultant dairy heifer calves get access to starter pellets and straw from day one and are not weaned until 12 weeks of age, when they continue on the starter pellets and forages. They are introduced to a TMR at seven-months of age to allow them to calve at two years of age. Beef calves are sold privately at two to three week of age.

Relying more on forages not only helps to reduce concentrate costs, the family also believes it is important to have cows out at grass as much as possible, when 10% of their milk is sold on farm. Therefore, all are paddock grazed on 150-acres of high clover perennial ryegrass swards. Silage is introduced to the ration mid September when cows are still out at grass and can be grazed during the day right through to mid/end of November.

Being Aberdeenshire’s first organic dairy and organic natural yoghurt and re-useable glass scheme, the family sells 15% of their milk on farm through vending machines either as milk, yoghurt or ice-cream and a further 5% locally.

Yoghurts are hand-crafted on the family’s award-winning farm using their own milk and carefully selected bio live cultures. Non-homogenised, both the milk and the yoghurts will take you back to the ‘old days’ as a layer of fresh cream or whey, respectively appears between servings. Such has been the success of the business that the family has plans to introduce a range of their own home-made cheeses in the next couple months.

It's a busy family farm, which with Angus in charge of the day to day running of the processing side of the business along with assistance from employees Angie Shand and Agnes Lairg, has a long way to go before they rest on their laurels. Just watch this space ...

FARM facts:

Family business: Includes mother Anne, sons William and Angus.

Forages: Some 150acres grazing platform for milking cows and heifers at farm, with 130 acres away from home made up of 60 acres of arable silage – sown with spring barley and peas, under sown with red clover in April and harvested mid July, then three years of red clover and ryegrasses. A further 100acres of high sugar perennial ryegrass and white clover is also farmed away from home for making quality silage which is cut up to three times, depending on the weather.

Milking herd: 150 pedigree organic Holsteins Friesian producing rolling herd averages of 7500-8000 litres at 4.2%BF and 3.2%P with calving interval of 378 days.

Block calving: Mid April through to Late July; cows dry off from the end of February onwards and are allowed out to old silage lays from March onwards to calve outside from April onwards.

Milk contract: OMSCO, with 15% retailed either on farm as glass bottled milk; glass bottled yoghurt and ice-cream through on-farm vending machines or sold locally.

Best investment: Platemeter for measuring grass

Best advice: If you don’t measure you can’t manage

Biggest achievement: Winning Organic Milk Suppliers Co-op Farmer of the Year in 2017 and the Cream Awards UK Organic Dairy Farm of the Year in 2018

Most inspirational person in agriculture/farmer: Jim McLean – late long standing herdsman for more than 40 years, due to his positive attitude. He was always open to new ideas, challenges and loved his cows, irreplaceable.

Where do you want to be in 2030: On a road trip round New Zealand

Favourite restaurant/meal: Snapperfish from a street food restaurant in Bangkok but a bit more locally, Angels in Edinburgh, with bagpipes playing in the background!