The average age of farmers in the UK might well be just shy of 60 years, but it is the younger generation who often have the business acumen to take the family farm to the next level – a gift AgriScot Dairy Farmer of the Year, David McMiken, has certainly inherited.

As one of the youngest recipients of the award, David studied automotive engineering at university, but was always keen to get back to the family dairy farm at Ernespie, Castle Douglas.

Some 16 years later and with government and EU assistance, not only has David established a new feed store and silage clamp (2006), but also a modern all-in-one cow shed (2012) and another covered silage clamp in 2015. Combined these have enabled the business to increase cow numbers and feed more home-grown forages.

The new unit comprises 280 spacious cubicles and mattresses, a 20 x 40 herringbone parlour and additional penning area to house 30-40 freshly calved cows on straw-bedded courts. It also allowed for straights to be bought in and mixed on farm, while youngstock are reared in the old dairy shed.

“I always wanted to come home and have a good dairy farm and mum and dad have been great, encouraging me all the way,” said David. “I joined a local farmers discussion group, where we all bandied ideas off one another and found out what was likely to work and what wasn’t, but it was mum and dad who inspired me most."

Such have been the improvements in cow comfort in the new shed at Ernespie that milk yields have increased by 1500 litres per cow to 11,096 litres at 4.32% BF and 3.44% P on a twice daily milking regime.

Foot problems and lameness have been reduced, with a Lely discovery robotic slat scraper credited with keeping the slats and cows cleaner. All slurry is stored underneath the shed, which has holding capacity for 900,000 gallons.

“I always wanted an open-plan cow shed with plenty of room for cows to lie down in and on mattresses. Cows are so much happier and contented in a big open shed and they’re giving more milk. They’re also lasting longer – I’ll get at least four lactations out of them,” said David.

He added that all cows are home-bred with the only new genetics introduced being the result of bought in frozen embryos from top cow families either from this country or Canada.

Those embryo purchases and sire selection means that the Ernespie herd currently boasts 32 Ex-classified cows and 102 VGs.

Since David returned in 2003, not only have cow yields increased but so too have cow numbers with the result being, that the total amount of milk sold from Ernespie on an annual basis has doubled. That is sold through Arla, of which David is a board representative.

He takes his role seriously and was one of the members to implement the decision to ban euthanasia of dairy bull calves under eight weeks of age from January, 2021, onwards.

“Dairy farmers are under attack in Europe and the UK and a lot of this is based on misconceptions about what goes on in farming. Arla is working hard to clean up the image of farming and tackling those misconceptions and banning euthanasia is one of the many steps we are taking. We have to rigorously defend our industry,” said David.

It’s a requirement the farm has adhered to for the past 18 months making increased use of sexed semen, which now accounts for 40% of herd pregnancies. However, in doing that, conception rates have dipped slightly, though he has just installed Cow Alert ankle transponders, which should help improve heat detection and hopefully improve 100 day in-calf rates which have slipped to 67%.

First service is at 50 days, with sexed semen which usually results in a 28% conception compared to just under 50% with conventional semen. However, it is a policy David feels he must persevere with when the industry is under attack.

On the plus side, by relying more on sexed semen, he has more heifers and most years he has 60 heifers to sell either privately as maiden, in-calf or freshly calved heifers, or sold fresh through Carlisle.

After 100 days, cows are AI’d to a Simmental to produce replacement females for the farm’s neighbouring suckler herd, or to an Aberdeen-Angus or British Blue for finishing. All maiden Holstein heifers are AI’d to sexed semen with the average age at first calving being 25.5 months.

“Most of the sires used are from Worldwide Sires and selected for their fertility and PLI index. About 80% of sires are genomic tested and we aim to start recording our heifers,” added David.

Some of the sires that have left an impression in the past include Shottle, Talent, Silver, Goodwhone and Numero Uno. Semen in the tank at present includes that of King Doc, Batman, Alcove and Sidekick.

One of the biggest differences at Ernespie compared to more traditional units is the fact that care is taken to ensure that all new-born calves are provided with the best quality colostrum and that they receive four litres within the first three hours of birth. But rather than being fed their own mother’s colostrum, calves are fed pasteurised colostrum from the freezer.

David added: “We always check the quality of the colostrum from each cow and only the best quality colostrum is pasteurised and frozen for future use. It’s made a huge difference to the health of new-borns here because they get the right antibodies at the right time, which enables them to stay healthier throughout their life.”

After two four-litre feeds of colostrum, calves then go on to powdered milk replacers and after a couple of days are moved into group pens where they are fed via an automatic calf feeder, with access to calf starter pellets and haylage. They are weaned at 45 days and then calf concentrate feeds are stepped up.

In contrast to many high yielding herds at present, Ernespie cows are out at grass during the day in summer and when weather permits – another policy David feels is important, especially when the farm is now open to the public via its successful cafe and farm shop.

They are, though, in every night which enables more control over the diet. “Cows are always more difficult to manage when they are out at grass but by buffer feeding at night in the shed we are able to keep better control of fertility and any underlying health problems,” he argued.

Cows are split into high and low yielders, with the former fed for maintenance plus 32 litres and the latter for maintenance plus 27 litres. They are also fed in the parlour according to yield and weighed every time they go out of the parlour. “It’s amazing how much weight some cows will put on and how much extra milk they’ll give being out on fresh re-seeded grass."

Home-grown forages are used as much as possible, with three cuts of high dry matter silage taken every year. In addition, the farm grows winter wheat which last year for the first time was treated with Maxammon and oats for whole crop, to increase the diversity of the diet.

Such was the success of the Maxammon wheat treatment trial, that not only did the protein level of the grain improve, it also increased the pH to 9.3 which enabled higher quantities of it to be fed without risk of acidosis. It also enabled safer storage of the grain – it is not easy to consistently harvest grain below 20% moisture in South-west Scotland!

Ernespie employs a compact feeding system that involves soaking the dry concentrates overnight to increase the palatability of the feed and prevent sorting of the ration. High yielding cows are fed a ration of 2kg molasses, 20kg water, 8kg premix (home-made consisting of soya, dark grains, SBP, rapemeal and rolled wheat), 6kg Maxammon wheat, 2kg soda wheat, 14kg silage, 8kg wholecrop and 2kg straw.

With dairyman Brian Kerr and stock and tractormen, Mick Taylor and William Moreland, the business is also able to do the majority of its own field work. This includes owning a self-propelled forager which allows them to make consistently good forage. Some equipment is also owned in partnership with neighbours.

Cows are dried off at 45 days using selective dry cow therapy and depending on the time of year, are either left outside in an old grass paddock for the first two weeks and then brought inside for the last three weeks to a ration of straw, wholecrop and a small amount of silage and dry cow nuts. Cows going dry in the winter are fed the same dry cow ration during the entire 45 days.

Un-phased by that huge financial commitment involved in the new cow shed and feed unit, David and his partner, Rebecca Queen, have also diversified the business to incorporate a farm shop, café and soft play area, with a garden centre also in the process of construction.

Opened in July, 2019, it is already proving hugely popular with in excess of 40,000 visitors through the gates. It does, however, involve huge staff numbers with business now employing in excess of 29 staff.

With a modern, productive dairy unit and an ideal visitor attraction in a prime location just off the A75 in South-west Scotland, there appears to be no stopping David. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but you can bet your bottom dollar it will be done right and to the best of his ability.

FARM facts

• Business: David McMiken, his partner Rebecca Queen, and David’s parents, Brian and Jane McMiken.

• Dairy: Ernespie totals 500 acres of which 300 are owned and another 200 rented. The family also farm a 280-acre beef unit nearby with 50 home-bred suckler cows, which finishes all beef calves from the dairy, any Holstein bulls and beef calves.

• Milk contract: Arla 360. David is also on Arla board and NFUS milk committee.

• Herd: Closed herd of 290 pedigree Holsteins milked on twice daily milking regime to produce rolling average yields of 11,096 litres at 4.32% BF and 3.44% P with a calving interval of 393 days.

• Up to 40% of dairy cows and heifer pregnancies are sexed with the remainder AI’d to beef bulls to include Simmentals to breed home-bred suckler cow replacements for beef farm and Aberdeen-Angus. A further 60 heifers sold either privately or through Borderway Mart, Carlisle. Heifers calve on average at 25.5 months.

• Crop rotation: 50 acres of spring oats and 100 acres of winter wheat which is Maxammon treated and used in the dairy diet; two years of spring oats for whole crop followed by four or five years of perennial ryegrass and clover mixed swards.

• Hobbies: Cow families and introducing new genetics through the purchase of frozen embryos from leading cow families in the UK, Canada and America. Curling and amateur dramatics having appeared in many musicals, to include lead roles in Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, The Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and Eddie in Blood Brothers last year.

ON THE spot

• Future of dairy farming? “Extremely positive, there is currently an increase in global demand for dairy products and we are in one of the best climates in the world to produce milk to supply the market.”

• Where do you want to be in 2030? “Driving forward with a sustainable business both financially and environmentally. Delighted with the number of visitors to the farm shop, soft play area and café, that we are already in the process of constructing a garden centre on site."

• Best investment: “New cow shed with cubicles for 280 cows and additional larger straw-bedded pens, along with 20 x 40 herringbone parlour all under the one roof.”

• Best advice: “Don’t get hung up trying to master certain aspects of the business. Strive to be the best in all sectors through attention to detail at all times.”

• Most inspirational person in farming: "Father, Brian McMiken."