A 10-year plan to modernise a dairy unit in Northumberland based on cow health and welfare, has not only resulted in some massive improvements in cow comfort and production but also overall efficiency.

The Neill family from Thornington, milk 320 British Friesian cows and now run an all-year round calving herd that currently averages 27-litres per day with an all-feeds diet cost over the winter months of £3.02 per-head-per-day. Overall feed costs work out at 11.20ppl with a margin over purchased feed of 22.50ppl, based on a 12-month rolling milk price of 31.1ppl.

However, such margins have only been achievable in more recent years.

Having moved to Northumberland from Kilmarnock with a small herd of Ayrshire cows in 1954, it has only been in the past decade, when Tom Neill took charge of the dairy, that levels of efficiency have stepped up a gear.

Still a family run enterprise, Tom and his younger brother David are involved in the daily running of the farm with their parents, George and Mary, still resident on the farm. The business extends to some 2700 acres in total, part owned and part-rented, and also incorporates a beef fattening system; an 1800-ewe flock and employs six full-time staff members.

In all, the family milk 320 British Friesian cows averaging 7900kg milk at 4.26%BF and 3.5%P with a 366-day calving interval. The dairy business is structured to capitalise on the dual aspects of milk production with male Friesian calves finished on farm

“We are currently using 100% British Friesian sires as well as terminal beef bulls such as Limousin and Herefords, " said Tom.

"We’re conscious of increasing dairy cow stature and cow size within the herd and we aim to breed for a trouble-free cow with high fertility; a cow that’s able to graze grass efficiently and importantly, reproduce a calf every 365-days."

Tom added: “We place strong emphasis on animal health and welfare throughout the whole herd as well as our replacement young stock and followers. Close-up calving cows are kept separate on well-bedded straw pens and then moved into straw-bedded calving pens. Post-calving, all cows and heifers are kept in a large straw-bedded yard, located in a separate building for up to 45-days. We want the cows to be healthy, comfortable and stress-free.”

Cows are milked twice a day through a 28:28 fully-automated De Laval herringbone parlour with all cows electronically identified (EID) and recorded at every milking. The cows are subsequently fed to yield on an automatic-basis. EID monitors and identifies any reduction in milk yield and milk quality, and flags-up any health concerns. Herd fertility; animal health and sire matings are also computer recorded.

Milk is supplied to Arla on the recently introduced Arla 360 programme. The scheme was introduced last year and Thornington is one of only 26 farms aligned to Aldi. As part of the contract, animal health and welfare feature as part of the Arla 360 requirement. The farm has two bulk tanks with a 14,500litre capacity in total and milk is lifted every other day.

A collective decision to undertake a process of investment began in 2012, when their cow accommodation consisted of 128 wooden cow-kennels. Now, however, the business has a new wide-span steel building for with cow comfort at the forefront of design and able to accommodate 140 cows. The new south-facing building is light and airy and the central feed-passage divides cows between high yielding and late lactation groups. An electric lighting system ensures 16hours of daylight and 8hours of darkness.

The 140 cubicles have comfortable rubber mattress bedding. Cows are bedded every day with clean, dry sawdust and lime, to help prevent mastitis and build-up of bacteria. Cows also have access to crystal-clear water at all times due to rotating water-troughs being cleaned and emptied on a daily-basis. The building incorporates a slatted-floor and has underground slurry capacity for a full-winter.

The new state-of-the-art milking parlour was installed in 2015 as part of an existing farm building that adjoins the cubicle house and straw bedded area for fresh milking cows. Staff comfort was another consideration with the parlour-floor having comfortable under-foot thick rubber-foam matting. The herd is milked twice per day with an early morning 4.30am start and 2.30pm afternoon milking with everything being washed-down and wrapped-up by 5pm.

Attention to detail pays dividends right across the various enterprises on the farm according to Tom.

“We place strong emphasis on animal health and welfare throughout the whole herd as well as replacement heifers and followers. Mole Valley Feeds Nutritionist Julian Hall body-scores the cows every month; undertakes herd costings, rations the dry cows and checks lactating cow diets.

“The company also supply young stock minerals and dry cow minerals. It’s essential to have cows bred back early to achieve a near 365-day calving interval and herd health and fertility are important. We want cows to calve-down easily; not suffer from milk-fever, metabolic disorders and retained-cleansings, and start to cycle early for insemination after 45-days.

“The central feed passage incorporates locking-yokes and this makes routine veterinarian work and insemination easier, and reduces stress on the animals and staff. Calf-rearing is another area of importance. A healthy trouble-free start to a calf’s life is imperative and we use incorporated OmniGen products such as Omi Smart calf milk replacer and Calf Starter Pellets to reduce antibiotic use in youngstock.”

Milking cows are fed a TMR ration through a Kennan feeder wagon on a once daily-basis. The diet comprises first-cut grass silage; whole-crop wheat, urea treated barley and wheat, molasses pot-ale mixture and minerals. Silage quality is important with milking cows targeted to ideally receive only first-cut silage depending on seasonal year-to-year available supply.

The 2019-2020 winter diet offered 39.6% Dry Matter; 12.8% active fibre, 17.7% crude protein (% DM) and 33.6% non-digestible-fibre (% DM).

Thornington Farm rises from 350-850ft above sea level and maximising available forage remains a priority. Two new 2000 tonne silage clamps were constructed in 2018 with one filled entirely with first-cut grass. Any extra grass goes into the second clamp and this is subsequently filled with second-cut. Large bale silage and haylage is also made for the beef animals and youngstock, respectively.

Dairy cows are turned out to grass early April depending on the weather and housed from October onwaads. Herd longevity is another feature of the farm’s long-term profitability with cows currently averaging over four lactations.

Tom says: “We don’t push our cows for out-and-out yield performance and take a measured approach. We want the cows to last.

“It takes two or more lactations for an animal to pay for her replacement and the most profitable cows on the farm are third, fourth and fifth or more lactation animals. We aim for a 20-25% heifer replacement rate in any given year and target to retain 80 heifer replacements for ourselves. Any surplus animals are sold at Carlisle through Harrison and Hetherington's monthly dairy sale.

“All our annual animal sales, deriving from the dairy enterprise, are calculated to be worth an additional 10ppl. Fresh-calved British Friesian heifers regularly make between £1600 and £2000 each at auction and purchasers regularly return to Carlisle to purchase Thornington-bred animals.

“Demand for British Friesian animals continues to increase and our careful selection process and breeding policy ensures we only sell heifers, that we are prepared to rear and keep for ourselves. We use sexed and conventional British Friesian semen as well as our own stock bulls, Nerewater Junction and Winnoch Incognito,” he said.

The Neills also look to add value to all aspects of their farming enterprise through attention to detail at all times and that includes calve rearing.

“Every calf has a value,” said Tom, who rears all British Friesian calves for dairy replacements; Friesian and terminal cross-bred male calves as well as, a combination of Limousin and Hereford female calves for suckler cow replacements.

“We like to keep the same procedures across all aspects of our calf-rearing. If the system works – don’t change it,” Tom says.

“All our female and male calves are treated exactly the same way and the results speak for themselves. New born calves receive their mother’s colostrum and this helps provide increased levels of immunity and the routine includes navels dipped with iodine.”

The calves reside in the individual calf pens for seven to 10 days before moving into large, airy, hutches housing five calves at a time. This helps social interaction amongst the calves and better group mentality. The calves are bedded on straw and receive 6litres of milk replacer-per-day. Tom is conscious of animal-health and welfare and for the past year has incorporated OmniGen-based milk-replacer.

He said: “Consumers and activists are concerned about animal health and welfare issues and the use of antibiotic-treatments in animal husbandry. Results from 29 farms in the Netherlands using OmniGen products demonstrated a 34% reduction in the use of antibiotic treatments. We feed Omni Smart milk replacer and this has helped reduce our antibiotic use and has improved calf health and welfare.

“Calves receive free access to clean water and straw and are introduced to Mole Valley Farmers Calf Starter. This product also contains OmniGen and the calves receive this ration through to weaning at 65-days. Milk replacer is gradually increased to 7litres per-day and during the final week before weaning, this is reduced to 3litres once per-day.”

The calves are all fed using an automated milk-shuttle and receive the exact amount of milk replacer at each feed. Besides being a labour-saving device, the milk-shuttle maintains the same heat temperature throughout the feeding process. Maintaining consistency of diet is important especially at this early stage of a calf’s development states Tom.

The calves begin a transition period after 65-days leading up to approximately day 100. Calf starter pellets and Thornington’s own home-grown mix is fed over this period and at day 100; the calves receive only Thornington home-mix. The blend includes urea-based treatment designed to increase barley ph. levels and also includes mineral supplements.

Thornington grows 900 acres of barley and wheat and the urea-based treatment is administered straight after harvesting. Furthermore; the administered barley does not need to be dried down from 18% moisture directly off the field. Calves receive the home-grown mix on an ad-lib basis as well as access to fresh, clean, dry straw. The calves are then grouped in batches of 25 calves in large straw-bedded pens.

Depending on the time of year, all calves go out to grass paddocks and receive the home-mix supplement at a rate of 2kgs per-head-per-day. During the winter months, the six-month old calves are housed and receive a TMR silage ration including the Thornington home-mix and distiller’s dark grains.

All the fattening steers are housed at the family’s neighbouring Downham Farm and fed a TMR ration along a central feed passage. As the steers continue to grow, the groups are moved-up into the next section of the wide-span building and have access to TMR and ad-lib mix through a feed hopper.

From here, the steers are taken through to finishing weights of 650kg liveweight; (approximately 330-340kg dead-weight) at 22-months of age. Limousin cross Friesian steers finish-out slightly higher at 350kg deadweight with most animals achieving R grades. The steers are sent to Linden Foods abattoir at Newcastle and usually average £1050 for British Friesians and up to £1200 for Limousin cross Friesians.

Tom installed a state-of-the-art Clipex cattle weighing system; a curved cattle race and extensive concrete yarding in 2018 at a cost of £40,000. The fully-automated system works on air-compression with the animals weighed every two weeks in order to monitor growth-rates. Health and safety of staff was an important consideration in purchasing the weighing system as well as, animal welfare and reducing stress on animals and staff.

The Limousin cross Friesian heifer calves are reared in the exact same way as the other groups. When the cross-breds achieve breeding-age and heifers are sold to Tom’s older brother, 52-year-old Robert, who farms at Upper Nisbet, near Jedburgh. The cross-bred heifers make ideal suckler replacements, having excellent shape and provide an abundance of milk for their new born calves.

Tom and Robert continue to work hand-in-hand and benefit for being in the same Premium Animal Health Scheme run by Scottish Agricultural Colleges (SAC) Having consistency between both units has proven itself time-after-time despite one farm being in England and the other farm over the border in Scotland.

The large-span young-stock complex at Downham Farm is used by Tom’s younger brother, David, to lamb Thornington’s 1800 ewes, and once lambing finishes in March, the six-month-old heifer replacements have access to the building. Heifers are fed big bale silage and home-mix for the next two to three months before gaining access to grass paddocks in the spring.