It takes a lot of determination, ambition and sheer hard work to invest in a hill sheep unit and convert it into a profitable dairy with limited capital, but the dream has become a reality for Stirlingshire-based Robert and Rhona Gray.

Four years after taking on a 220-acres block of rough, bare ground at South Glassingall, Dunblane, the couple is now milking 300 Jersey cows on a forage-based low input, low output system. Block calved in the spring, these smaller, traditional-type cows are yielding just over 4000litres at 5.5%BF and 4.2%P with all milk sold to Grahams The Family Dairy. Supplement feed is just 400kg per cow per year.

What is more impressive is the couple’s grit resoluteness to see their goals come to fruition, which combined with their knowledge and ability, has transformed what was once an unproductive, barren block of ground which rises to 800ft above sea-level into an expanding, money making dairy enterprise.

When they first took over the site, there was no house, no farm buildings, no electricity – not even a road onto the ground. The couple lived in a caravan for the first two years on site, although when Rhona was expecting their son Lochlan – born 19 months ago – they did purchase a house.

Initially they put in a farm track to their steading site and installed a 40/80 swingover herringbone parlour. With no buildings of any sort, cows were outwintered on arrival, sleeping on a bed of heather or sheltering in the woods. The first cows were calved in the ‘collecting yard’ which was a make shift lean to shed and pop up polytunnel. Calf housing was improvised using three shipping containers.

That was in the spring of 2017 when they calved 196 Jerseys which had been bought from just two grass-based herds. There were no fancy calving pens or specialist feeds. Cows had to get up and get on with it, grazing fresh, re-sown grass. With poor soil fertility at that time, they were buffer fed ground maize through the parlour which also helped entice them in.

Milk yields were 3500-3600litres, but even at these low levels there was a margin to be made when costs of production were so low, which was immediately ploughed back into the business.

Block calving in the spring, the couple was however able to make use of what grass grew in the summer, and drying them off in winter, they didn’t have to feed heavy concentrates, even when they were out-wintered on self-feed silage.

“Jersey cattle are so much smaller, hardier, easier managed and good on their feet which is what we need for our system,” said Robert.

“They’re healthier animals than other breeds too and in general they don’t get mastitis although they can be devils for taking milk fever.”

Furthermore, by selecting New Zealand-bred sires which tend to be of a small stature, tougher and are bred more for producing milk purely from grass, the couple is able to run more cows per hectare.

Cows are AI’d with sexed semen over a three-week period to breed home-bred replacements and then beef bulls are put out for six weeks.

In general 50% of the herd hold to AI, with beef calves born sold around a month old with heifer calves in particular proving popular through Caledonian Marts, Stirling.

Rhona, who is responsible for the calves added: “Our Jerseys are traditional deep-bodied capacious cows which are bred to produce milk from grass, so our average female is about 420kg. So far we’ve got Jerseys going into their fifth lactation with us and they should do a few more yet.

“Jerseys also have one of the widest pelvis’ of all breeds, so they are naturally easy calving, even the heifers which calve at two years of age,” she added.

Having bought the cows and the parlour, the couple set about improving soil fertility and structure by applying generous amounts of lime.

As a result pH levels have gone from the low 5’s to nearer 7.1 and in doing so, the amount of milk from grass, silage quality and quantity has dramatically improved.

They have also done a lot of reseeding with the first done in the summer of 2016 using a 14kg straight seed mixed with 1kg of white clover per acre.

Artificial fertilisers are used, but instead of applications every couple of months or so, nitrogen is applied roughly every 21 days at 40kg per ha on grazing ground from the start of March through to the end of August, for increased growth. Fertiliser is applied using the quad bike spreader when getting the cows in for milking.

Contractors with wagons are used to take three cuts of short, leafy grass silage, which most years produces valuable winter feed with 70+ D Values and Crude Protein levels of 20-22%. Drier, stemmy haylage is used to feed the dry cows.

Better grassland management using a plate metre, rotational grazing and tracks for the cows to walk on, has also bolstered quality grass growth ensuring better quality forages to graze and ensile.

“By grazing grass at the three tiller stage when it is of the highest quality and contains the most protein, cows get the best quality grass all the time, and provided it gets a rest period, it grows back again quicker” said Robert adding that cows move to fresh pasture every day and are allocated a certain amount by adjusting paddock area using electric fencing to meet requirements.

Accommodation for the cattle was another priority but with a limited budget, they have expanded by adding a new shed every year instead of constructing a massive cow barn.

Construction has primarily been done by themselves and their employees over the years, bringing in only one external contractor to help with ground works.

Shed size and height has been determined by how high the tractor and loader can reach! Hence there are now five sheds providing accommodation and under cover feed space for 300 head of cattle. However, it wasn't until the winter of 2019/2020 that they were able to in winter all the cattle.

With improved pasture and silage quality, milk yields have already increased by 400-500litres per head to 4000+litres, and by improving the cattle sheds to accommodate calving pens, cow health should also improve which in turn should boost milk yields.

Cattle farming and dairy farming in particular, is nevertheless a long, drawn out affair which can take years to master when setting up a business on a green field site, let alone on an exposed former block of hill ground. But, just look at what Robert and Rhona have achieved in the first four years and, they’ve a lot more planned to do yet.

Just watch this space ...