Few dairy farmers have increased productivity as much as the Wannop family from Heaton Hall Farm – David and Annette and sons Joe and James – who have not only increased herd numbers and milk yields, but also significantly improved net margins.

Such has been the increase in efficiency on this Morecambe-based unit, Lancs, that the previous beef fattening enterprise has been done away with to concentrate on breeding home-bred heifer replacements and maximising the amount of milk produced from grass.

Up until 1998, the Wannop family, relied upon a flying herd of 100 Holstein cows of which all were calved to Charolais and British Blue bulls with some, along with other bought in store cattle, finished on farm.

Four years later, with production increasing, the purchase of a nearby farm in 2002 allowed them to build a new cubicle cowshed and youngstock unit for the dairy. The beef cattle were sold, and the Wannops began breeding their own replacements through AI.

The new cubicle shed lent itself to the introduction of a TMR feed system, which coupled with improved herd management, saw milk yields improve significantly.

However, it wasn’t until three times a daily milking was introduced that yields jumped to their present level of 10,900kg at 3.75%BF and 3.12%P.

“The key is to work smarter, not harder,” Joe Wannop, whose commercial herd is fast approaching 500 milking Holsteins told a packed audience at the Semex Conference, last month.

“We did have a lot of issues in the early days, but we love what we do and have always kept pushing ourselves to be better and more efficient,” Joe added pointing out that the family always has at least one project on the go at any one time.

Such has been the improvement in productivity over the years, that the business was crowned national winners in the ForFarmers Excellence Awards in 2017 for dairy feed efficiency, having been runners up the previous year – a proud moment for the team indeed.

Much has changed in the past couple of years too, with the introduction of Semex’ Immunity Plus proving invaluable for breeding healthy, milky females, while their ai24 heat detection has bolstered pregnancy rates and helped to reduce the age at which heifers calve down at.

As a result, calving intervals were slashed from 405 days to 385 days, with pregnancy rates rising from 16.0 to 22.5. Furthermore, the percentage of cows pregnant at 150 days in milk has risen from 59% to 72% – all within the space of a year.

Heifers are now calving at 24 months of age instead of 26, and with the use of sexed semen, the business has gone from AI’ing 60% of the herd to a Holstein, to 40%. The remainder are AI’d conventionally to a beef bull to increase the value of the progeny, of which 50% are sold privately and the rest split between the auction and buitelaar.

Calving at two, does nevertheless require optimum health and nutrition from birth. All calves receive at least 3litres of their mother’s colostrum within first three hours of being born and from there are put in individual pens for the first 21 days with access to a high protein nut and straw. At this stage they are fed ForFarmers Hi-pro heifer milk powder through a ‘milk taxi’ thereby ensuring the milk is always correctly mixed and of the right temperature.

After the first three weeks, they are put into pens of six until weaning, on ground straw and concentrates until 6 months of age where they then go onto a TMR comprising silage, straw and the high protein feed, Provin until AI’ing at 12-13months of age. Calves don’t go outside to grass until they are PD’d in calf.

The business has increased the number of cuts of silage taken too and is currently in it's second year of a four-cut system of quality silage instead of three. As a result, the family is now farming some 730acres, of which 400 acres are harvested for first cut silage; 380acres for second cut; 350acres of third and a further 200-350acres for a fourth harvest. In addition, 50 acres of winter wheat and 20 acres of maize are grown, with 150 acres ploughed up every year to reseed into grass, thereby enabling the best quality grass to be harvested for silage. The addition of an extra 240 leased acres for cropping at the end 2018 will further enabled the Wannop team to increase levels of production.

In contrast to most dairy units, they don’t believe in taking on independent nutritionists either, and prefer to rely on their own simple rations with Forfarmer. Furthermore, they have steered away from moist feeds since 2014 as they felt they were always battling mycotoxins and were constantly awaiting deliveries.

Since then, the amount of milk produced from forage has increased from £601 in 2014, to a staggering £2518 last year.

“We have saved around half of what we spent on moist feeds by replacing them with bought in crops to supplement what we already have,” said Joe pointing out that feed efficiency – the amount of milk produced per 1kg of dry matter intake – has increased from 29litres at 1:38 on a three times daily milking regime, to 35.5litres at 1:7. With the addition of the new acres they will now grow all their own crops.

There are no special feeds in the diet either as the herd is split into high, medium and low yielders, with the rations for each revolving around home-grown feeds. High yielders are provided a mix of 8kg of maize, 5kg of wholecrop wheat; 8.5kg of a 20% protein meal; 0.5kg of ground straw; 21kg of silage and a bag of minerals for every 150 cows.

Low yielders in contrast are fed a mix of 8kg of maize, 4kg of wholecrop wheat, 2.1kg of meal, 0.5kg of ground straw, 35kg of silage and again, a bag of minerals for every 150cows.

With milking taking place at 4.45am, 1pm and 8.30pm and lasting in the region of three hours each time, the business is nevertheless reliant on additional staff out with the farm’s herdsman, two general farm workers and three relief milkers. Consequently, two or three agency staff are also taken on mostly to do the afternoon and night milkings, thereby enabling the day staff to finish up for 5pm, unless of course the farm is in the middle of silage or harvest, when everyone is well looked after with good old home cooking.

It’s a feature the Wannops have always prided themselves upon, with all those involved in the early morning milking, receiving a home cooked breakfast freshly prepared by Annette who also ensures all staff are well fed during harvest.

“We rely heavily on staff here and by making sure our full time staff get every second weekend off, are mostly away by 5pm and get all their meals cooked for them at harvest, we hopefully have a happy work team,” said Joe.

Over the past year, the Wannops have also made huge inroads to reduce their use of antibiotics which coupled with the use of the Sanicleanse brush system prior to putting on the clusters in parlour, has seen a massive reduction in mastitis and teat damage. In the past eight months, 70% of cows drying off have received a sealant only.

Constantly looking at new forms of technology, the business also invested in a Kvernland geo fertiliser spreader, which does all the work for the operator, from turning itself off at right angle corners to shutting itself down in awkward shaped fields. As a result, there are no longer any black lines in the clamps, and Joe feels grass and silage quality has much improved.

Huge investment has also been spent on slurry management, with a cover for the slurry tower and their own umbilical system to spread it. Flotation tyres on all tractors and machines help reduce compaction on the fields.

Solar panels have also been erected and an outdoor bulk tank has been installed, cutting electricity bills in half.

Admittedly, the investment has been phenomenal but so too have been the improvements in productivity and efficiency to the business.

The family is far from finished too as they are constantly striving to improve. The aim is having the herd’s 500 cows averaging more than 12,000litres. Some of their next goals include farming in excess of 1000acres, a new cow shed programmed for later this year to take the cows up to 600, a new heifer rearing shed and sawdust shed.

“Control your controllable’s and work smarter not harder,” is a big belief in the family.

It’s not just about dairy cattle and forages though. The farm’s 130 Texel and Beltex cross ewes, run by James, which produce cross-bred shearlings to sell at local marts, have been averaging in the region of £750 per head from a top price of £2600. The big goal here is to sell a ram at £10,000 – just watch this space …