FARMING IN the land of milk and honey under the warming influence of the Gulf Stream provides perfect conditions for producing milk from grass, but you also need the cows and the infrastructure to go with it.

Growing grass has never been a problem for the Cowans who this year are celebrating 50 years dairy farming at Meikle Killantrae, Whauphill, either.

Located in the very south west of the country and just a few miles away from the Irish Sea, on good free-draining soils, the family is fortunate to be able to get cows out to grass early April through until October most years.

Such is the climate here that frosts are a rarity, and the Cowans regularly growing maize, fodder beet and even spring wheat, to reduce costs of production. Cows are even calved outside during the summer.

However, while all appears rosy from the outside, an extremely outdated parlour which was last upgraded in 1995 with MR 2000 meters and computers, had been affecting production and profit margins.

“Milking was taking four hours in the morning and the same again at night. We didn’t have time to do anything else,” said Jock who lives with his wife Mary, a local primary school teacher and their two sons, Greg and Jack who both work on the farm. Meanwhile, daughter Maria is in Florida on a golf scholarship

Jock’s parents, Bill and May also help out at busy times as does Uncle Ian Cowan (89), who although retired still visits on a regular basis with his wife Anne, while John McClurg, has been employed by the family for 45 years now.

Jock added: “We couldn’t get the throughput as cows were spending so long waiting to go through the parlour with the result milk yields, teat health, fertility, feet and legs were all suffering.”

This was milking through the old eight-point Gascoigne parlour which saw herd averages from their pedigree 260-cow Killantrae Holstein herd average a respectable 8000litres with BF and P percentages of 4.2 and 3.34, respectively.

The decision to buy a Boumatic Rapid Exit 16aside parlour with feed units, last May, has nevertheless revolutionised the whole working day on this 400-acre unit with milking times done and dusted in less than two hours.

With the installation of non-slip slats in the collecting area, feet and legs are already so much better as is teat health and fertility after just three months in use. Milk yields are on the up too with rolling herd averages projected at 8600litres.

“Cows are able to spend more time lying down instead of standing waiting to be milked so their feet are starting to improve.

“We’re also saving on electricity and water now that milking takes half the time,” Jock said, adding that rainwater is filtered off the roof, collected and used for washing down the parlour.

“The parlour and the lack of slurry storage were the two limiting factors here but we’ve now got six months slurry storage, a healthier cow herd and a much more positive outlook. The business is in better shape than ever,” said Jock.

Add to that the introduction of electronic ID collars and the boys – Greg and Jack who do the milking while Jock has been promoted/demoted to attending to the calves which are all fed through a computerised calf feeder – have a wealth of information to hand they never had before.

“Activity, lying and rumination times are all measured so cows and heifers in heat are being picked up earlier for AI’ing as are incidences of mastitis and ketosis. Cell counts have been reduced from 180 to 160 too, which gives us an 0.2p per litre premium and bactoscan is down to 10 adding 0.5p, selling through Lactalis.

“We’re definitely picking up sick cows earlier than what you could before with the naked eye,” Jock added.

And, with an automatic sorting gate, sick cows and those needing AI’d can easily be split off from the herd after milking.

“We needed a good, robust, bullet proof parlour that would be able to milk the cows quickly and efficiently and one that would enable feeding to attract the cows in and the Boumatic Rapid Exit appeared the best after seeing several units in this country,” said Jock.

“Robots are no good if you’re grazing your cows at grass.”

It’s this good grass growing area coupled with the ability to grow maize, fodder beet and wheat, that makes the big difference in feed costs too as without it, the business would have to buy in a lot more concentrates.

“The difference having maize in the diet is night and day – cows are healthier, have better rumen fill and give slightly more milk with increased protein on maize.

“Fodder beet is also great to grow as the cows like it, it’s easy to harvest when we have a contractor in the area and it helps to increase butterfat percentages,” Jock added pointing out that the addition of wholecrop wheat provides an added forage and also wheat straw for the calves.

With so many forages produced on farm, the only feeds bought in are straights in the form of soya, ground maize, beef pulp, soda wheat and minerals. Cows are split between high and low yielders and those giving 30litres and above and 24litres and above, with both topped up in the parlour. Cows are also buffer fed at grass.

In contrast to many dairy units, cows are dried off for six to eight weeks, and depending on the time of year, often on old grass, or inside, on straw and a small amount of silage.

First service is at 80days, with 65% of the herd holding to that AI date. Heifers calve down at 27-28months with few, if any problems.

The family relies on sexed semen for top end heifers and good cow families, with the stock bulls used to sweep up any problem females. In recent years, selective mating has been used with AI sires chosen based on their scorings for feet and legs, fertility, productive life and milk yields.

Genomic figures are increasingly being used too with 84% of the herd classified Good Plus or better and an increasing number of Very Good and Excellent classified females. Sires in the tank at present include Painter, Cordial, Emoji and Amulet

Long-term, the family aims to increase milk yields further and reduce calving intervals from their current 430 days, to nearer 400 although Jock is happy enough to keep his cows milking for more than a year when Holsteins produce so much.

It’s a far cry to the area’s traditional Ramsay black and white cows that used to be milked at Meikle Killantrae, when the Cowans bought the farm in 1968. In those days, the cows were milked in a byre, until the Gascoigne machine was installed in 1970.

Ramsay cows were in fact the No 1 dairy cow on the farm for the first 30 years, with Jock gradually introducing the Holstein through AI sires initially, before buying in 26 bulling heifers from the Garloff herd from Beeswing in 1999; seven animals comprising calves, cows and bulling heifers from Willie Owen’s Cushathill herd at Carlisle and the odd frozen embryo.

The herd has nevertheless been closed for the last 15 years apart from purchases from the Cushathill dispersal, with the result being the unit is fortunate to be free of Johnes.

With so much modern technology and information to hand, health and production records can only improve further now too. Just watch this space …