In an era of ever advancing technology, innovation and fluctuating prices, no one can afford to stand still, and for the Carruthers family, that has meant a return to dairying after some 20 years away from milking cows.

Two years ago, Robert who farms in partnership with his mother and father, Kathryn and Ian Carruthers at Glenzierfoot and Chapelknowe, Canonbie, made the executive decision to sell off their beef cows in favour of a cross-bred dairy herd.

“There is far more security in the dairy industry with a monthly milk cheque and better margins compared to the beef enterprise," said Robert.

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“The wet land here has always curtailed the number of beef cows we could carry, which in turn reduced profit margins, but it was a vicious circle as we then couldn't provide the finance to push forward and expand,” explained Robert, who is now running a 125 Holstein and Fleckvieh herd across 500 acres rented at Glenzierfoot, an estate farm which has been occupied by the family since 1867, and a further 90 owned acres at Chapelknowe.

"We needed a durable sort of cow and thought the Fleckvieh would be a good base to start as they produce milk with higher solids and are known for their longevity. They'll also finish easier and to heavier weights, so are more valuable as a cast animal," said Robert, who bought in 64 Fleckvieh in-calf heifers from Germany last year to establish the herd, with an entire herd of Holsteins acquired at Holmbrook for the new dairy venture.

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A 20/40 Dairy Master rapid exit parlour was also bought.

“We were looking for something that would keep the cows at 90 degrees for better presentation at milking, and it really suited our system the best. We knew we had to restructure the steading to up

our game if we were to milk dairy cows again,” said Ian, who added that cows going through the parlour twice a day, are producing 28l when housed and 25l when roaming outside at grass.

Cattle are fed a basic ration in the parlour, made up by James Bendle of Davidsons Animal Feeds, to suit the quality silage at Glenzierfoot.

“Davidsons Dairy Tech was all over social media at the time we were starting up, so we wanted to give them a shot and see what they could do for us as James is a good friend,” said Robert, who was advised on what the cows could potentially do, and secured a plan.

“We're really pleased with the results we're achieving. The cows are settled and we can’t fault the product. Likewise, the service is excellent," added Robert.

While the cows are grazed outside during the summer, come the winter all are housed in cubicles, bedded on sawdust with lime applied weekly to improved hygiene.

“The solids market is where everyone seems to be heading, so we wanted to get a jump start on that. Our main goal is producing high quality milk as opposed to quantity,” said Ian, who last year saw milk solids averages of 4.2%BF and 3%P during the summer and 4.5%BF and 3.6%P in the winter.

All cows are milk recorded to keep an eye on performance when the family is new to the industry and with a new herd and milking system.

“Management recording is the only way we see what mistakes are being made and improve. Closely monitoring the cows and PD’ing them is also a huge management task because if cows and heifers are not conceiving and holding a pregnancy, we are losing money, it is a vital part of the supply chain,” Robert said adding that heifers calve between 24-30months of age.

Calving takes place all year round and sexed semen is being used as much as possible to ensure more heifers on the ground for replacements.

"Calves born are left to suckle their mothers for 24-36 hours as we find them seem to have more vigour and thrive better thereafter."

They are then housed in individual pens for a few days before moving into a group penning system in a new airy calf shed. Thereafter they are fed via automatic milk feeders in groups, starting at 1.2litres twice a day up to 2litres and back down to 1.2litres and below for weaning at 70 days.

“Our system seems to work well, it is expensive especially for the milk powder, but the calves are our future, so we have got to look after them,” said Robert.

Bull calves are sold through Harrison and Hetherington at Carlisle, at four-six months of age, with

Fleckvieh cross calves averaging £400-£500 per head. The Black and Whites tend to cash in around £300.

“We would like to fatten the bull calves as we feel there would be more profit in the job that way, but, but we have enough to try and focus on getting the milking herd up and running first,” said Ian.

Robert added: “For us to succeed, we have to be as self-sufficient as we can be, so we do our own silage work, with the help of a family friend."

The family also strives to be as self-sufficient as possible in their sheep enterprise by breeding home-bred Texel rams from a 50-ewe pedigree flock on the farm's 200 cross ewe flock.

Ian began breeding Texels in 1994, along with a commercial flock of 200 breeding ewes, although

had to restart in 2001 after being taking out in a foot and mouth cull

“We just breed a few tups for our own use and the remainder are culled. We did try and sell

them for a few years but there is more work involved in bringing up tups for sale and we needed to focus on the dairy enterprise,” said Ian.

"Getting round the ever increasing costs of production involved in dairy farming is not an easy option alongside purchasing a whole new enterprise. Milk prices have to get better. When we were milking prior to food and mouth, the milk price was much the same as it is today, yet costs of production and the cost of living have increased dramatically over the years,” said Ian.

Labour is also a big issue now.

Robert added: “The industry is going to have to go more automated when no one wants to work. We are trying to make sure we can do all the jobs between the two of us.

Established herds can justify robots to help with labour shortages but we can’t yet, however we

are working our way up to automating our herd with automatic milk feeders.

“We are continually trying to streamline and improve our business to continue into the future,”

concluded Ian and Robert.