WHEN looking to install or upgrade any farm building planning is key, but for some it’s having the flexibility to change those plans to suit your system as you go that makes all the difference to the finished product. 

Plans were afoot to update the housing unit at Rainton Farm, home to David Finlay and the Cream o' Galloway team near Gatehouse of Fleet, when the business outgrew the 75-cow shed built 40-plus years ago they had previously been working with. Rather than ‘patching it up and putting it back together’, which would have been a very expensive process, David applied for what would have been one of the last big SRDP payouts from the EU 10 years ago and the plans for the new shed were set in motion. 

“The shed was ok at the time but, looking back, it was dark and damp and I wonder how we did it. It was a case of fitting out this new shed to do something different in a volatile market, so we went down the route of ecological farming,” explained David, who completed the building with the help of staff, friends and neighbours over the course of four years.

He continued: “Ecological or ethical farming is about trying to let nature do the work for you. Clover is an obvious option, and, being organic, we’ve been using beetles to eat the dockens and the fields have never looked better, so we’re taking the concept and seeing how far we can go with it. If we keep the calves on their mothers for five months, milk the cows once a day and give the cows as good a life as we can, will they reward us?”

This concept is evident in the building as the 300m by 150m footprint has remained unaltered, but there have been several tweaks as the shed was going up and further tweaks as the cows and staff settle in to this relatively new way of working. The unit can house up to 140 cows with calves, with 130 currently in residence, but could easily take up to 300 cows in cubicles in an intensive system, and is roughly split in to four quarters as the herd moves from calving to raising, weaning and full-time milking. The non-rigid cubicles are something not seen often in this country and are adapted from a Dutch concept. 

The Scottish Farmer:

           The non-rigid cubicles offer a more flexible lying space
“We went to see a similar cubicle set up in Holland, so adapted the Dutch idea. They are basically just plastic sticks which guide the cows but they’re not rigid so we’ve had fewer injuries and the cows can lie flat out on their mattresses topped with lime and sand,” pointed out David. “At its highest point, the shed reaches 16ft into the eaves and up to 24ft at the line of central ventilated roof lights which have had an amazing impact for natural light. They were expensive but we wanted to get the building right from the start and are glad we went with these.”

David’s phrase of ‘always a compromise, nothing is perfect’ has paved the way for changes throughout the building as a covered feed area at one end was previously an exercise area for the cows. As they didn’t use this area much, a row of cubicles was removed to make way for another feed passage in the calf area, and the exercise area was turned into another feed area. At either end of the shed are panelled tanks using steel and concrete panels from Moore Concrete Products – one collects liquid slurry and wash water, while the other collects solids, which are then transferred to the custom built anaerobic digester, which as well as supplying 20kW of electricity for lighting and water heating, turns the slurry in to a digestate which is up to 25% more effective as a fertiliser than regular slurry. 

The Scottish Farmer:

          The silage pits also use steel and concrete panels from Moore Concrete

“We looked at a number of concrete panels but went to Ballymena to see the Moore Concrete set up and were very impressed. The steel and concrete panels are great for the DIY builders like ourselves,” said David, who used these same panels to erect two new covered silage pits on the yard. 

“It’s hard to say what changes I would make now as we are all still adjusting to the model,” he continued. “One thing though would be the slats as they’re dual purpose and meant for suckler herds but they’re just that bit narrow so most of the slurry sits on top instead of falling through. But that was our decision at the time so we have to deal with it.”

The milking parlour, milk tank and processing room is all under the same roof, as well as a viewing gallery for visitors, but changes to the initial layout took place here too.

“We were planning on installing a herringbone parlour but, during the planning process, a fellow dairy farmer suggested an auto-tandem system. There were none in Scotland at the time so we went to Cumbria to see a few set ups and I am pleased to say it works really well,” said David, adding that some calves occasionally come through with the cows but because it’s a one in, one out system, they’re not in danger of getting crushed. 

“We feel it’s a more controlled way of milking as the cows can see better and don’t tend to kick as much, plus the more timid cows have their own space so are more willing to come in at milking time. It’s about treating cows as individuals, not as a group.”

It’s an interesting take on dairy farming as the three-way Swedish Red/Montbeliarde/Holstein Friesian cross cows are milked only once a day as David continues to develop the ecological model, but points out they’re not chasing litres anymore and select sires based not on yield but on type for feet, legs and, in particular, beefiness. This is because male offspring have always been finished at Rainton, but having looked at the market for male calves and admitting they took a fair bit of feeding to finish at 26 months, David now aims bullock calves for the rose veal market. From weaning at five months of age at a minimum weight of 200kg, these bullocks are ready to sell to a market which is increasing in popularity at seven to 10 months and a weight of 250kg to 350kg, killing out at 61%.

“We’re now getting our money back much quicker and the forage released in that extra year and a half means we can carry extra cows and litres,” David explained and pointed out the calves are gaining an average of 1.25kg per day and up to 1.5kg per day while on their mothers and don’t take a check at weaning as they’re already comfortable eating concentrates and stress is at a minimum as they’ve acclimatised to the separation. 

The Scottish Farmer:

          Even as darkness falls, the ventilated ridge lights bring plenty of daylight in

“Going from 100 cows producing 5500 litres, we’ve now got 130 cows producing 4000 litres once you consider one-third of the yield goes to the calf, so we have minimal gross milk loss but an extra 30 calves. And we’re now benefitting from lower replacement levels and improved herd health. Don’t get me wrong, we have had health issues as housing the calves in with the cows does bring a lot of challenges, so we’ve had to make sure the management is right,” he added.

It seems there’s always something on the go at Rainton as another building in progress is the conversion of an original steading to a cheese making plant, as David hopes in the next year they will produce 30 tonnes of artisan cheese and raw milk cheese to meet a Scottish market currently filled with non-Scottish produce, as producing Taste o Galloway ice cream faces its own challenges with regards to distribution. It’s all about reducing the market risk and taking control back into his own hands. 

“We’re producing as much fertiliser (through an anaerobic digester), energy (again AD and also biomass), and feed as we can as the commodity market is the death of dairying. It’s about trying to cut ourselves off from volatility, and taking control over what goes in the system and what comes out,” David concluded.