MAKING the switch from beef farming to milk production is not a decision to be taken lightly, particularly considering the volatility of both markets, but with some careful consideration and planning that’s just what the Vance family did last year.

Admittedly, it wasn’t an easy decision and initial plans were put on hold three years ago due to the crash of the milk price. Now husband and wife team, Alister and Liz Vance, have hedged their bets and have been milking cows in the purpose-built shed at Bridgehouse, near Whithorn in the very South-west of Scotland, for six months, with, of course, help from their chief calf feeders – 11-year-old Gregor, 10-year-old Amy, and Sam, rising five. 

Original plans accounted for dispersing the then 330-head beef herd entirely and investing in dairy females. However, those initial plans were side-lined and now the beef herd numbers 160 breeding females plus 35 bulling heifers, run alongside a herd of 160 dairy cows. 

“Cash flow was the main reason for moving to milking; we used to breed our own replacement heifers and fatten their calves, but it was like watching trees grow as it was nearly five years before we saw any return,” explained Alister pointing out the reasoning behind the switch. “We did put the anchors on three years ago – we’d planned on building a housing unit and milking parlour on a greenfield site, but it was about the time of the price drop so we put the brakes on and revaluated.”

Instead, the husband and wife duo looked at ways to invest in the current 440-acres at Bridgehouse – with a further 80 acres owned near Stonehouse and 17 acres of seasonal lets each year – and extended an original 120ft x 70ft shed by adding on an extra 220ft to house the cows and robotic milkers. That original area was already fitted out with feed bays as well as dry cow and calving pens, while the new build boasts a light and well-ventilated feel with 130 custom-built cubicles for up to 125 cows milking at any one time. 

The Scottish Farmer:

With the shed extension, which was erected by the team at Robinsons, coming in at a cost of £1200 per cubicle, it was funded by the private sale of cows with calves at foot from the beef herd. Raised beds are topped by mattresses with additional sawdust for comfort, and the 10ft x 3ft9 cubicles, with a 4ft lunge allowance, allow plenty of space for bigger cows if the future determines. The lower divisional barriers of each cubicle are plastic for additional cow comfort. 

Making the milking process a whole lot easier, and more importantly less time-consuming, was the investment in robotic milkers. “We went on a bit of a robot safari in order to make sure we were getting the right package. The main thing for us was being able to put robots in the existing shed, and the Lely software was the best on offer too,” pointed out Alister, adding post-installation help from his brother and neighbour, Howard, and his daughter Emma, has been invaluable as they tweak the system to suit their needs.

“A robot gives you your health plan, fertility chart and rumination of the cow too. Our initial plans were for a parlour, but after Emma installed a robot we thought to ourselves ‘why would you want to milk in a parlour when you can get a machine to do it?’. When I was younger, fetching the cows in, milking them and then washing down the parlour and collection pen took most of the morning. Then you were in for lunch and out to get the cows again before you knew it. Plus, when we were pricing the set-up, the combined price of a new shed and parlour was more than the cost of two robots, so it was a fairly easy decision.”

The Scottish Farmer:

Liz, who was also brought up on a dairy unit, continued: “There’s a real lack of labour in this area so it can be difficult getting cover if we’re away. We have no stockman, but Neil McIntyre comes in to cover for us, and as far as the cows go it can be a one-man job. Thanks to the software you know exactly what each cow is up to and it’s a very controlled environment. Folk often ask me how I’m adjusting to milking cows but I point out I don’t milk the cows, I manage them.”

With the shed and milking line as near to completion as they could be in October last year, it was time to fill the shed with cows and as it happens the Vances were able to buy the entire Stairend Holstein herd from Brian and Dawn Kennedy. This 120-strong herd really set the Bridgehouse team up well for future production as the mixed herd of heifers and cows were already in milk and arrived at Bridgehouse with a Lactalis contract paying a base price of 29p per litre. 

While these cows were not used to a robotic system, they were trained in a matter of days, bar the older cows that were tad more stuck in their ways. Most now enter the robot three or four times a day and, while milking, receive concentrates according to their yield. 

The Scottish Farmer:

This is over and above a base TMR ration of 5kg whole crop silage (which is grown on site), 2kg molale, 5kg of a ‘Bridgehouse’ concentrate blend, 28kg of home-grown silage, and 7kg of supergrain, which is offered to the cows at the feed barrier. Working to a 305-day lactation, the cows are averaging 33kg per day, with heifers at 27kg, at 4.3% BF and 3.4% P, with a few Danish Red females added to the mix to improve the butterfat and protein content, which would earn a bonus from Lactalis. 

Helping to increase the cows’ feed intake, the Vances invested in the Lely Juno which travels the length of the feed passage every two hours to push the silage in. This, says Alister, has made a big difference to the cows’ intake as if there isn’t ‘fresh’ silage on offer they’re far less likely to visit to feed bay. 

The Scottish Farmer:

With all the basics in place, the Vances now look towards continual milk production and, with help from a Genus technician, are covering the top-end of the Holstein females with sexed semen from proven sires, with particular attention paid to feet and legs as well as teat placement. The remainder of the females will be served by standard Holstein semen and all those not holding on the first service will be served with Genus’ Fertility Plus, a mix of British Blue genetics. 

It is hoped that pure-bred heifer calves will be retained in the milking herd or be offered for sale depending on current numbers, while any beef-sired heifer calves with join the suckler herd. This will make the Vances entirely self-sufficient, particularly when you take into consideration the 10 pedigree Limousin females kept for breeding their own stock bulls. It’s a different matter for the bull calves, however, as these are sold at three to four weeks of age through Carlisle, where the last batch of five averaged £110. 

“By selling of the bull calves at a younger age it’s freed up more space for the heifer calves and also improved the general health in the calf shed as there are fewer bodies to react to any diseases or viruses,” pointed out Alister, adding that they’re sticking to an all-year-round calving pattern as that’s what milk buyers prefer and it keeps the robots working all year too. 

As well as the calves, the milking herd boasts good health too with only one cow treated for mastitis in the six months of production. They’ve had no foot problems either as, on exiting the robots, cows pass through a footbath that is changed every 100 or so cows, or up to seven times per day. 

The Scottish Farmer:

“We’ve only had one cow treated for e. coli/mastitis and that was picked up quickly by the robots and EID collars due to her decreased rumination (chewing the cud) and increased milk temperature – there’s no way we could have picked that up by eye,” observed Alister, who, despite friends saying they’d be bombarded with phone calls from the robots, finds these phone calls have already proved invaluable. “Sure, the robots do phone but what they don’t do is phone me to tell me they’re sick, hungover, leaving or want more money!”

With the cows and the Vance family all settled in to their new regime, Alister and Liz are keen to look to the ahead and to the future of farming for Gregor, Amy and Sam, and that means keeping a hand in a wee bit of everything to future-proof the farm, including the latest additions in the shape of eight Bluefaced Leicester ewe hoggs. 

“We need to be positive about the future and the thing is milk will always be needed. We’ve really just got to sit tight and see, but that goes for both the beef and dairy industry,” said Liz, who also runs a flock of 50 Texel females on a very commercial basis, focusing on naturally done, easy-lambing lines, with shearling rams aimed for Kelso and Carlisle.

“It’s now all about improving efficiency rather that putting on more cows to produce more money. We know our costs, what each cow is producing, and can easily change,” argued Alister. “Beef cows will do fine as long as there’s a Single Farm Payment or other scheme, or the price improves, but I don’t see that happening. I’m keener for Gregor, and the other two, to go in to dairy – as you can see exactly what’s happening from the touch of a button.”