WHILE most Scottish dairy farmers calve all year round, some are looking at the benefits of moving onto a block-calving system, which is already proving cost-effective for Nuffield Scholar, Wallace Hendrie, and his brother, James.

James resides at Purroch Farm, Hurlford, with his wife, Caroline, and children, Ross and Anna, while Wallace is based at West Overland Farm, Hurlford, with his wife, Isla, and their four sons, Robert, Alexander, David and Logan.

Like most milk producers, the Hendries operated an all-year-round calving system, which they felt was underperforming, and in a bid to improve profit margins, James began working towards a block-calving system in 2009.

Now, the business revolves around two, 12-week blocks – a spring and autumn-calving herd – with cows calving from August to October, and March to May.

“When we decided to adapt the system to block-calving, we started taking a closer look at some of the cows, and got rid of the ones which calved outside of the two blocks,” explained Wallace.

“I always tell anybody who is thinking about any sort of change to get all of the pain over with in the first year, and I still stand by that. Cows that don’t fit your calving system have to go.”

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ONE OF the astro-turf farm track walkways Ref:EC1303182668

Now, 84% of both herds calve in their blocks, before they are AI’d over a six-week period to grass-based black and white bulls. An Aberdeen-Angus bull is brought in for a further six weeks to sweep up. 

Fertility however, could be a lot better, Wallace said. 

“We just weren’t making any money when we were milking conventionally, and it was a consultant who advised us to consider a different approach with block-calving and rotational grazing. It’s not something we would have done, but when we saw the figures, we just went for it,” he added.

Originally, Wallace and James had 220 milking cows at Purroch, but, within the first year of adapting to block-calving, numbers had to be increased to 300 cows.

It was a similar situation at the Hendries’ other farm at Millands, when cow numbers had to be upped from 180 to 330 cows in 2010.

“We had to increase cow numbers so fast because moving to a paddock grazing system increases grass growth by 20%, and cows using that grass is where the profit is,” said Wallace.

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SOME OF the autumn calvers from the herd      Ref:EC1303182665

Not surprisingly, the amount of milk produced from forage has increased to 3500litres and the Hendries hope to push that to nearer 4000litres, which they say has already helped to save them approximately 3p per litre on concentrate feed costs.

“We also managed to save a lot on labour, as seasonal management has become more focused. Our staff are now more specialised at what they do. Other big savings have come from a better cattle handling system, and we can feed the cows in one block which is a lot more efficient compared to feeding different groups of animals different feed mixes,” Wallace explained.

Having two herds calving at opposite ends of the year means that the Hendries can supply Müller with milk all year round, too. However, Wallace was keen to point out that the processor is looking for more milk at the back-end of the year. 

Vet visits have also become more focused and for a particular reason, rather than small issues, so vet and medication costs have been cut as well.

Feeding the two herds is quite different, though, as the autumn calvers rely on silage and fodder beet, which is proving particularly beneficial in that not only does it help to boost milk yields and components, but also fertility. This year’s first cut silage analysed with an ME of 12MJ per kg of dry matter, and crude protein at 15.5%.

Feeding the autumn-calving herd will be more expensive as it relies on conserved forages, however, where it does score is those cows get no concentrate at grass, which means they are focused on grazing grass.

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Purroch road-end sign

Because they are drying off through June, July and August, there is more flexibility if the weather is wet, and also, when they calve, they can go into a full winter ration, or use more back-end grass, depending on the weather conditions. 

The Hendries also had to learn how to measure and allocate grass, through the computer system, AgriNet.

“AgriNet helps us to make decisions every week. It allows us to see the demand for grass as a whole for the herd for a particular week and it enables us to see how fast the grass is growing in the paddocks. And, by finding out how much grass the cows are utilising, compared to actual grass growth, we can then work out what fields to shut off for silage,” said Wallace.

The Hendries have also altered their silage harvesting equipment, having moved from a self-propelled chopper to a forage wagon, as they believe the latter tends to operate better with high quality, lower bulk crops of silage.

“The forage wagon only needs three men to operate it, while the chopper used to take six men, so it helps us to be more flexible with our grazing decisions,” Wallace said.

“Another advantage is that the maintenance costs of the forage wagon are a lot less, but we needed to be able to cover the ground fast, so we bought a butterfly mower and a large shaking out machine, which means we can start to make silage the last week in April or the first week in May, and that allows regrowth to make sure we have the grass for the cows at the end of May. 

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The feed shed, with calf cake, soda beet and super grains, which all get mixed with silage and a protein blend Ref:EC1303182670

“This also means we have high quality silage, which is key to the system,” he continued.

Adapting a block-calving system, may appear easy enough, but it is a lot more expensive than many would expect, and a business plan and budget is needed.

“Things are going to cost more than you think they will, and you will have a lot of heifers that aren’t going to produce as much as you think they will in the first year.

“Outwith the cattle, you also have to consider track building, water troughs and electric fencing, as well as increasing winter housing, and if your parlour is not big enough to cope with the extra cows, you may need to extend it. The key phrase is under promise and over deliver – make sure you ask for enough money at the start when you go to your bank manager. Don’t go back looking for more, and do what you said you were going to do.”

Overall, embracing a block calving system has allowed the Hendries to review their system, to see what has and has not worked every year, and where improvements need to be made. Adapting to the system has also given the family the confidence to start a second spring block calving system, at Netherlands Farm, Hurlford.

“The system has allowed us to step back from the day-to-day roles, and put more time and effort into managing the business as a whole, which has resulted in a more efficient dairy herd overall,” Wallace concluded.

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Milking in the 23/46 swingover dairymaster with ACR and ADF Ref:EC1303182669