Everyone looks forward to the Royal Highland Show and following a two/three-year absence, there is more excitement than ever before as Scotland’s agricultural industry gears up to celebrate the society’s 200th anniversary.

For livestock producers, it’s a chance to showcase the best of their talents in pedigree breeding and showmanship. The Ingliston showground and the new Members Pavilion, is also one of the best places to catch up with friends old and new, so this year should be a bigger event than ever when so many people have had to lock themselves away as a result of the pandemic.

It’s going to be a big week for Holstein breeder, Kirsty Yates, too, who is buzzing with anticipation and counting down the days to next week’s four-day extravaganza. “I can’t wait for the Highland Show,” said Kirsty, from Meikle Firthhead, Castle Douglas.

“I do panic about leaving the farm when it’s such a busy time of year, but this will be my first time away since pre-Covid. I just love the shows and it’s so good to get back to them and see those top pedigree cows and their classifications,” she said, adding that travelling to European dairy events and purchasing frozen embryos from world renowned cows, has also been a big miss.

The farm at Meikle Firthhead, is very much a family affair. The business, which trades as Firthhead Farmers, is owned by David and Sandra Yates and their three daughters, Linda, Kirsty and Jenny, who attend to no fewer than 1000 head of stock, including 430-450 milking cows.

Sandra, who also owns the local pub and restaurant, Laurie Arms, does most of the paperwork, alongside Linda, the secretary of the Scottish Holstein Club, and her husband, Ryan Brown, of Robinsons Agricultural Building specialists.

David, the chairman of the Scottish Holstein Club who is also in his final year as a trustee of Holstein UK, also runs a busy machinery contracting operation, leaving Kirsty and Jenny with the day-to-day running of the herd, in between helping out in the pub. Jenny and her partner, Adam Prentice, also a machinery contractor, have the joys of attending to their one-year-old daughter, Olivia, too.

With the business extending to 1000 productive lowland acres of which 200 are cropped, the family relies on full-time employees, tractor man Andy Martin; dairyman Derek Cloy and Andy’s daughter, Brooke Martin, who helps out in the dairy. Kirsty’s partner, Jamie Beddows, assists during the winter too.

They are also depend hugely on self employed men in the contracting enterprise headed up by John Fingland and Finlay Wallace.

While the family don’t exhibit every year at the Highland, they regularly produce prize winning stock from their Meiklefirth herd at their local Dumfries and Stewartry shows.

Six years ago, they also landed the overall championship at the Highland and the Great Yorkshire with Meiklefirth Plaid Lutske, a Windy Knoll View Plaid daughter, out of the Ex92 Meiklefirth Jordan Lutske. A former inter-breed winner at Ayr Show and Agriscot, this big black cow which is still going strong having produced more than 80,000tonnes, is also a previous All-Britain Senior Heifer and Senior Cow champion.

The herd has also produced winners in the Scottish Herds competition and at the South-west Dairy Show and that’s after a major reduction sale in 2016, which saw some 300 head of milking cattle sold at Carlisle.

“We had to sell cattle as we were only getting 14p per litre for our milk then,” said David, whose herd has been built up from some renowned worldwide cow families to include the Earles, Vrays, Barbaras, O’Kalibras, Flos, Ashlyns and the Zandras, with red and whites from the Jodies, Irenes and Jacuzzis.

There have been some major changes since that sale too. Herd numbers are back up at 430-450 and the family moved up to three-times a day milking when milk prices improved. At that stage, rolling milk yield averages increased to 11,300 litres, but such were the difficulties in sourcing staff, the Yates are back to twice daily milking.

As it is, Kirsty is up to start milking at 3.30am and will be there again 12 hours later which, coupled with good management, nutrition, health, cow comfort and genetics, is resulting in a rolling herd average of 10,000-plus litres at 4.10% BF and 3.4% P, milking through a 20:20 herringbone parlour.

Calving interval is an impressive 390 days, with heifers joining the milking herd at two years of age. Milking cows are housed all year round, except dry cows in summer, which are out at old grass, or inside during the winter on a straw-based ration.

Although all milking cows are fed the one ration, they are split into two groups and kept in two sheds. One is for fresh calvers and the other is for cows scanned in calf.

As one of the pioneers of growing maize under plastic in Scotland in the early 1990s, David was also one of the first to put an end to this crop at Meikle Firthhead due to problems with weed control and plastic degradation. Now however, with earlier maturing varieties and complete plastic degradation, there is far less risk involved ensuring a much more consistent crop.

Hence, David has turned full circle after growing a small amount last year and more again this time. “There are lifelong benefits to feeding maize and it’s great for the high yielding cows,” said David. “It’s a different type of starch, a slower release starch that’s better for the rumen and complements the grass silage in the ration. Wholecrop is difficult to get right, but maize, being a high starch feed, allows the cows to milk better – our cows are averaging 31 litres per day.”

Last year, some 60acres of maize were grown, of which 50 were under plastic and 10 without plastic which were three weeks later. As a result, 70 acres under plastic for home-grown feed is already in the ground alongside 60 acres of winter barley and 70 acres of spring, to help keep costs of production under control.

The milking ration, which is a high starch, low protein total mixed feed is proving to be better for the cows and the environment too. It comprises 3kg of rolled wheat along with the same amount of barley; 1.5kg of ground maize; 1.8kg of soya; 1kg of soya pass; 11kg of draff; 1.25kg of molasses; 7kg of water; 7kg of maize silage and 16kg of grass silage. Sodium bicarb and minerals and metasmart, are also provided.

Cows are dried off 45 days before calving onto a high roughage feed. Xzelit dry cow nuts are provided two weeks prior to calving.

Newborn calves are given colostrum within the first two hours of birth and provided with three 3.5litres within the first 24 hours. Thereafter, calves are fed twice a day in single pens with powdered milk in buckets, which Kirsty believes provides better care and attention than an automatic calf feeder.

They are housed in individual pens up until two-three weeks of age, when all the beef and bull calves are sold privately to Richard Barbour, with the heifer calves grouped into pens of five of similar ages and introduced to concentrate feeding. These heifer calves are kept in the same group right through to bulling, with weaning taking place at eight weeks of age.

All heifers are AI'd using sexed semen and if they fail to hold are put to a home-bred Angus from the girls’ six-cow Meiklefirth herd – established from a Blelack cow some 15-20 years ago – which are used to breed bulls for home use or to sell privately, producing few if any calving issues.

In contrast, all cows are AI’d using sexed semen over the first two turns from proven and genomic sires boasting good type, fertility and health traits. Currently there are straws from Lugnut, Retrolook, Solarpower; Hullabaloo, Tactitus, and Army in the tank. Beef semen is used thereafter.

All cows and heifers have SenseHub monitoring collars which detect activity, rumination and fertility, thereby providing an extra set of eyes, which in turn ensures better health, heat detection and ultimately conception rates. Add in calving cameras that have been linked to everyone’s mobile phones, and there is never a dull moment at Meikle Firthhead when calving is an all year-round activity.

Cow comfort is also a priority here with the Yates investing in a green bedding system 10 years ago, which is proving more cost effective compared to buying in sawdust on mattresses. This recycled manure is topped up every two or three days and lime added, which has also helped to keep mastitis levels to a minimum. Add in the 200 solar panels generating electricity to run the parlour with another 200 about to be installed, and a biomass boiler, and the system has also helped reduce the farm’s carbon audit and should soon be cost neutral on electric.

Show cows however, several of which are on flushing programmes, are nevertheless treated to five-star accommodation in a separate shed with sand for bedding!

There is no doubt that the whole family is committed to dairy farming, with Kirsty keen for the family to invest in a rotary parlour to enable more cows to be milked in a shorter period of time, while Jenny and Adam are looking to a future on another farm and milking a smaller number of cows robotically.

Despite their differences, there is only one place they want to be next week though and that’s at Ingliston, where they hope to have two of those top cows, alongside a calf, to represent the best of genetics from their Meiklefirth herd at the Royal Highland.

The plan is for the whole family to attend on various days, with Kirsty travelling up with the cattle on the Tuesday for her first big holiday since Covid. We just hope she and everyone else feels as well on the Sunday as they will be on the first day of the show!

On a more serious note, the family hope and pray the organisers have seen the error of their ways in putting this year’s show together, and are able to address the operational concerns of the members and exhibitors for next year’s big event, before the Royal Highland Show dies a death, like The Royal, they pointed out.

FARM facts:

Farm Business: Based on 1000 acres, of which 386 are owned, with 200-plus acres of cropping, to include maize under plastic, winter and spring barley all for home-grown feed and bedding.

Milking cows: 480 pedigree Holsteins with all heifers retained either for replacements or selling privately. Cows milked twice daily to produce in excess of 10,000 litres per year with calving interval of 390 days. All and cows sexed to proven or high genomic Holstein sires for first two/three cycles. After which cows are AI'd to a beef sire, while an Aberdeen Angus bull is put out with the heifers. All beef bred calves are sold privately at two weeks of age.

Cow families: Holsteins – Earles, Vrays, Barbaras, O'Kalibras, Flos, Ashlyns and Zandras. Red and Whites – Jodies, Irenes, Jacuzzis.

Diversification: Local pub/restaurant, Laurie Arms; machinery/forage contracting; renewables, including 200 solar panels plus another 200 in the pipeline, a biomass boiler and green bedding.

ON THE spot:

Best on-farm investment and why: Being able to take on neighbouring acres and good staff relations which has allowed the business to grow by spreading costs of production. Family and good staff are key to all family businesses.

Biggest achievement: Winning the Highland and the Great Yorkshire Show with the home-bred cow Meiklefirth Plaid Lutske.

Favourite agricultural show and why: UK Dairy Day.

Biggest challenge to the agricultural sector: Shortage of available labour willing to work the long hours on all types of farms.