It’s agriculture Editor-in-chief Catherina Cunnane in conversation with Holly Atkinson, who works on a farm with her husband, Adam, in South Devon, UK, in this week’s dairy segment.
“I have been working on farms since I was fifteen. I am a veterinarian – graduated from the University of Bristol – who worked in a small farm animal practice.
In addition, I have a certificate in small animal medicine and have worked in two other small animal practices. I helped out on the farm or maybe while working as a vet.
However, I became a mom and took a break from my veterinarian career. For the past two years, I have been a stay-at-home mom who works on the farm, mainly as a calf breeder / youth breeder.
british dairy farm
I am involved in the management of Caulston Farm – which Geoff Sayers owns – with my husband, Adam (farm manager); five team members work on the farm.
Adam has always worked in the dairy industry, including on dairy farms in the UK and New Zealand. Adam – who holds a National Agriculture Degree from Lackham College – is also a part-time consultant for Promar. His father was also a dairy herd manager.
We have a son, Abel, and are expecting another child in January 2022.
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The farm is home to 600 Jersey-cross-Friesian cows calving in the spring on 900 acres (stocking rate of 2 cows per ha). In recent years, there has been no expansion as the TB blackouts have limited that.
The main reasons for selecting this type of cow are their ability to convert grass into milk solids and good fertility. Additionally, they have been shown to perform well in a grass based spring calving system and are aggressive grazers.
Breeding program and calving season
Our breeding program takes place over 9-10 AI weeks, i.e. three rounds using proven New Zealand Kiwifruit crossbreed genetics (CRV / LIC).
We moved away from stock bulls but used 2 Speckle Park bulls this season on heifers (R2) after two cycles of AI sexed semen.
Calving begins in February and takes place over ten weeks. Our calving rate at 6 weeks is 87% on cows and 82% on heifers.
Due to our location in the south of UK we get good early grass growth so we try to maximize the use of the grass i.e. as soon as the cows calve, they start to graze.
Our ideal cow weighs approx. 540 kg alive, has a deep body / has high body capacity, has good legs / feet due to the distances traveled and the high fat and protein content.
We rear all dairy heifers on the farm as replacement and calve them when they are 24 months old.
On the other hand, we sell all milking calves and male veal calves to an organic grass-based beef breeder in Cornwall.
We have a swing over 48:96, a Dairymaster milking parlor with milkrite-InterPuls (cluster swap) units, ACRs and a parlor feed. We are planning drafting / unloading doors. 2 people milk 600 cows in 2 hours.
Here are some average performance figures (level of concentrated input: 630kgs per cow and per year) from 2021:
- 5,250 liters sold per cow per lactation.
- 4,300 liters of fodder milk.
- 4.30kgs of milk solids per cow.
- Fat: 4.54%
- Protein: 3.76%
Performance figures from last year:
- 5,250 liters per cow per lactation
- Milk fodder 3933 liters per cow
- 419kgs of milk solids
- Fat: 4.3%
- Protein: 3.54%
Grassland management is important; we undertake a weekly farm walk / grass measurement.
We use Agrinet to analyze the data and make grazing plans, feed decisions and identify the worst performing pens for reseeding. In addition, we have planned a spring and fall rotation with Agrinet.
On average, we have 12 hours of grazing breaks all season long for the cows and we adapt according to weather conditions etc.
Exhibition and infrastructure
In terms of infrastructure, we have enough housing to accommodate the whole herd and the young if necessary. We have a mix of cabin accommodation and bulk courses.
Additionally, we use technology including Herdwatch for cow records and as mentioned Agrinet software for grass management.
In addition, we have installed video surveillance in the calving barns, provided draw doors and have GPS collars mainly to monitor the distance traveled.
There are seasonal changes and challenges, but so many opportunities within the industry.
The main stumbling block is tuberculosis losses. Therefore, managing the effect of the TB outages has been the biggest challenge we have had to overcome since starting this journey.
We are a certified organic farm with accreditation of organic farmers and producers. We get a premium for our milk.
Being an organic dairy farmer means that all the skills are needed to grow and manage grass naturally without chemical fertilizers.
We feed organic meal, have locally grown silage, and do not use non-organic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.
We value our FYM and slurry as fertilizer and capture nitrogen using clover in the meadows. This farm has always been involved in organic.
It is an interesting and rewarding way to grow as it takes a lot of skill to use the tools available to grow as much weed as possible.
Essentially, there is more money in organic dairy production, but there are more costs because the storage rates are lower.
I believe the future of the dairy industry is positive with many opportunities for skilled people with better ladders to come, i.e. shared milking.
Our short term plan is to prepare for next year’s calving season, and in the long term we aim to increase milk solids per cow and performance for each cow.
Overall, we are aiming for more production with the same workforce through breeding programs.
Our target production figures are 450 kg of solids per cow and 4,500 liters of milk fodder.
Women in ag
The life of a woman in agriculture is good; I don’t let him define me. As a teenager, I first received a few negative comments about being a woman and wanting to work on a farm (from an older parent on the farm).
However, I had a chance (by the son who didn’t comment) to prove myself, and the dad took it back and apologized!
As a farm veterinarian, our farmers stood together. My philosophy was to be a good vet regardless of gender.
I think agriculture should be open to everyone; sex shouldn’t be a factor.
We have a mix of women / men on our team. People are defined by their skills and work ethic; sex certainly does not correlate with their ability.
Farming and parenting involves making plans, managing your time, being realistic about what is possible, working as a team, communicating and getting organized among ourselves.
We try to focus on our mental well-being, take time for ourselves as a family, and do things that we love.
We both seized the opportunities that presented themselves back then – every decision we made led to our present life at home and at work.
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