In the month of December 2020, John Mann’s herd averaged 4.70% fat and 3.59% protein, continuing with its high solids theme of the autumn months. As it motors into 2021, it persists in this vein with fat plus protein still tipping the scales at almost 8.3%. But this is no herd of Channel Island cattle; it’s a herd of Holsteins giving 10,493 litres (12-month rolling) on twice-a-day milking. Consuming a relatively simple ration with a large proportion of home-grown feeds, it clocks up an impressive margin over concentrates (MOC) of £2,465/cow/year.
So, what’s behind the performance of the 360 Holsteins milked by Mr Mann, his wife, Dot, and the team at Crooklands Farm on the Solway Plain, near Wigton in north Cumbria?
He says it’s a combination of factors which all feed into the melting pot, including the highest animal health he is able to achieve; the best quality, high dry matter forage he can make; the long-term selection of Holstein genetics for fat and protein percent; and a team around him in which he can put his trust.
Farming 700 acres (283ha), of which 600 (243ha) is ploughable, he aims to maximise the feeds he grows at home.
He says: “We are lucky to have good land for Cumbria, which is quite early and free-draining, and we want to control the security of the business by growing as much high-quality feed as we can.
“This is both better and cheaper than relying on purchased feeds, which have the added risk of fluctuating prices.”
Crimp increases milk solids
To this end, home-grown crimped cereals form an important part of the milking herd’s ration, an ingredient which can be fed in higher quantity than dried cereals and which has a lower risk of acidosis.
The farm’s advisor and nutritionist, Mark Robinson explains: “Crimp works exceptionally well in the milking herd and more of the starch element bypasses the rumen than with dry grain.
“The fibre in the moist crimp is also more digestible than that in dry grain, and this, linked with the bypass starch, contributes to the high butterfats and proteins.”
A combination of crimped wheat and barley is included in the total mixed ration at a rate of 5kg/head, forming the principal concentrate component of the cows’ diet as per the table below.
Current milking ration at Crooklands Farm (freshweights per cow per day)
16kg maize silage
22kg grass silage (second/third cut) 5kg crimped wheat/barley
3.2kg soya hulls
2.4kg dark distillers grains
2.4kg rapeseed meal
1.2kg hi-pro soya
250g fat blend
Yeast, bicarb, minerals, limestone
6kg added water to give DM of 42%
Dry matter intake, 24.5kg/cow/day
ME 12.1 MJ/kg DM; protein 17.2%
The crimped, moist cereals also fit in well with the feeding regime, as well as the Cumbrian climate.
Mr Mann says: “We have short summers in this part of the world, and we can harvest the crimp at a target 35% moisture by early July. That’s two to three weeks earlier than traditional cereal harvest so it’s popular with our contractor and helps get autumn cultivations off to an early start.
“A lot of people seem to crimp as a last resort when they’re unable to harvest their cereals dry,” he observes. “But we plan for it, and have been doing that for over 30 years. We have a Korte 2000 to do the crimping and the preservative ready on the day of harvest to do the job properly. This ensures we have a high-quality product to feed straight from the clamp, making a lot less work through the winter.
“We use the preservative CrimpSafe 300 which we find stops spoilage altogether – unlike some of the older additives we used in the past.”
Having fine-tuned the process, he now crimps 100% of the cereals grown on the farm; he buys in a further 100-150 tonnes and clamps approximately 900 tonnes every year.
Commenting on other components of the ration, Mr Robinson says: “John doesn’t feed any protected soya or rape, which many high yielding herds do.”
The upshot of the good milk production and cost-effective ingredients is impressive financial performance. The MOC of £2,465/cow/year stems from a 12-month rolling milk price from Arla (supplying Morrisons) of 32.03p/litre (excluding the 13th payment) and concentrate costs of 8.54p/litre. This includes the crimp which is costed at £100/tonne (freshweight), or £130/tonne on a dry equivalent basis.
However, the performance of the herd depends on far more than the concentrates and Mr Robinson remarks: “Milk quality comes from the quality of forage, without a shadow of doubt.”
“If you can get your base energy up with forages, it’s so much cheaper, the cows do better, and it adds to their condition and the quality of their milk.”
Mr Robinson remarks: “Milk quality comes from the quality of forage, without a shadow of doubt.”
Like the crimp, the forage is made with precision and care, following research and trips to the Netherlands, where multi-cut systems and high dry matter forages are commonplace.
Silage quality in a wet climate
Achieving this in Cumbria can be a challenge, but young grass is generally harvested over four cuts and dry matters of 35-40% and metabolisable energy (ME) of 11-12MJ/kg DM are now regularly achieved.
Mr Mann says: “I would rather have quality forage in the pit than water, and the drier silage keeps so much better and is easier to feed out.”
Also remarking on its importance for cow performance, he says: “If you can get your base energy up with forages, it’s so much cheaper, the cows do better, and it adds to their condition and the quality of their milk.”
Furthermore, he adds: “There is only so much room in the cow’s rumen, and you will not achieve high dry matter intakes with low dry matter forage. “In other words, if you fill her stomach up with stuff that’s not going to make milk, you are not going to make milk!”
The grass silage is made by cutting with a mower-conditioner ‘as quickly as possible’, and tedding immediately – either once or twice, depending on weather conditions – before clamping within 24 to 36 hours. Clamping is carried out with equal attention to detail, with particular efforts focussed on compaction.
“The main thing with silage is getting the air out, so when I discovered the SilaPactor, which does exactly this job, I believe I bought the first one in the UK,” he says. “I have been buckraking silage since I left school around 30 years ago and have been looking for something like it since then. “We also find it halves the workload of the guy on the buckrake and we wouldn’t be without it now for either grass or maize.”
Calculating silage bulk density
The effects of the SilaPactor have been assessed by the farm consultant who calculates the bulk density of the clamp when the farm prepares its forage budgets.
“We cut, measure and weigh a block from each clamp and achieve bulk densities of 250-260kg DM/m3 in grass silage, compared with around 230kg DM/m3 I’d typically expect,” says Mr Robinson.
“It’s surprising the difference this makes to the invisible losses in the clamp as well as the waste at the trough,” he says. “In fact, another client of mine now hires John’s SilaPactor and it’s made a noticeable difference to his forage waste.”
Both grass and maize silage are preserved on Crooklands Farm with a top-of-the-range additive, further cutting the risk of losses through the fermentation process.
Taking advice from Kelvin Cave, Mr Mann says: “We’ve used the preservative, Safesil Pro, since it was introduced, and found it does a job nothing else can touch.
“We have tried other additives in the past, including some biologicals, but they’ve been inconsistent and don’t have the same effect,” he says.
Michael Carpenter is Kelvin Cave’s area manager in the north of England and explains the different mechanism of the Safesil preservatives. He says: “Unlike bacterial inoculants which work by encouraging a particular type of fermentation, these products contain human food grade preservatives which actually eliminate the growth of undesirable, nutrient-wasting bacteria, such as clostridia and enterobacteria, and stop the growth of yeasts and moulds.
“This provides the environment for lactic acid bacteria to achieve a rapid reduction of pH, so quickly preserving the nutrient value and palatability of the forage and preventing its spoilage.”
This is evident across both the maize and grass silage clamps on the farm, where the 50-foot faces remain stone cold, and clamp management is described by Michael as ‘exceptional’.
“As costings reports generally tell us, the UK’s most profitable farmers spend more on forage and less on concentrates, and John is a case in point,” he adds.
Best quality silage for AD
It is also notable that Mr Mann uses his high-quality forage as a feedstock for his anaerobic digester, just as he does with the cows.
“Just like the rumen, the AD plant is only so big, so if every kilogram going in is better quality, you’ll generate more energy,” he says.
The icing on the cake is feeding the cattle their TMR through the twin auger Triolet wagon, which is fitted with Cow Connect, a system designed for optimal mixing and consistency of feeding. Consistency of mix and palatability are enhanced further by the addition of 6kg water per head.
He says: “Cow Connect works particularly well when you have multiple operators and each can see how accurate they are and make the necessary adjustments.”
Other performance parameters alongside production reflect the success of the herd’s management, including exceptional heat detection (aided by activity monitors), a 28% pregnancy rate and a calving interval of 381 days. Replacement heifers are close to hitting their target growth rate of 0.9kg/day, and they calve at 24 months at a liveweight of 670-680kg.
Cows are also in better condition than the typical Holstein, with efforts made through breeding to limit increases in stature and build robustness into the herd.
As Mr Robinson observes: “I’d describe John’s cows as ‘looking well’, but then you don’t get high milk proteins out of thin cows.”
Others clearly concur with the advisor’s observation and it has even been mooted by neighbours and friends that the Mann family’s cattle are really ‘Jerseys in disguise’!