Ensuring that cows have the best in terms of animal welfare, comfort and feed has allowed Beattie Lilburn and his sons, Reggie and David, to maximise production off twice-a-day milking on their farm outside Dromore in Co Down.
“The Lilburns have the right cow, feed the right inputs, and above all, have the right mentality. This business is focused on the cow. They breed for the system and feed to the best of their ability,” CAFRE dairy adviser Michael Verner told a large crowd of visitors to the farm on Monday.
The visit was the first of a number across NI farms this week as part of the British Grassland Society summer tour. The Lilburns operate Hillcrest Farm milking 265 autumn- and winter-calving Holstein cows. Across 550 acres, 350 is in grass, with 150 acres of combinable crops and 50 acres of wholecrop wheat.
Since 2016, the farm has added 1,500 litres per cow, taking yields to an average of 10,099l.
By selecting bulls that are positive for milk solids, butterfat over the period has increased from 4.12% to 4.20% with protein up from 3.28% to 3.44%. Total yield of milk solids per cow is 772kg.
With high-yielders kept inside, and more milk being produced, concentrate feeding has also increased, moving from 2.12t to 3.15t, leaving feed rate currently at 0.31kg/l, and a milk from forage figure of 3,099l.
The farm has its own silage harvesting equipment and, in recent years, has moved to a multi-cut system involving either four or five cuts of grass.
In 2021, first cut was harvested at the end of April, but after slippage in the pit, the decision was made to wait until the first week of May.
However, broken weather meant it was the following week before material was ensiled. Quality is only down slightly, with ME at 11.8 compared to 12.1MJ last year. Dry matter (DM) is at 33.4%, with a crude protein of 14.6%.
Cows in the high group are on a total mixed ration (TMR) designed to provide forage plus 14 kg of concentrate.
The TMR provides 12.1kg DM of first cut per cow along with 1kg of chopped straw, 2.2kg of soya hulls, 2.1kg of sugarbeet nuts, 2.5kg barley, 2kg of maize meal, 2.5kg soya and 1.6kg of distillers, along with minerals and an acid buffer. Total intake is around 27kg DM.
“It is taking £7 per day to feed each cow, but the high batch is putting £16.80 worth of milk down the lane. It is still paying to feed at the minute,” said Adam Smyth, a nutritionist with Trouw Nutrition.
He said that income over feed cost is still the main metric used on the farm to work out day-to-day profitability, and that the key is to have quality forage.
As well as the farm growing its own cereal, earlier in the year Reggie Lilburn secured all other feedstuffs for next winter, so the farm’s concentrate price will come in well below the current market. He also has some spring beans planted to provide an additional source of protein.
The high group is currently averaging over 40l, and during the winter the top 60 cows averaged 52l, said Reggie.
“We are still twice per day milking. We can’t push milk yield much more,” he suggested, adding that the family is considering whether they should look at installing robots or investing in a parlour to go to three times per day.
There is also a significant spend under way, with a tank installed for a new shed to hold 100 cows.
Other recent investment in housing included the installation of water beds in cubicles, and after some initial hesitation, the Lilburns are happy with the comfort provided to cows.
“I am well pleased with the water beds. I am going to fit another 100,” said Reggie.
However, he has no plans to increase cow numbers, and instead some of the older cubicle housing will be converted into a straw-bedded shed.
Unlike many farmers who like to maximise shed space, the philosophy on the Lilburn farm is slightly different.
“If there are 100 cubicles in a shed, there are only 90 cows in that house.
“Intakes are key if you are wanting to get milk. It is all about cow comfort, space, water and keeping the silage pushed up,” he suggested.
A late-lactation group of cows on the Lilburn farm are currently out at grass day and night.
An average of 250 days in milk, the cows are fed to yield in the parlour. Cows normally go to grass in the first week of April. Milk yield across the group stands at an average of 24 litres.
An individual cow is drafted off from the high group when yield dips below 32 litres, explained Reggie Lilburn. Initially, the cow will go out during the day, and after 10 days, she is at grass full-time.
A bag per acre of nitrogen is spread on grazing every 24 to 25 days. On silage ground, with the Lilburns operating a multi-cut system, only 35 to 40 units are applied each time. Slurry is spread using a trailing shoe, and this has helped to reduce fertiliser costs. A significant arable enterprise on the farm means grass is regularly taken out for crops, and this allows the Lilburns to “drain out” any excess phosphorus or potassium, suggested Reggie.
A specific plan in place for dry cows on the Lilburn farm has virtually eliminated problems often associated with early lactation, including milk fever, ketosis, retained cleanings and displaced abomasums.
“Over the years, we struggled with dry cow diets. We were feeding conventional grass silage and straw, but it wasn’t working,” acknowledged Reggie Lilburn.
He said that the changes included moving to chopped straw, and also growing a silage crop targeted for dry cows.
That crop is a straight Italian ryegrass, grown on a neighbouring crop farm as part of an arable rotation. It receives nitrogen plus sulphur, with no other nutrients applied. The aim is to have a low potassium (K) silage, with an ME value of 9.5 to 10MJ.
Cows are given an eight-week dry period, with the first four weeks at grass. They then move inside on to a diet of 20kg of silage, 3kg chopped straw along with 2kg of a blend and 1kg of a protected protein nut to help improve colostrum quality.
According to Adam Smyth from Trouw, the aim is to ensure that any post-calving issues are avoided, whether linked to metabolic diseases, or because cows are getting too much energy pre-calving and laying down fat.
Newborn calves are tubed with 4l of colostrum, with freshly calved cows moved over to the high group and straight on to the TMR.
The attention to detail across the entire herd means that lifetime yield is now getting close to an average of 45,000l per cow.