Farming Connect Study Visit - Merlin Discussion Group

Funded through the Knowledge Transfer, Innovation and Advisory Service programme under the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014 - 2020

Merlin Discussion Group

Northern Ireland

17th - 19th of October 2016

1) Background

The aim of the visit to Northern Ireland was to see how their farming systems operate so that the group can take note of what they have seen and implement the positive practices on their farms.  Irish farmers are well known for producing milk very efficiently from grass based systems.  As the Merlin group are all grass based farmers, a visit to Northern Ireland will help to improve the groups milk production from grass by seeing how they are able to do it so efficiently. 

Such discussions would involve grass production, measuring and utilizing grass as efficient as possible, grazing practices, farm infrastructures to enable grass o be grazed as efficient as possible, ways of extending the grazing season, fertiliser use, breeding targets and objectives, fertility, milk produced from forage, concentrates use, herd health protocols, reducing costs and many more.  The aim of the visits were be to improve all the above and more on their home farms as they hope to learn from what they have seen on Irish farms.

Irish farmers are well known for producing milk efficiently from grass and have arguably some of the best farms in the UK in doing this.  The Merlin group are a well-established group with successful farmers and in order to further improve, they need to visit the best farms that apply the best practices on both similar and different farming systems. 

A study tour looking at quality grassed based dairy farms in Ireland including a previous winner of the grassland farmer of the year competition and a leading institute in agri research and development would offer this and provide the group members with the gains to further improve and be successful.


2) Itinerary

2.1 - Day 1 (Tuesday 18/10/16)

AM Visit – The Somerville family, The Fort Farm

The study tour began with a visit to The Fort Farm which is owned and run by the Somerville Family who have been farming at The Fort Farm for the past 5 generations.  The farm consist of 131.50ha of which 103ha is used for the dairy cows.  The herd consists of 225 dairy cows, 90% of these are autumn calvers and 10% are spring calving.  The herd are in transition and are moving to 100% autumn calving.  In 2007 they participated in a cross breeding trial run by Hillsborough research.  The cross breeding programme starts with a fresian, then to a Jersey and then to a third breed which is currently Swedish red but has included brown swiss, fleckveigh and montbelliarde.  The system is grass based, with easy feed grass silage and concentrates fed in the parlour and out of parlour feeders in the winter and grass and parlour concentrates in the summer.

The 3 way cross provided some discussion points with a number of the group asking about individual crosses and their benefits.

Gregg went on to provide some more detail on the farm and stated that the grazing platform is limited and therefore the first 50 cows to dry off are taken to other land away from the main farm which also has a parlour and are milked there from April through to August.

Gregg then took the group out towards the cows and whilst walking through some grazed paddocks, Gregg mentioned that he found it difficult to graze down to where he wanted and felt that there was too much wastage.  Whilst looking at a few grazed paddocks, the group agreed and felt there was a lot of dead material at the base of some of the swards.  Discussions progressed as to what could be done to improve grassland utilisation and such suggestions included grazing them harder in the spring so that there is a clean fresh ley at the start of the season.  There may also possibly be some surface compaction and water and urine etc not draining through as quickly as it should and could be another possible reason for the cows not utilising the grass as well as they should.  The farm grew 10t / ha this year.

The group then went to see the dairy herd and discussions rose regarding the 3 way cross again and questions were asked regarding their performance and Gregg’s opinion etc.  Gregg mentioned that some of the Swedish red had a tendency to be a little nervous at times.

Gregg had also given the group a handout containing some farm facts, grass growth curve and CFP which provided a number of points for discussion throughout the day.

Key points gained from this visit included gaining valuable information from the 3 way cross breeding system, an alternative idea to someone who has limitations in terms of the size of the grazing platform and discussions on means of improving grassland utilisation and improving milk from forage.


PM – Hillsborough Research Centre (Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute.  afbi)

The group was welcomed by Steven Morrison and the visit to Hillsborough research centre began with a visit to the calf and heifer rearing facilities and a talk by the heifer rearing team.  The team began by outlining the importance of good calf and heifer rearing and stated that calf mortality – 6% mortality rate has been estimated to cost UK agriculture £60 million / year (DEFRA).  Post-mortem analysis by AFBI found that the main causes of neonatal death and ill health are enteric disease and pneumonia.  The team then went on to outline the importance of good quality colostrum to a calf in the first hours of life and explained that it is vital to calf survival pre-weaning.

The team outlined that they are currently running a project with the objective of investigating mortality / morbidity rates of dairy calves and the impact of immunity and ill health on animal performance.  Such research includes identifying the main factors that impact colostrum quality, assessing the development of immunocompetence through antibody and blood level monitoring, evaluating the impact of passive immune status on vaccine response, immune system development, response to weaning stress and measuring the welfare of calves under different production systems. 

Discussions continued on colostrum quality, weaning weights, pneumonia etc before the group moved on the next speaker Gary Lyons who described the anaerobic digester that they have on farm.  Gary explained that the main objective of having an AD plan at AFBI was to consider the potential of on farm AD plants in Northern Ireland and whether or not they are a viable investment on farm.  Basically the AD plant converts organic matter to biogas in the absence of oxygen.  Feedstocks for the AD plant include sewage, animal manures, agricultural crops, animal by-products, organic wastes from industry and the organic fraction of household waste.  The AD plant can produce biogas as a renewable energy and can help with managing the nutrients in slurry thus making it an interesting investment project for dairy farmers to consider.

The next speaker was Mike Davies, the dairy herd manager at AFBI who began by taking the group through the cow shed and explained that there was facilities in the cow shed to feed each cow individually on a specific ration if required for various trials and research.  Each individual feed trough had scales to weigh the feed and ID detection for all individual cows.  The group then continued to the rotary milking parlour when milking was currently taking place.  They had recently invested in a rotary parlour and Mike explained that the reasons behind selecting a rotary was that it was far easier to feed cows individually for their trials and another reason was that it was farm more practical to separate different cow lots as they exit a rotary rather than a herringbone.  Depending on the different trials taking place, the dairy herd may be split up in to as many as 16 different groups for different research projects.  Mike then gave the group some info on the dairy herd and the facilities before handing over to Conrad Ferris who went into some more details on the dairy research projects that AFBI have run and are currently running. 

Completed research project over current years included 3 way crossbreeding of dairy cows, comparison of Holstein Fresian cows with Jersey crossbred and Norwegian red, grassland performance and its relationship with profitability on 10 Northern Ireland dairy farms, the effect of applying slurry during a grazing season on dairy cow performance and many more.  Current projects include the role of high protein forages and home grow protein in Northern Ireland dairy farms, grazing performance study for heifers comparing a 3 day rotation, 6 day rotation and continuous grazing and studies on colostrum.

Key points gained from this visit included being reminded of the importance of the care of the new born calf especially in terms of colostrum management, how an AD plant could benefit a dairy farm and information on the comparisons of different dairy crossbreds.


2.2 - Day 2

AM – Jack, Brian & Lynne McCracken, Cairngaver farm

Day 2 began with a visit to see John, Brian and Lynne McCracken at Cairngaver farm, Newtownards.  Cairngaver farm is located in the Craiganlet Hills and the land rises from 400 to 700 feet above sea level and overlooks Newtonards and Strangford Lough.  Farm land consists of 52ha owned and 96ha rented.  Total grassland is 148ha and the grassland available for grazing is 88ha. 

The meeting began in the dairy where Brian discussed his farm map that was on the dairy wall.  Brian explained that he rented quite a bit of land and had 7 different tenants which proved to be challenging at times.  Discussions continued in the dairy on the type of land, land prices, likelihood of some of the rented land becoming available to purchase etc.

Brian then led the group up the cow tracks towards the fields where the cows were grazing.  During the walk the group complemented Brian on the quality of grassland that he had and the cows were grazing down and utilising the grass well.  The herd consist of 230 crossbred dairy cows and Brian switched from autumn calving to spring calving completely in 2001.  Brian explained a bit about the breeding and what they look for and said that the herd have been bred to New Zealand bulls for the last 20 years and that they had also been involved in the Hillsborough cross breeding trial.  The majority of the herd calve in February and March with some tail enders calving in April. 

Brian gave the group a hand out containing some useful information that group members would be able to benchmark against their own herds.  Such information included calvings per month from 2005 to 2016, cows and heifers 6 week pd rate, 6 week calving rate, labour info, litres sold over recent years, average butter fat and protein percentages, culling rates, cows / ha, grass growth and concentrates usage.  This provided many points for discussion out on the field with Brian stating that he aims to keep cost of production as little as possible which he feels is essential now in such a volatile market in terms of milk prices.  Brian also stated that he had to many cows at one point and therefore decided to lease cows out to 2 other farmers.  This provided interesting points for discussion as this provided Brian with another income and could be an option for some of the group members.

The meeting then continued down towards the heifer rearing block of land where the group were all in agreement that the heifers were looking extremely well.  Brian brought up an interesting discussion point in that he had no problem in feeding calves milk until they are 90 – 100kgs.  Many recommend weaning when the calf is double their birth weight which with this type of crossbred would be between 75 and 80 kgs.  Brian said that he prefers to make sure that they are strong before weaning as he remembers something his father had told him, ‘You only get one chance with a calf’.

The meeting then continued towards some reed beds that Brian and family had recently invested in.  Dirty water from farm yards would run into these reed ponds and would then take a zig zag course across the field from pond to pond and whilst moving the water is filtered by the reeds absorbing the nutrients from the dirty water.  Brian explained that the area for the reed ponds and the zig zag course of the water needed to be double the size of the yards collecting the dirty water.  The group were very interested in this idea and Brian explained that he saves significant costs in storage and pumping every year.

Brian then brought the meeting to an end back on the yard with the group all stating that they had found the visit extremely interesting and had gained some valuable information that they could benchmark with their own business and some interesting new ideas such as the reed ponds.


PM – Colin Boggs, Clover Hill.  UK Grassland farmer of the year 2015

The last visit of the study tour was a visit to see the winner of the UK grassland farmer of the year Colin Boggs who farms at Clover Hill near Banbridge, Co.Down.  The herd consists of 120 cows calving from mid-January until mid-April producing a rolling average of 6,530 litres / cow at 4.35% butterfat and 3.50% protein.  Only 666kg concentrates are fed per cow which equates to 0.1kg per litre, giving an impressive 5,161 litres from forage.  Milk from forage is a KPI that the group would use and benchmark against each other and all group members were impressed by the milk that Colin was getting from forage and were keen to find out how he was achieving such a high figure. 

The meeting began with a discussion on the yard and focussed on how Collin was achieving such a high milk from forage and the group were also keen to hear about the pre-mowing that Colin does on the farm.  Collin aims to turn out as early as possible and keep grass at the leafy stage through using rotational paddocks and pre-mowing from the second grazing until the end of the growth season. Towards the end of the season grass is zero-grazed, meaning that grass grown further away can be used and keeping grass in the diet whilst also maintaining utilisation.

Colin took the group out to the field where the cows were grazing and the group were able to see how well the grass was being utilised here and saw a paddock that had been pre-mowed ready for that night.  Colin stated that he usually likes to mow more 24 hrs prior to the cows grazing if conditions allow.  The group were keen to find out the costs of pre-mowing and whether the extra cost was worth it.  Colin didn’t have any exact figures for this but stated that they have a basic mower which they aim to change ever 3 to 4 years.

All of Colin’s pastures are sown with varieties from the Northern Ireland recommended list, and he comments that pre-mowing helps them last longer. He makes best use of free nutrient planning tools to ensure cost-efficiency of inputs versus outputs.

The group continued to walk around other paddocks and the quality of grassland and it’s utilisation over that season was clear as there was little dead material at the base of any of the swards, it was all fresh, leafy grass and was obviously a big contributing factor to the high milk from forage figures.

The meeting was brought to an end in the farm house where the group and Colin started discussing figures and margins and some interesting discussions on dry cow therapy as Colin was thinking about selective dry cow therapy at drying off this year.

Some key take home messages from this visit was the quality of grass and utilisation gained throughout the grazing season from pre-mowing.  Although they couldn’t put a cost to this on the day to see whether pre-mowing was worth it financially, each group member could easily put a cost on it for their systems and consider it as a possibility for their grazing platform for next year.


3) Next Steps

This study tour has provided some valuable information for the group and has provided individuals with some new ideas that they may possibly use to further improve their Farming Systems.  Such points include the following:-

Look at various cross breeding methods including the 3 way cross
Look at ways of further improving milk from forage including pre-mowing of grazing paddocks throughout the grazing season
Identify the cost of pre mowing for the group’s individual businesses and identify whether the improvements in milk from forage and grass utilisation are sufficient to cover the additional costs of pre-mowing
Realise the importance of the first grazing round to clean up pastures as this has a significant effect on the quality of the grassland pastures for the grazing season.
Do more research on AD plants and their viability on farms in Wales
Do more research on reed ponds for the handling of dirty water
Continue or further improve attention to detail with calf rearing and in particular colostrum management.
The study tour has been beneficial for all involved and each individual can take something from the visits to further improve their current farming businesses.