2,400-head milking herd’s focus on growth and international commercial competitiveness

Almost ten years ago, a strategic review of the farming operations of Grosvenor Farms Ltd, confirmed that dairying in that part of north-west Cheshire was the right business to be in. A multi-million pound investment brought an expansion of the long-established Grosvenor herd, and a declared intent to develop a world-class dairying business. Managing Director Mark Roach explained the ethos of the business to Howard Walsh.

With an expanding herd currently standing at 2,400 pedigree milkers, averaging more than 12,500 litres sold per cow, it is clear that Grosvenor Farms’ mission to be the UK’s leading producer of milk is a very serious one.

However, ‘leading producer’ is not necessarily all about total volume of milk, but also how it is produced economically, how the business integrates with the environment and how it operates in a socially sustainable way.

These objectives were close to the heart of the late sixth Duke of Westminster, Gerald Grosvenor, Past President and Patron of this breed society and now succeeded at the head of the Grosvenor Estate by his son Hugh and his family.

Make no mistake, this is no ordinary, albeit large, dairy farm. One of the largest registered Holstein herds in the UK, it is part of the Duke’s 4,450-hectare (11,000-acre) Eaton Estate farms business and sits alongside a substantial and complementary arable operation.

The farm is a tenant of the estate and the two enterprises, totalling some 2,340ha, are run under a corporate structure where key performance indicators are return on capital and total farm profit. The Eaton Estate itself is essentially one of the business divisions within the overarching and diverse Grosvenor Estate.

A total of 14 other tenants, mainly dairy farmers, occupy another 1,450ha of the Eaton Estate with the balance made up of the family’s home, Eaton Hall, and its surrounding parkland, plus the golf club.

The farms business employs some 40 full-time staff, plus another 10 or so part-time, and operates on a team management style with weekly meetings of key managers and communication throughout the team considered vital.

“In a business like this, managing people is more important than managing cows,” says Managing Director Mark Roach. “Many of the best ideas come from the ground up, and listening to what staff have to say can pay dividends.”

The farms have a good staff retention rate and are prepared to fully train non-farming entrants.

Mr Roach has been in place since 1998, following on from the late Tim Heywood, who became the first managing director of Grosvenor Farms when it was established in 1974. Mr Heywood is acknowledged as having initiated the commercial turnaround of the farms business, along with the establishment of Cogent and promotion of sexed semen technology.

Says Mr Roach: “When I came here to what was a successful arable with dairy operation, it was nevertheless clear to me, with the constraints of the largely Grade 3 and Grade 4 soils and the general infrastructure, it could never actually become a world-class arable farm. But I did believe we could create a world-class dairy farming business.

“The late Duke took a close interest in the farms and in 2003 the decision was made to concentrate on integrating the combinable crops and dairying which meant ceasing the 400ha of potatoes.

Being internationally competitive is going to be increasingly important for farming and we know we have a competitive farming operation here, and we also believe it important that we have the ability to farm without subsidies. In terms of cost of production, we can compete on the world stage – provided UK agriculture does not get its hands tied.

“By that I mean some politicians and some activist groups seem to forget that without profit, there is no ability to invest in environmental projects and I am happy to quote the term ‘sustainable intensification’ coined by former Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington. That is exactly what we have been practicing here for many years.

“Yes, we are a large business, but we have a social and environmental conscience and, remember, we farm around the Grosvenors’ family home and must respect their wishes at all times,” he says.

It is against that background that the dairy farm has been developed to the position it is in today with 2,400 cows and on track for 2,600. In the late 90s, there was already a large herd of 1,100 cows but in seven different groups. The seven were then consolidated into four with about 1,400 head in total, and that is how it remained for a decade.

Says Mr Roach: “We then came to something of a crossroads where the facilities were not best in class. This prompted the strategic review. We could have sweated the assets for maybe another five years, or come out of dairying altogether, or we could have invested, and that is the course of action we decided to take.

“Cheshire is a good area of the country to be dairy farming and the return on capital, which we require to be a minimum of 10% before investing, was deemed competitive. The new unit was designed in-house with animal health and welfare a priority, and building then began in 2013 after senior members of the business including myself, Livestock Manager David Craven and Dairy Herd Manager Mark Farrall, had conducted extensive research and consultations all around the world.

“Since then, we have continued to build and oversee the work ourselves. Initially, two herds were put into one on the new site at Lea Manor Dairy and then by 2016 we could accommodate what were the original four herds, all on the one site. We have housing for 2,400 cows in milk and the completion phase of all the building work will be before the end of this year.”

Lea Manor is a short way along internal metalled estate roads from the main arable hub and farms office at Aldford Hall near the village of Aldford. Up to 500 dry cows are managed half a mile away on a former dairy site, and the rearing heifers are also on a separate unit.

All the new sheds are of the same design with head-to-head cubicles with no forward lunging restriction on the cows. Locking yokes running the length of the sides of the buildings are an essential part of day to day management. The beds are of deep sand and the wide passageways are scraped by tractor. There are four sheds of 400 cows each and one with 600, with the groups determined largely by age although there is also one shed of 200 which are transition cows receiving close attention post-calving for about three weeks.

The sheds are arranged in pairs end-to-end, totalling some 350m in length with slight fall to the mid-point slurry channel. The partly-lawned areas between adjacent sheds are approximately the same width as one shed. The sides are open and there are no climate curtains.

Says Mr Roach: “You can go to a lot of capital expense catering for what, in reality, are probably no more than four or five really bad weather days in a year and it is quite clear that the cows are comfortable whatever the weather. As with everything here, despite the size of the herd, we aim to keep it simple and that is perfectly achievable.”

An interesting design feature is the roof pitch which at 22 degrees is steeper than standard for this type of building but even so, is less steep than some of the units seen in Europe and elsewhere.

Combined with an open ridge with upstanding flashings, Mr Roach says the design makes for a good venturi effect drawing fresh air in from the sides and removing stale air at the ridges. One of the roofs carries solar panels providing more than 100% of the farm’s electricity requirement, with the surplus sold to the grid.

While sand bedding is considered a nightmare by some herd owners and machinery operators, at Grosvenor an efficient separation and recycling system sees sand taken out before the slurry itself is separated into solid and liquid fractions. The recovered sand is stacked and air dried before re-use with no additional treatment – yet mastitis, and hence antibiotic use, are at extremely low levels.

What came as something of a pleasant surprise, was the cows’ swift response to the new unit and its 60-point Boumatic rotary parlour.

Says Mr Roach: “Very quickly we saw a 15% increase in output while we were seeing a 25% reduction in fixed costs through consolidation. The improvement in facilities made the difference, with the cows much more comfortable, and we have recorded an average 14 hours lying time which equates to the behaviour of a grazing cow.”

The cows are milked three times daily at 4am, midday and 8pm at which times the sand beds are raked.

“The parlour will handle about 400 cows an hour and we do not want cows to be away from their shed for more than an hour,” says Mr Roach.

In line with the policy of keeping things simple, there is no in-parlour feeding and only one total mixed ration for the milkers fed once a day, and that is around 50% forage based. Formulated in-house, the main component of the ration is maize silage (15kg), followed by grass silage (10kg) and barley silage (10kg). It also includes 6kg of wholecrop barley, 5kg Trafford Gold, 5kg of bread and 5kg rape meal, plus various co-products, the latter, says Mr Roach, being very important and cost-effective.

The winter barley silage has proved to be a relatively inexpensive crop to grow without any chemicals, and is simply a catch crop in between maize, using the farm’s own feed barley as seed. Sown after the maize has been cleared and then harvested in early May, it yielded 27 tonnes/ha and analysed on a par with grass silage.

Unsurprisingly, for many years the breeding policy in the Grosvenor herd has been based on Cogent sires and services. In the 1990s it was used as a nucleus herd to produce bull mothers.

In 2017 the major shareholding in Cogent was sold to Texas-based ST Genetics with which it has had a relationship for more than 20 years The farm continues to take advantage of most of its services under the Precision banner, including ‘custom index’ and not least MooMonitor+, and the latest Ultra4m sexed semen technology.

While the herd is run very much on a commercial basis, it has always been pedigree registered, although it is no longer classifying – and you will not see Grosvenor in the show-ring.

There remain half-a-dozen ‘official’ 100-tonne cows still milking, daughters of Spooky, Menzo, Desmond and Azure. Certain old-established cow families like Hatterscot, Looking and Tex, to name but three, continue to produce the goods. A Looking was in fact the first Cogent nucleus cow and the Tex family includes the dam of Cogent Twist.

Says Mr Roach: “We continue to register heifers as it does provide real interest for the team, particularly senior members and does help retain a focus on the genetics we are using.”

Genomic testing is now however a key tool in the herd’s breeding strategy and every female is tested.

“It surprised me how much variation there is, and we only select the top 70% of heifers and the top end of the cows from which to breed replacements.

“We think the best way to improve a herd in the shortest time is to genomic test and use Ultra4m semen. Sexed semen sires used to date include Watson, Shooter, Dynasty, Rubicon, Rubi-Haze, Jones and Slater. Very little conventional dairy semen is used and we have found very little difference in conception rate using sexed.”

Herd Manager Mark Farrall says the aim is to breed productive animals well suited to life in cubicles. Particularly impressive from the current shed of second calvers, are daughters of Model Man, Supershot and Drummer. Very promising among the milking heifers were Mr Greys.

“We like clean legs and bone and everything else which contributes to longevity, but we are not looking for shows cows. Our current replacement rate is 24% including both involuntary and voluntary culls.”

A genetic audit of the herd proved interesting. For fat and protein it was in the top 1% but for some other traits, was only average, and so the focus shifted somewhat for a while on to improving these other traits, although it is now back on production. Custom index selection for the best genomic match is targeted at the farm’s main goals and its Muller Tesco milk contract pays mainly on volume and butterfat.

Mr Farrall says MooMonitor collars have helped enormously in improving fertility but also in highlighting other issues before they become readily apparent. Current practice is to begin serving 50 days after calving with a willingness to use OvSynch on perhaps 20% if necessary.

Heifer rearing diets are adjusted to achieve a daily gain of 0.9kg, meaning they reach at least 380kg at 12-months-old – the earliest at which they would be served with sexed semen – and a target minimum of 620kg at calving at 23 months. The regime begins with an automated group rearing unit for up to 200 heifer calves with three follow-on units grouped by age and, finally, an in-calf unit.

The aim is for an average 100 heifers calving per month with the bottom 20% de-selected on genomics and sold, albeit those do still rank as high genetic animals. It is estimated it costs around £1,600 to rear a heifer to calving on this regime.

Having traditionally been a ‘closed’ herd, a TB breakdown last year saw 200 animals slaughtered and that has meant a temporary change to ‘open’. Up to 700 replacements are being sourced from Europe – and a few from TB-free areas in the UK – but the plan is to close the gates again before too long.

For all calvers, snatch calving is practised as a routine precaution against Johne’s and all the colostrum subsequently fed is pasteurised.

While black and white bull calves are now a relatively rare occurrence in the Grosvenor herd, sexed beef semen is also being used now for those heifers and cows inseminated to Aberdeen Angus in order to maximise male calves. All beef calves, whether Aberdeen Angus or British Blue are sold.

Farm, crops and livestock

  • 2,340ha; 60% heavy Cheshire clay; 12% sand; large area of floodland with 25% in stewardship
  • 26 inches of rainfall pa
  • Maize 409ha; grassland 330ha, Winter wheat 431ha; winter rape 230ha; winter barley 227ha; spring barley 220ha
  • Most grassland permanent , re-seeded when necessary
  • Environmental stewardship 216ha
  • Cows 2,250, replacement heifers 1,250

Dairy herd performance

  • Total milk sold: 25 million litres
  • 12,555 litres sold per cow; 3.81% butterfat, 3.39% protein; SCC 167
  • 2.71 t/cow concentrates
  • 7.6 ppl feed cost
  • MOPF / cow £2,850
  • Muller Tesco contract 30.3ppl

Sustainable farming practices/targets

  • Aiming for minimum carbon footprint in milk and grain production
  • Crops provide feed and bedding; livestock provide organic manures for grassland and combinable crops
  • Efficient separation and use of slurry on crops; liquid stored in reservoirs (extensive underground dirty water piping system serving 40m booms on low energy pumps)
  • No purchased P and K; 50% of N from recycled manures
  • Solar panels proved all energy plus a surplus
  • Water recycled
  • Sand bedding recycled
  • Unsuitable cropping land farmed for biodiversity and environmental good under stewardship schemes
  • 2,000-plus visitors including schoolchildren and local business groups

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