How one herd manager is breeding for profit

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Herd manager, Wil Armitage – who made his name by taking showmanship championships at Madison and Toronto Winter Fairs, by developing the highest yielding herd in the UK and winning the coveted Gold Cup – has turned his back on high production in favour of breeding for profit.

There’s an old expression in dairy farming, along the lines that production is vanity and profit is sanity. And it applies just as much today as whenever it was first coined.

For herd owner and manager, Wil Armitage, it has been a driving force for the past 15 or more years.

Of course, few would criticise the ambition both he – and his former employer, now business partner, Peter Dixon Smith – had in the 1990s, which was to win the NMR RABDF Gold Cup and produce the highest yielding herd in the UK.

It is no surprise they achieved this on both counts on the basis of their keen eye for good Holstein cattle and superb standards of management in the 170-head, former Lyons herd.

But today, there has been a sea-change in the philosophy at Keythorpe Lakes Farm in Tugby, Leicestershire, where the 12,000 litre, prize-winning pedigree herd has made way for cattle whose sole raison d’être is to make a profit from milk production.

But perversely, this has not been achieved through breeding with bulls whose Predicted Transmitting Abilities (PTAs) have featured ever-increasing volumes of milk. On the contrary, modest production transmitters have been chosen in favour of those with high PTAs for health, welfare, fertility and lifespan. And since Wil’s business has now been expanded into four block-calving herds – calving in either autumn or spring or in two split blocks – a strong emphasis has been placed on AHDB Dairy’s relatively new Spring and Autumn Calving Indexes (£SCI and £ACI).

Learn more about £SCI and £ACI

The result, according to Wil, has been greater profitability than ever before, which has fuelled ongoing herd expansion and the acquisition of land.

Today, he is involved in various business partnerships including the joint ownership of 274 acres and 570 milking cows, and the farming of 3,650 acres in total, under a variety of farming contracts.

Reaching this point has involved a step-by-step enlightenment over many years, beginning with encouragement from his parents, who keep livestock on Exmoor on a 120 acre holding.

“They said if you want to make money you should go into dairying,” says Wil. “And I’d say if you are prepared to work hard, you can still make a career and money from dairy farming now.”

Having attended Bridgwater College, his sandwich year was spent with the 9,000-plus litre Mundonhall herd in Essex, and it was here he acquired his ‘passion for high yielding cows’.

His first job after college was with the Shalama herd in Dorset, with its strong emphasis on showing. By the end of his tenure, the herd itself had won numerous championships while Wil had become All-Britain champion showman, as well as champion showman at the Madison and Toronto Winter Fairs in North America.

It was in 1990 that he took on the role of herd manager for the greenfield unit at Keythorpe Lakes Farm where he focussed his attention on raising the health, production and calibre of the Lyons herd.

Becoming the UK’s highest yielding herd in 1995 and winning the Gold Cup in 1996 and 1997, the cattle went on to achieve annual production of over 12,000 litres by 2000. At the same time, they had an average somatic cell count of just 93,000/ml, reflecting the high standards of stockmanship and the close attention paid to hygiene and health.

At the heart of the herd was the legendary High-Point Chief Mary EX96 5E who earned even more admirers than the herd as a whole.

“The Chief was my mentor as well as my monitor cow – she responded in milk to whatever went in,” says Wil. “If you got the diet wrong she was the first to tell you – she was such an honest cow.

“She won 17 first prizes at The Royal Show and gave 176 tonnes of milk in her 17-and-a-half years. She was a proper cow – and now she is buried under the apple tree,” he gestures.

However, by the end of the 1990s, it was evident the fortunes of the dairy business were faltering, as prolonged low milk prices hit the industry hard.

“I could see the returns were not there and knew we had to do something different,” says Wil, who by then was overall farm manager of the then 930 acre farm. “Between 2000 and 2003 we were just treading water – there were not the margins to be had and as a high-input/high-output system we were exposed to the risks of feed price rises.”

The decision was taken to sell the Lyons herd upon Peter’s retirement, and to make way for ‘a business that would generate more profit’.

The autumn calving herd which took its place would focus on smaller, sound, commercial cattle which offered ease of management and good standards of health and welfare. They would not be pushed for yields but more for milk from forage, with the aim of increasing margins.

Wil was offered the chance to take on Keythope as a farm business tenancy (FBT) at the time of the switch, but, having no means to raise sufficient finance, had to decline. Instead, he and his employer formed the Keythorpe Farms Partnership, with Wil increasing his share of the business to reach 50:50 within five years.

However, he quickly came to the conclusion that although he would earn a living in the partnership, he’d be unable to grow the business.

“There was now a completely different set of rules and a different hunger to make a profit,” he says. “But I saw no point in putting on more cows, so instead we went organic.”

Breeding by then was increasingly focused on high health and fitness with bulls selected with PTAs of more than +0.08 fat% and +0.08 protein%, +0.4 Lifespan, +10 Fertility Index and at least -15 SCC Index. The herd was bred to achieve a ‘stamp’, with good feet and legs, rump structure, chest width and depth of rib, creating a ‘pretty solid type of cow’.

“We needed to standardise the herd to get the best from flat-rate feeding,” says Wil. “And we didn’t want to push for kg milk because we wanted a low concentrate input system.

“We don’t want to put cows out to grass in February or March giving 40 litres of milk,” he adds. “We want them to thrive on grazed grass and a maximum of 4kg concentrates a day.”

By 2008, profits reached a record high, even outstripping those achieved in the early 1990s when milk price was high.

“I had completely changed the way we managed the cows; we were achieving up to 3,800 litres from forage and of course we benefitted from the higher organic milk price,” he says. “But organic feed is expensive so it was all about hitting the optimum rather than pushing for maximum production.”

Veterinary costs had also plummeted and now stand at 0.64p/litre, around 50% of which is currently the cost of vaccination, although this may reduce further.

“We weren’t calculating vet costs on a cost per litre basis with the old system, but it was significantly more than this,” he says.  

Following the success of the organic conversion, expansion became an option and a new parlour was installed and a feed passage removed to make way for new cubicles. With a feed pad then constructed outside, the herd could expand to 350 head.

Such was the continued success of the business that when the nearby 274 acre Glebe Farm came on to the market in 2011, Wil and Peter opted to buy it.

“Peter and I split the deposit and the Keythorpe Farms Partnership is financing it,” says Wil.

A succession of partnerships and FBTs has followed, now enabling Wil to manage 1,250 milking cows across four herds.

Holsteins have continued to be used in both the spring and autumn calving herds where the focus on breeding has now moved to £SCI and £ACI.

“We opted to stick with Holsteins which can perform really well on the autumn and spring systems, especially with the huge amount of genetic information and the large gene pool we are able to use,” he says.

“We don’t use £PLI (Profitable Lifetime Index) because it’s more suited to year-round calving,” he says. “But the two AHDB Dairy block calving indexes highlight the profitable bulls for our systems.

“The thing I most like about using £SCI and £ACI is plugging bulls in from around the world and standardising their figures on a UK base,” he says. “In the past we have looked at bulls’ country-of-origin figures and their production could look good against that foreign base.

“But indexes from countries such as Ireland or New Zealand each have their particular quirks,” he says. “We found one bull which had 723kg milk in his foreign index, making him one of the top production bulls in that country, but he only converted to 26kg on a UK base.

“We used him a lot on the basis of his foreign figures but when we subsequently looked at his Spring Calving Index, it really highlighted to me that we were working from such a different base in the UK,” he says.

“The £SCI was a far better reflection of what we saw in his daughters on the farm – in fact he wasn’t as good a bull as most of our stock bulls.”

With both £SCI and £ACI featuring the health, fitness and functional type traits demanded by Wil, he says he is happy to use the indexes as a ranking tool.

“Then I’ll make sure the bull transmits small to medium stature, chest width and open rib and avoid anything with short teats at all costs, as it’s pointless having cows you can’t keep the unit on,” he says. “Stature will not be more than +1, and for the spring calving herd, it would ideally be closer to zero.

“We’re not particularly looking for Type Merit as overall type does not equate to profit,” he says. “And the breed has come so far over the past 20 or 30 years that most bulls transmit good functional, working type anyway.

“The management traits such as SCC, mastitis and fertility are much more important and with things like TB resistance and calf survival there are more coming through,” he says. “The new Maintenance Index adds a further dimension and sometimes throws out a bull whose daughters would cost too much to keep.”

Also favouring A2A2 bulls, he says that although not required by his buyer today, he believes this will help breed a cow which should be fit for the future.

By the time he has applied his selection criteria there are few bulls on Wil’s shortlist.   

“For the autumn calvers just served we used mainly Go-Farm Inseme Sprite and returned to Prehen Omen whose daughters are already doing really well,” he says. “But I haven’t yet decided what we’ll use on spring calvers.”

Today he says he is happy with the system and continues to see profits which could encourage further growth. Having switched to organic production for purely financial reasons, he says he now believes the system ‘sits a lot better’ with his farming philosophy.

“Our ultimate goal is profitability and the health of the system,” he says. “That means cow health, farm health and staff health and happiness, as we want to be the employer of choice.”

As for the cows he says they continue to perform well, with good health and fitness, typified by mastitis which runs at four cases per 100 cows per year across the two main herds. Choosing the right genetics is said to be a major factor in their performance and health and fertility will continue to be at the forefront of his breeding choices.

“The reality is that the best cows before would still be the best cows today,” he says. “They’re not necessarily the highest production cows but the ones which stay in the system, produce the lifetime yields and will help future-proof our business.”


Building the business around Keythorpe Lakes Farm

  • 350 autumn calving cows owned in partnership at Keythorpe Lakes Farm
  • Production of 7,400kg at 4.35% fat and 3.40% protein on 1.86t concentrates/cow/yr
  • 220 spring calving cows also owned in partnership at Glebe Farm
  • Production of 6,750kg at 4.10% fat and 3.28% protein on 1.24t concentrates/cow/yr
  • Mastitis rates run at four cases per 100 cows per year across both herds
  • Business now expanded to include two further contract farms
  • Contract farms have mixed breeds and calve in split spring and autumn blocks
  • Breeding based on AHDB Dairy’s Autumn and Spring Calving Indexes (£ACI and £SCI) as primary screening tools
  • Milk destined for US markets as organic cheese via Omsco and Wyke Farms
  • Target grazing season from mid- to late-Feb until mid-November
  • 3,000 acres now farmed organically; 650 acres conventionally and 1,250 cows milked
  • Home-grown organic feeds include grass and clover swards, fodder beet, lucerne, diverse wholecrop (oats, barley, peas, beans, vetch) and oats (fed as part of concentrate)