Strategic Dairy farm launch meeting 11 April 2018

Monday, 21 May 2018

Steady investment and targeted improvements by the Tucker family have turned Ditchetts Farm into a successful and profitable spring block calving operation.

Brenda and Nigel Tucker took over the tenancy of the 150 acre, 40 cow, all year round calving farm from his parents in 1990. The move to block calving followed a trip to Ireland in 1999.

“That was the turning point and the best thing we’ve ever done as it gave us the insight to what we’re doing now. It also encouraged us to start the Grassmaster discussion group, which was fantastic as we used to come home from meetings buzzing” said Brenda.

After that they started growing cow numbers, buying some in but breeding the rest. They borrowed to invest in a new 20:40 herringbone parlour to replace the existing 8 abreast, reducing milking time from seven hours to below three.

Joining the family partnership in 2008, Richard Tucker has helped the herd grow to 240 strong through a combination of taking on further land, outwintering and sending dry cows to a neighbour.

Richard explained: “I joined at a time when my parents had gone through struggles with fertility after BVD and IBR went through the herd. Our considered approach allowed us to target the right areas and expand without taking on too much cost.

The farm starts calving on the 7th February to make the most of the grass. This year they have 247 ready to calve, which will finished by the end of April and they’ll still be able to sell cows on.”

Talking about why they chose block calving, Richard said: “It comes down to mentality. You need to target fertility at the right time and then focus on fat and protein. Our investment in reseeding and various trials means we’re growing 15+ tonne DM of grass per hectare on the grazing platform. That’s what drives this system and is the key to success on farm.

“Benchmarking through local discussion groups is also key and there’s now plenty of block calvers to compare against. Our performance was just below others and we learnt we’d focused too much on grass on not enough on the cows. AHDB’s KPIs will help us focus on other areas.”

They are aiming for a 500kg Friesian x Jersey cow that produces 500kg of solids using 500kg of concentrates. “We need a 5,500 litre cow but we’re not there yet as we’re feeding too much for maintenance due to our relatively high stocking rate” said Richard.

Dick Sibley, the farm’s vet from West Ridge Veterinary Practice added: “The cows are quite robust. We score them at every visit and see little variation as a result of their focus on breeding. Maintaining body condition is key as we don’t want them to lose flesh after calving.

“For pre-mating they use red tail paint and aim to serve in May with a focus on heat detection. We AI for six weeks and then use a Hereford sweeper bull. There is a strict Johnes health plan as part of a comprehensive infectious disease control programme.”

Drying off is governed by the average farm grass cover, last year grazing ended on 18 November at which point the dry cows were moved full time into a new purpose built straw bedded shed. Youngstock are kept away from the milking platform and don’t join the main herd until after they’ve calved.

Currently 78% of cows are calved within six weeks. Richard said: “I’d like this to be higher, but the figure does include surplus cows so if we removed those we’d be closer to 90%

All calves receive colostrum from their own mothers and will be weaned once they’re eating 1kg cake. Calves are weighed regularly but an outbreak of rotavirus meant growth was only 0.38kg per day due, but is now back to 0.7 to 0.8kg.

Dick remarked: “They are considering vaccinating for rotavirus but the key is to feed good quality colostrum to prevent the disease in the first place.”

They aim to serve a least 10 cows per day to achieve a 90% submission rate. They monitor each week and look at non-return rates in the fourth, fifth and sixth weeks.

“Fertility is vital because it determines days in milk and milk yield, and is the number one reason for our low herd replacement rate of 20%” said Richard.

Calf sales and surplus stock are a big part of their business. They sold 20 milking cattle last year and their neighbour takes all their bull calves. While their total farm business cost is 31.4 pence per litre, the Tuckers still return a profit before tax and drawings of 9ppl.