14th April 2015


This month, the Dairylink farmers visited the McCracken farm in Co. Down to get an insight into their farming business.

Dairylink project farmers had an interesting and informative visit last week to Brian and Lynne McCracken’s Cairngaver dairy farm, situated in the Craigantlet hills on the outskirts of Newtownards near Belfast city recently.

The McCrackens run the 250-cow operation as a commercial dairy herd and see achieving a high cash surplus as a key driver of the business. They strive to achieve this in the most sustainable way possible, both in terms of the system and lifestyle. They farm 148ha, with about half of this rented. The milking platform extends to 82ha, so stocking rate is three cows/ha on the platform.

The day began with a group discussion centred on the similarities and differences between the Dairylink farmers and the host farm.

The project farmers had come to the meeting equipped with their own key production information, which was added to a board alongside the McCracken farm detail as they arrived. This generated plenty of discussion and allowed a comparison of data between the project farmers and Brian’s operation.

Brian’s herd totals 253 cows and, on the day of the visit, 230 of these were in milk and 23 were yet to calve. Calving started on 12 February this year, with 86% of cows and heifers calving in the first six weeks. Of all replacement heifers in the herd, 92% also had calved within the first six weeks.

These figures are in stark contrast to the Dairylink farmers, who have a more spread-out calving pattern with the majority of the cows in the group calving in autumn and then into spring.

Autumn switch

Brian was previously in autumn-calving but moved to block spring-calving in 2000. He immediately saw benefits as the costs of production fell and he had more time off in the autumn.

The herd has been bred to New Zealand bulls for the past 20 years with the resulting herd delivering 6,110 litres per cow last year at 4.42% butterfat and 3.44% protein (497kg milk solids per cow). Recently, the McCrackens have been using KiwiCross bulls on the cows.

On the day, the cows looked well and were in good body condition score. Last year, Brian fed 1.2t of concentrate because milk price was high but he plans to feed about 600kg per cow this year.

Cow fertility was high on the agenda for the Dairylink farmers with the Cairngaver herd illustrating what cow fertility can achieve if managed correctly.

Brian outlined his breeding policy which consisted of three weeks pre-breeding heat detection. After four weeks of AI, any cows not seen in heat are picked out and kept in a separate herd with a stock bull. Brian said that there is usually about 30 cows in this group, which represents one row in his milking parlour.

AI is continued for six weeks and stock bulls are then let out for a further six weeks. Brian is slow to use fertility treatments on his cows but he synchronises all of his heifers with a CIDR programme.

Calf rearing

Calf rearing was the next stop for the group. The McCracken farm provided a good example to the Dairylink group of the importance of good animal husbandry and attention to detail. We saw healthy calves and low levels of calf mortality.

A relatively newly-built calf house on the farm handles the large surge of calves resulting from the nature of a compact calving herd.

Calves receive powdered milk in groups of 20 on batch teat feeders and all calves have access to fresh water and concentrate.

Heifer calves are weaned at 100kg and their weights are monitored right up to calving using a mobile weighing scales to see how they compare with target.

In terms of herd health, Brian maintains that prevention is better than cure so he vaccinates for BVD, lepto, IBR, salmonella and rota virus.

With a 78% conception rate to first service in his heifers last year, Brian’s system and targets are undoubtedly delivering and the Dairylink project farmers were impressed with how well all the stock were looking. In terms of labour, Brian and Lynne, along with one full-time employee and part-time help, do most of the work.

Grazing and grass management was next on the agenda for the Dairylink group. Brian described understanding grazing as a ‘‘necessary skill’’ for the farmer – one which requires continuous development.

The McCrackens’ farm is near the coast and hilly, with the highest part of the farm 700ft about sea level. Brian said that, on average, the farm grows 11t of grass per hectare per year.

He said that, over the years, he has learned to manage grass differently than those on drier farms.

“When ground conditions are good, we drive on with grazing and graze as much as we can but then we have no problem with rehousing when things turn wet,” he said.

On the day of the visit, Brian had over 90% of the farm grazed and all slurry and nitrogen was spread, so the farm was well set up for growth.

Brian emphasised the importance of grazing infrastructure to the Dairylink farmers and, in particular, the upkeep of roadways for gaining access to the paddocks.

With an extensive network of good roadways on the McCracken farm, Brian illustrated to the group the importance of strategically positioning internal farm roadways as they allow him to get cows on and off the fields without doing damage at critical times in spring and autumn.

Brian said that the combination of improved breeding and utilising more grass has a significant benefit on milk solids produced and this is worth a lot financially. “On average, our milk price is about 3p/l above base and over the course of the year this is a substantial sum, almost like a thirteenth milk cheque,” he said.

Note: On behalf of the Dairylink team, I would like to thank Brian and Lynne for their hospitality and warm welcome in opening up their farm to the group for the day.

  • A carefully constructed herd health plan has reduced losses and increased performance for Cairngaver Farm.
  • Grass measurement has allowed improved grass utilisation on the farm which grows 11t DM/ha/year.
  • Focused breeding on fertility and milk solids has delivered a robust dairy cow that can generate a positive cash surplus every year.
  • The herd is managed to deliver both a good return and healthy family lifestyle.

Picture Caption: The calf shed on the McCracken farm. Brian and Lynne batch the calves in groups of 20 and then when all calves are reared the shed is used for storing machinery and fertiliser

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Farmers Journal. Please click on the below Irish Farmers Journal logo to be brought to additional dairy articles

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