When Andrew Eastabrook joined Hartpury College (now Hartpury University alongside Hartpury College) as farm manager at the beginning of 2017 he was tasked with improving the profitability of the institute’s dairy herd. His first step towards achieving this goal has been to re-align the 300-cow herd from an all-year-round calving system to autumn block calving.
The dairy unit at Home Farm on the 900-acre Hartpury Estate in Gloucestershire is one part of the University and College’s mixed farming enterprise which also comprises 750 ewes, a native breed beef unit, a dairy bull beef rearing unit, a forage enterprise and arable land. In addition to its role as a teaching facility for college and university students, the farm must also operate as a financially independent enterprise. Therefore, with the dairy herd struggling to contribute to the farm’s finances in recent years, Andrew Eastabrook has instigated some key changes to the way the herd is managed, all with the aim of reducing costs and increasing production efficiencies.
Chief amongst these changes has been the decision to move away from all-year-round calving to an autumn block pattern – an ongoing process which has so far paid dividends.
“Moving to an autumn-based calving system was identified as a means of improving the dairy herd’s profitability as it will allow us to take better advantage of our milk contract’s volume bonus scheme which pays more for milk towards the end of the year,” Andrew explains. “It will also enable us to produce more milk from forage as we’ll be able to make better use of our spring grass. We’re currently producing just under 3,000 litres from forage, but that should comfortably increase to 3,500 litres when the whole herd has moved across to the new calving pattern.
“Moving to autumn calving will also simplify the way we manage and feed the cows as we’ll be able to treat the entire herd as one unit instead of having multiple groups. We’ll also be able to focus our attention on specific tasks at clear-cut times of the year which will allow us to manage the herd more precisely.”
To initiate the changes to the herd’s calving pattern, all AI services were put on hold and the herd assessed on a cow-by-cow basis to determine which could be pushed to give an extended lactation, which could be served earlier than usual, and which needed to be culled out.
“Re-aligning the herd’s calving pattern would normally take three or more years to achieve,” Andrew explains. “I didn’t want it to take that long, not just because the University and College need the farm to support itself financially, but because I knew we could make the necessary changes within two years.”
From a biosecurity perspective, Andrew didn’t want to introduce any new stock to the herd. “It was important that we retained our closed herd status to minimise the risk of disease,” he says. “Rather than purchase new replacements, we looked at each of our following heifers on an individual basis to determine which could be brought forward into year one of the new lactation pattern and which would need to wait until year two. We didn’t allow genetic merit to sway our decision-making process, instead focusing purely on fertility to determine our breeding strategy.”