23 Nov 2023

Farmer Focus: Mr R D Fleming, Hillhead, Lockerbie

Lockerbie-based dairy farmer Willie Fleming farms in partnership with his parents, Robert and Margaret, and has grown the dairy herd from 100 cattle to a herd of 370 pedigree Holstein cows.  At any one time, they milk 330 cows, producing an average of 13,200 litres with 4.09% butterfat and 3.47% protein. The milking herd are fully housed in a purpose built, 320 cubicle shed and milked through six Lely robots.

Data from milk recording and genomics is key for Willie when it comes to managing the herd and making breeding decisions. They milk record monthly, self-sampling with the robot shuttles, which automatically takes a sample of each milking during the period of milk recording which is usually overnight and early morning.

“Our Lely robots provide a lot of instant data on each cow, but we still see the value of milk recording through CIS. The cell count reports from CIS are useful for looking for consistently high offenders, making sure we don’t breed them back. I believe one of the biggest advantages of milk recording is the ease of individual health testing, meaning every animal is being checked without any additional work. The reports on YourHerd are insightful, in particular the CIS fertility report providing an overview of where the herd averages are and the herd predicted future calving interval.” says Willie.

They BVD tag and test all youngstock at Hillhead, using tags purchased from CIS, finding the tags very reliable and having no problems with samples. The herd are regularly tested for Johnes, a service Willie wouldn’t want to be without as the results are used to deal with any problem cows. Quarterly testing is also carried out for Lepto and IBR with plans to monitor other diseases in the future to have a good view of the overall health status of the herd to meet targets set by their milk buyer.

Breeding is a key focus for Willie whose milking herd sits in the top 1% for £PLI, predicted transmitting ability (PTA) of kilograms of milk, fat and protein, and AHDB’s new genetic index EnviroCow.

Sexed semen is used on 80% of the herd with the remaining 20% put to beef. With a replacement rate of 27%, Willie consciously breeds more replacements than he needs, genomically testing youngstock to aid his decisions about which heifers will be entering the milking herd.

Willie has clear goals for the herd and knows which traits he is looking for as part of his breeding programme.

“During the past 10 years, we’ve really focused on breeding for a longer lifespan,” says Willie. “This allows us to be more selective in the ones that we keep. More than 10% of the herd are in their fifth lactation or more, and I’m looking to maintain that. Some of our fourth- and fifth-lactation cows are our highest yielding. Our heifers average between 11,000 and 12,000 litres, a second calver perhaps 14,000 litres, but the older ones produce 16,000 or 17,000 litres”, adds Willie.

Bulls need to have a £PLI score over 800 to be selected for the Hillhead herd and need to have good scores for yield and constituents. Willie has recently focussed on using bulls with traits that will breed daughters that are suited to the robots, as well as slowly reducing the stature of the herd while maintaining milk yield. This should help increase our maintenance scores and further improve our environmental credentials.

Understanding the data of his herd has been a vital part of Willie’s success. His advice to those wanting to better understand the genetics of their herd is to start to look at their own herd genetic report.

“Knowing where your herd is to begin with is vital. Only then can you look at the characteristics you want to improve and decide what you are aiming for. This will help to work through the available options and select the bulls that are best suited to breed cows that suit the system and your dairy-business goals”, concludes Willie.