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- Partnership with Germany proves profitable for Kent farmer
For tenant dairy farmer, William Westacott, purchasing all replacement heifers remains a profitable approach to his system. Not only does it make financial sense, but it also allows him to maintain a strong disease-free herd health status.
The system change came-about eight years ago, when Mr Westacott and his team at Home Farm, which forms part of the Chevening Estate in Kent, investigated options for the business to become more financially viable.
“We always wanted to improve our calf rearing, although we didn’t have the labour or the dedicated space on the farm to invest fully in a new system,” says Mr Westacott.
“Over 20 years ago I did buy-in replacements from Holland, and at the time this was cost-effective. So, we explored the option here, to import our heifers from Europe, and work with other producers to off-lay our calves.”
Taking into account the disease status and genetic merits of the herds, he decided to opt for working with breeders in Germany.
“Germany is bovine tuberculosis (bTB), BVD and Osnabruck region soon to be IBR free, and herds have high health statuses. This was a priority on the checklist, so we began building a relationship with the Osnabruck herd book,” he explains.
“To add, the heifers were a good price, averaging £1,300/head compared to a UK price of £1,400-1,500/head. For our business, it’s a win-win.”
The Covid-19 impact
Mr Westacott explains in a usual year, he would fly to Germany in the first week of March and purchase the heifers, who would arrive on-farm by the start of April. However, in 2020 this was not the case.
“The year began well with our initial conversations taking place in January, but the world was then hit with the Covid-19 pandemic. This meant we weren’t able to visit as we would usually, and likewise the heifers weren’t able to be imported in April,” he says.
All was not lost for the herd. Due to the longstanding relationship with the Osnabruck stud book, Mr Westacott was able to liaise over the phone, and the breeders selected the animals accordingly.
“They were able to note the usual traits and characteristics that we go for, such as calving between 23 and 27 months, calving in the month of September and at least one 9,500 litre lactation in the dam’s records. The Osnabruck region herd book annual lactation has just broken 10,000 litres average which is great for our selection.
“The only issue was that we didn’t know when we’d be able to import the heifers across to the farm.”
As a tight, block-calving herd, timing is critical in order to have replacements integrated effectively into the herd ready for service. In a normal year, Mr Westacott likes to allow the heifers six weeks to be quarantined before they are introduced to the wider herd.
“We haven’t had the luxury of this added ‘settling in time’ this year, but thankfully we were able to get the animals into the UK at the end of May, where they went in quarantine for three weeks, which is still sufficient time to observe them for any signs of clinical disease and commence vaccination programmes to reduce the risk of passing disease to the wider herd, and began embarking on the herd vaccination programme as usual.”
Integrating in the UK herd
At Home Farm, the system consists of extensive grazing to suit the HLS scheme, which is why Mr Westacott opts for block autumn calving.
Following arrival on-farm the heifers are housed in a designated quarantine building before being vaccinated to become part of the herd.
“The quarantine shed is situated next to a small grazing platform, which allows the heifers to get used to the grass. It sounds silly, but they’re not used to it in Germany, so they need time to understand that they need to eat what’s under their feet. This settling period pays dividends later down the line.
“The animals are routinely vaccinated for Leptospirosis and IBR using LEPTAVOID-H® and BOVILIS® IBR Marker live, and we also vaccinate for BVD. We use these six weeks to keep a close eye on the animals to see any physical signs of disease or illness, such as coughing, lameness or ringworm, and it means we can take any immediate action,” adds Mr Westacott.
“After this time, the heifers are then vaccinated so they fit in with our robust herd health programme.
“Maintaining a high herd health status is key. We don’t have capacity to increase numbers of cows in milk, so we need all of the herd to be as productive as possible, which is why they need to remain disease-free,” he explains.
“Although in Germany the dairy industry is BVD free, we vaccinate all the heifers anyway so they’re in sync with the rest of the herd for boosters once they’ve calved. They also receive vaccines for leptospirosis and IBR.
“Getting this initial period of the heifer’s journey into our herd right is critical. It’s high-risk buying-in stock, but we have a robust quarantine and herd health programme which means we’re confident that once the heifer is integrated into the wider herd, she’s disease-free.
“For our business, even in a year hit by a global pandemic which has shut down international travel, it still pays to buy-in our replacements, and is a system we’ll continue with for years to come.”
Disease? Not on my farm! Ambassador
Mr Westacott is part of the DNOMF ambassador programme, made up of seven dairy and beef farmers from across the UK who are passionate about promoting proactive, preventative herd health.
“Since lockdown, we’ve started meeting virtually via video conferencing, to discuss any issues we’re currently facing in our own business, and share learnings from our alternative approaches as we all represent slightly different systems. We’re all passionate about being a ‘disease free’ farm.
“It’s great to learn from my peers and their different systems, and to be able to talk about this subject, particularly at a time where there’s high pressure scrutiny coming from all angles – whether it be processors and milk contracts, supermarket red tape or consumer expectation. It’s never been more important for us, the farmer, to understand the true value of managing disease on-farm.”
Home Farm Facts
- Part of Chevening Estate, near Sevenoaks, Kent
- 190 head milking herd
- 75ha of parkland under HLS
- 105ha of arable
- Autumn calving Holsteins
- Average annual yield of 9,700 litres per cow
Leptavoid®-H Suspension for Injection for Cattle contains inactivated Leptospira interrogans serovar Hardjo vaccine antigens, POM-VPS
Bovilis® IBR Marker Live, Lyophilisate and Solvent for Suspension for Cattle, contains live Bovine Herpesvirus, POM-V
MSD Animal Health UK Limited. Registered office Walton Manor, Walton, Milton Keynes MK7 7AJ, UK. Registered in England & Wales no. 946942.
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