When dairy farmer Will McFarland introduced beef sweeper bulls after building up sufficient cow number with black and white sires, the Hereford was his breed of choice.
To secure his first farm tenancy, Will McFarland suggests he would happily have travelled to the moon.
But, as good fortune would have it, he was spared that journey through space to milk cows in a lunar landscape when he was offered that opportunity in Pembrokeshire.
The 89 hectares (220 acres) coastal farm and a grazing agreement for 809ha (2,000ac) on a nearby military firing range have been his passport to farming in his own right.
His wife, Sophie, a clinical psychologist, shares his passion for a county renowned and envied for its grass-based farming systems.
“I will live and die in Pembrokeshire,’’ she declares.
Will came to farming with but a distant link to the industry. His ancestors had farmed in Northern Ireland but his grandfather left the family farm at the onset of the Second World War, thereby severing that immediate link to agriculture.
He grew up in an urban environment in Stourbridge but that innate desire to farm had filtered down through the generations with Will studying agriculture at Harper Adams University before starting his career in the industry and worked in multiple places across the UK and New Zealand.
“I picked up several fantastic mentors in previous bosses along the way,’’ he says.
Will was involved in a contract dairy farming enterprise in Powys when the tenancy at Court Farm, Castlemartin, became available.
Having previously being involved in short term agreements, the opportunity to acquire a 20 year tenancy provided the stability he needed to invest and build up his own business.
“It was quite a big change, especially the financing of it, but I would have done anything to be in the position we are in today,’’ he says.
The grassland farm came with a 24-unit swingover parlour but with little in the way of housing.
What it is blessed with is mostly free draining and fertile soil so establishing a fully outdoor spring-calving system with the herd and the yearling heifers grazing on the Castlemartin Firing Range during the dry period is the route Will and Sophie have taken.
“Because of the grazing conditions on the range it can be difficult to achieve growth rates there all of the time but the extra land has opened our minds to ideas with different stock groups and whether it becomes an outlet for beef production in the future,’’ he explains.
Geofencing grazing collars are currently being trialed on 162ha (400ac) of that land. Both the military and Will are keen to utilise this technology to achieve conservation objectives on the ranges, through establishing optimum conditions for ground nesting birds and protecting rare flora and fauna.
“They have the potential to be a great management tool,’’ he says.
A grazing crop of kale is also grown as feed for the yearling heifers and fodder beet for the dairy cows which consists a herd of 420 Friesian-crosses.
Cow numbers have increased since the move to Court Farm in 2019, by inseminating with dairy sires and sweeping up with Friesian bulls.
“It was dairy all the way, building up numbers was a priority,’’ Will explains.
In 2022, with the herd size at the target he had set, it was time for a change of policy and a switch to a beef breed.
Will considered many options but it was the Hereford that ticked all the boxes on his list of priorities which began with temperament and calving ease.
“Stock bulls are the biggest risk on a dairy farm and, after having Friesian bulls, above all I wanted an animal with a good temperament,’’ says Will.
Calving ease was a very important requirement too, he adds.
“I aim to keep everything as simple as possible and calving ease feeds into that, especially so for the calves that are being produced at the tail-end of the calving season because the cow must be able to recover as quickly as possible before we start breeding again.
“You have got to have easy calving animals on small dairy cows and we think that the Hereford will give us that.’’
Foot health in the bulls is another priority as the furthest paddock from the milking parlour is two kilometers.
“They have to walk quite a distance but they performed really well on feet and legs in their first breeding season, much better than the Friesians ever did,’’ says Will.
He also saw a significant benefit in producing calves with a very distinct white face.
“Having a calf that is identifiable as a beef calf is important in our system, unlike for example an Angus-cross for which can be confused with a Jersey-cross at birth.
“The Hereford stamps its progeny well. You will always be able to pick out a Hereford cross calf.’’
Will had a ready market for those calves too with a buyer who wanted Hereford-crosses adding to his choice of sire.
With the Hereford fulfilling all the principal requirements he wanted from a bull, he bought seven 20-month-old poll bulls in May 2022 from the Thornysure herd at Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire.
Heifers are served at 15 months to calve at two years old and breeding got underway on 28 April with one round of AI using dairy genetics followed by a cycle of beef AI before turning the bulls in with the herd for six weeks.
Will reports an exceptional year for fertility with a submission rate of 93 per cent in the first three weeks and a non-return rate of 68 per cent to first service. The empty rate was 7 per cent.
“For us, because we dry everything off in one go, days in milk are the biggest driver of profit for us,’’ he says.
With no infrastructure to produce winter milk and with easy access to the military range, there are limited benefits to investing in housing, resulting in a very defined milking season.
Fertility and a tight calving block are therefore Will’s key performance indicators.
“They just drive the whole system,’’ he says. “A tight calving pattern ensures we achieve high days in milk while maximising grass utilisation.’’
The grazing system is run to traditional extensive grazing principles. The primary aim is to produce as much milk as possible from grass in the grazing season and to outwinter on deferred grazing or forage crops.
Since Will took on the tenancy he has invested significantly in three main areas – in cow tracks and an automatic footbath to promote foot health, in fencing and soil fertility for grazing management, and in gaining labour efficiencies through automatic cluster removal and geofence collars.
During the grazing season he aims for entry grazing covers of 2,700kgDM/ha, grazing down to a residual of 1,500kg.
The summer drought impacted on grass availability in 2022 so the herd was buffer-fed silage at grass to extend the grazing round.
“We don’t have buildings as our ‘get out of jail card’ so we need to make sure we have sufficient covers for the winter, to not leave ourselves short of grass, by decisions we make earlier in the year,’’ says Will.
Three cuts of clamp silage are made. There are no dedicated silage fields and surpluses in the paddocks are cut while around 250 bales of silage are also made, to provide fibre to balance energy and protein in the winter grazing crops.
Will shares the farm workload with full-timer, Aaron Maddison, who he describes as his ‘indispensable second in command’, and the previous tenant, Stephen Alderman, who enjoys maintaining his link with farming by helping out when needed. Sophie is also on-hand to help at weekends and when she has time off from work.
While half the herd calved in the first 12 days in the 2022 calving season and the entire herd in 12 weeks, the target has been to reduce that to nine weeks in 2023.
Every beef calf is kept for eight weeks and then sold to private buyers to be reared on.
Calves receive four litres of colostrum as soon as possible after birth and are then fed transition milk for the first four days before being reared on whole milk until they are weaned and sold.
The replacements are reared on at grass. In the first few months they get supplementary feed at pasture but in 2022, beet pulp was trialled and the calves performed well.
As the herd moves closer to drying off, a 10-in-7 milking system replaces the normal twice a day pattern.
“We had tried once a day milking but we found we lost too much milk yield so we introduced 10-in-7 for the first-time last year from the start of October and it worked really well, the milk loss was negligible,’’ Will explains.
“It helps the cows to maintain their condition in the run-up to calving and, with fewer milkings, there is less stress on foot health too.”
Replacement rate: 20%
Annual average milk yield per cow: 4,800 litres
Rolling somatic cell count: 190,000 cells/ml
4.5% butterfat and 3.8% protein