TOM Neill is the third generation of his family to milk cows at Thornington Farm, Mindrum, in North Northumberland, an area where dairy farms are few and far between.

This means the need to maximise efficiency, produce a first-class product under excellent animal health and welfare for milk buyer Arla within their 360 scheme (Aligned to Aldi) and to add value from home-grown forage is as pertinent as anywhere, and explains why the judges felt the family business of R Neill & Sons, with Tom at the helm, was the worthy winner of the 2020 Northern Farmer Dairy Farmer of the Year.

Sustainability to Tom takes the shape of 320 British Friesians, averaging circa 8,000kg and producing annually 2.4 to 2.5 million litres of milk from the farm. Heavy reliance is placed on home-grown forages, and grazing the herd with turnout generally in late April, with the robust, hardy, more average-sized Friesian animal faring better as a grazing animal on the farm.

In addition Tom is keen to extol the added-value benefits of the British Friesian cow for him, as he has a more valuable cast cow when the time comes as well as the revenue that the bull calves bring in.

All black-and-white bull calves born on the farm are castrated and reared to two years of age, when they are either sold through Carlisle mart’s store ring, or direct to slaughter. Excess fresh calved heifers are sold through Harrison & Hetherington’s monthly dairy day, with the strong British Friesian heifers being sought after. Only heifers Tom would be prepared to keep himself are sold.

The breed comes into its own, according to Tom, when he factors up that between the cull cows, fresh heifers, Limousin cross bulling heifers, fat steers and calves, it amounts annually to an extra 10p per litre on all milk produced.

As far as beef sires go a Limousin is used on heifers or what Tom considers the bottom end of the herd, with these beef-cross calves sold to one of Tom’s brothers, Robert, who runs a 300-head Limousin beef-cross herd. Tom’s other brother, David, keeps 1,800 breeding sheep at nearby Downham Farm, which is run as one unit alongside Thornington Farm (extending to 1,500 acres) as well as a further 1,150 acres being rented each year to either graze or crop from local farms. Tom gives credit to the whole family in winning the Dairy Farmer award, as his parents George and Mary are still heavily involved in the business, as well as Tom’s wife Nicola and children Emma and Michael.

In 1954 Tom’s grandfather Robert moved the dairy cows he had from a farm he owned in Ayrshire, milking them on farm in the morning before walking them and loading them on to a train in Kilmarnock, which stopped at Mindrum Station, from where they were herded the two-and-half miles to Thornington Farm in time for afternoon milking the same day.

From then the farm has constantly grown and evolved to its current size. The building of a new shed in 2012 to house the milking herd has been the latest structural change to improve animal welfare and housing.

The shed was built to incorporate underground slurry storage and slatted walkways, locking head yolks to facilitate vet visits, vaccinations and AI’ing (with minimal stress to cattle), cow brushes (which they love and helps coats shine) and tipping water troughs (that are far easier and more likely to be kept clean, which encourages the cows to have access to clean fresh water more often).

Another key change to the dairy element of this large-scale mixed enterprise has been an increasing reliance on technology and using and interpreting the results from it – enabling herd size to increase but performance to be maintained.

Close working relationships have been forged with key service providers – such as a monthly vet visit from Urs Schaeli of Cheviot Vets, Kelso, and monthly meetings with Arol Hyslop of Harbro as a dairy feed nutritionist. Feeding to yield in the parlour is automatically calculated and fed on the back of milk recording each animal at each milking, in conjunction with the cows having EID tags and auto ID in the parlour.

Abnormalities in daily yields are triggered through the computer system and all health, fertility, breeding and milking data is digitally recorded as on most farms now daily, with regular interpretation and subsequent action instigated by Tom to yield results.

The British Friesian’s desirability at Thornington Farm comes from its ability to generate few problems, its willingness to graze when grass is available and its inherent good fertility. Now the herds calving interval is 366 days and this is minimised by cows being post calving checked by the vet during routine visits, getting one straw of British Friesian semen, and then running with one of the herds two current stock bulls.

All cows are then pd’d at 40 to 60 days after service and anything not in calf is treated by the vet and reserved. However, the number needing vet treatment is minimal.

A large proportion of the feed needed for the stock on the farm is home grown, with over 950 acres of home-grown grain harvested annually for this. As much as possible of a three-way land split of spring and winter barley and winter wheat is used to feed on farm before any surplus is sold.

All straw harvested is kept for bedding with additional straw purchased from behind the combine as needed.

Youngstock are fed a ration based on barley, wheat and distillers’ grains with the milking herd fed a base ration of Maxammon barley, Maxammon wheat, and a protein blend.

Treating the grain with Maxammon from feed specialists Harbro has seen all stock on the farm, including the milking herd, eat higher amounts of the grains, without acidosis, loose cows or cud balls which can be problems associated with higher grain intakes.

With the increased pH and digestibility of the Maxammon treated grain being the cause of the better intakes. There has also been a reduction in the amount of bought in feed purchased, as well as higher yields, better milk solids and additional benefits such as foot health improvements, fertility and general cow health.

Its cost equates to that of drying grain but with significant other benefits according to Tom. but with a six per cent increase in yields and nine per cent in milk solids the financial rewards of this grain treatment are tangible for the Neills.

A new 28:28 De Laval Herringbone parlour was added in 2015 and in 2018 new silage pits were completed to improve and increase forage preservation, as there is a continual drive for this Northumbrian dairy farmer to milk cows and make the business fit for the future.