By Debbie James

A Pembrokeshire family has created a 21st century dairy farm with the next generation in mind.

Seimon and Eleanor Thomas have grown their herd of pedigree dairy shorthorns to 730 cows over the last 20 years, making it one of the largest registered dairy shorthorn herds in the UK.

But as numbers increased milking became a drudge; it took 12 hours a day to milk 600 cows in a 12-unit double up parlour.

With Seimon and Eleanor’s two children, 22-year-old twins Sion and Hanna, joining them in the business, it was time for a rethink.

Upgrading to a 70-point rotary was a significant investment but it has enabled the family to reduce milking times by more than 50 per cent and improve the way they manage the herd.

Alongside a purpose-built calf rearing shed with capacity for 200 calves, they have created a modern farming system that makes dairy farming appealing to the next generation.

“These days you need to make farming more attractive for young people, no-one wants to spend 12 hours a day in the parlour,’’ says Seimon, who is the third generation to farm at 700-acre Drysgolgoch, at Llwyndrain.

“In the old parlour we were milking 600 cows and it was taking us an hour to milk 100. We can now milk 300 in an hour.’’

The hi-tech milking equipment includes touchpad technology which displays important information such as milk yield, milking time and somatic cell count data.

It can also display if a cow is on heat and allows the operator to draft that cow for insemination or further inspection. It flags up freshly calved cows and allows colostrum to be diverted.

There are also automatic cluster removers and automatic teat sprayers.

The Thomas’s have also incorporated the MooMonitor+ health and fertility monitoring system in the parlour

Cows produce an average annual milk yield of 6,000 litres at 4.2 per cent butterfat and 3.5 per cent protein with milk sold to Freshways on a liquid contract. The milk is produced from forage with up to 6kg/day of concentrates fed in the parlour.

The herd is split into two blocks – 60 per cent calving in the spring and the remainder in the autumn.

In addition to family labour, the business employs two full-time workers. Eleanor and Hanna are in charge of the calf rearing.

All calves are reared on the farm, with heifers retained for breeding and bulls sold at market or privately at around three weeks but the herd has been subject to TB movement restrictions since May.

“It is very frustrating because we had a buyer in Ireland who wanted to buy 100 heifers,’’ says Sion.

Good colostrum management is the foundation of the calf rearing system.

All colostrum is collected and calves are bottle fed four to five litres within the first hour after they are born.

“If there is plenty of colostrum they will have another feed, if not they will have it mixed with the second or third milkings for three days,’’ Eleanor explains.

“After three days, they have powder mixed with the milk from the second, third or fourth milkings after calving. We use a skimmed milk-based powder because it mixes well with milk.’’

The parlour is fitted with a transfer line which pumps milk directly into holding units in the calf shed.

A mobile milk tank then heats, pasteurises and accurately dispenses the milk into a multi-teat feeder according to the age and number of calves in the group.

Calves are weaned once they have doubled their birthweight and are eating about 1.5kg of cake, at nine to ten weeks old.

Heifers are calved at two years old.

The investment in the new infrastructure coincided with one of the most challenging periods for the dairy industry but with prices now at a more sustainable level, the family is optimistic for the future.

“The milk price is where it needs to be and with an ever-increasing population and new opportunities for export after Brexit I think there is a sound future for UK dairy farming,’’ says Sion.