Hollybank Farm’s forward thinking reaps dividends

15 Nov , 2023  

Operated by father-and-son team Stephen and David Cargill, Hollybank Farm in Ballyclare, County Antrim scooped the Supreme Champion Award at Lakeland Dairies’ 2023 Milk Quality Awards in June. We spoke to David to get an insight into a modern, progressive and fine-tuned dairy enterprise which embraces innovation and science to optimise animal health and performance.

At a special event on Monday, June 19th, the Cargill family from County Antrim were crowned Supreme Champions of the annual Lakeland Dairies Milk Quality Awards. Stephen and David Cargill from Ballyclare claimed the prestigious accolade in recognition of the exceptionally high quality milk produced on Hollybank Farm throughout the past year.

Completing a famous double, the Cargills also took home the >1 million litre producer category award for Northern Ireland.

The Milk Quality Awards are public recognition of the commitment of Lakeland Dairies’ milk suppliers to quality and sustainability in all aspects of their milk production, with the winners emerging from the 3,200 farm families across 16 counties who produce milk for the two billion litres Lakeland Dairies milk pool.

“We were very chuffed to receive the award and, to be honest, it was a little bit unexpected,” David reflects. “It shows that the hard work pays off if you put the effort in. The award is a reflection of how well we are doing and it’s very encouraging to get it. We’re always striving to achieve the best quality and improve our standards and it’s working well.

“This is a family farm and it is also a company farm and part of a business. I’m here full time and my father, who also runs a timber business [Forestwood] is part-time, while we have one employee for labour and milking. We milk three times a day and bring in two milkers for night milking five nights per week.”

The Hollybank Farm pedigree Holstein herd currently comprises 150 cows, 130 of which go through the Dairymaster milking parlour (a Swing-over with auto ID, cluster flush and disinfectant cubicles) at any one time. The dairy herd averages 11,000L at 4.2% butterfat and 3.36% protein, with a cell count average over the past twelve months of 130. On the 400-acre farm there are also 40 dry cows, young stock of 80 heifers going forward and 60 Aberdeen Angus cattle going through to fattening each year.

The Cargills farm on a 400-acre holding. “We initially had up to 130 acres and then in 2013 an opportunity came up to buy a neighbouring farm,” says David. “That’s when we went into dairying. We bought maiden heifers and started in milk production in 2015.”

A five-cut silage system in in place. From 400 acres, 200 acres are taken for first-cut silage, another 200 for second cut, 160 for third cut, 100 for fourth cut and 80 for fifth cut. Seventy acres of cereal are cut for wholecrop and 40 acres of winter wheat are combined and treated for feeding. “Everything produced here is for our dairy and beef herds’ balanced diets,” David notes.

To keep costs down and allow the Cargills to focus on the cows rather than tying money up in machinery, agri contractors are brought in for the entire silage operation. An umbilical slurry system is used to safeguard the health of the soil while David and Stephen spread their own fertiliser using a GPS sower. 

To maximise the efficiency and profitability of the business, David – who comes from an engineering background and incorporates that expertise into the dairy enterprise not least through the painstaking gathering and usage of data – and Stephen have always adopted a proactive approach to farming, part of which involves identifying and eliminating potential problems before they have had a chance to occur.

“Information is very important as you can use it to make quick decisions on the farm. We gather a lot of information together on each of the cows and that helps us get an answer to the question – ‘is this cow what we think she is?’ With this information we can get the best out of all the resources we have on the farm.

“We have also enjoyed working with Biome Connect for over 2 years now. Their approach to circular farming has helped us significantly reduce our cell counts. The two main areas where we have seen consistent results are cubical and cow cleanliness but also an improvement in our slurry management through the use of EM Slurry. Biome Connect have helped us reduce our mastitis cases and our fertiliser bill.”

Hollybank Farm’s focus is clearly on more sustainable farming for the future leading to a more profitable and healthier herd with significantly less antibiotic use.

David and Stephen are committed to breeding cows of the highest genetic merit with an inherent ability to produce large volumes of high-quality milk in an extremely sustainable manner. Investment in a selection of elite Holstein bloodlines elevates the Hollybank herd from both a production and genetic development point of view.

Meanwhile, in keeping with their firm focus on animal health, AHV, smaXtec, JFC, NMR and Lely technology and systems are embraced alongside smart investment in the farm’s infrastructure, including a modern calf-rearing and heifer-rearing unit to formulate and implement bespoke animal health plans for Hollybank Holsteins

The Animal Health Vision (AHV) plan delivers real-time performance information for each individual animal within the herd; the installation of a computerised JFC Agri automated calf feeder results in a £10,000 annual labour saving; the Lely Vector feeding system offers the cows 16 freshly prepared rations on a daily basis; while the smaXtec bolus system for heat detection, early calving alerts and animal health helps the team at Hollybank identify health and fertility-related issues before they become a problem. All these systems have positively impacted his farm’s bottom line.

Calves are bucket-fed for the first two weeks until they are strong enough to go onto the feeder. The dairy stock are housed in comfort all year around and fertility scans take place once a month.

Collectively all the technology adopted on Hollybank Farm provides data to enable AHV to support Hollybank Farm to achieve optimal animal health.

“AHV work very successfully alongside us to monitor animal and udder health,” David continues. “By monitoring and improving the health and wellbeing of the animals, we can reduce the use of antibiotics and that leads to higher quality milk production. With the Lely Vector automated feeding system, we have achieved 4,100 litres off forage as well as significant labour savings.”

Another piece of automation used on the farm is a Lely Discovery robotic scraper. “I have a big interest in applying automation where it suits and where it works best to keep standards high and it’s important to not miss out on any details,” adds David who is an ardent believer in the benefits of taking a scientific, data-led approach to dairy farming:

“My father had farmed 20 or 30 years ago but we were renting the farm out before we got this opportunity,” he comments. “We decided that if we were going to do it again, we’d do it right. I worked as an engineer but was interested in coming home and in 2013 that opportunity presented itself.

“I don’t see why you’d do things any differently on a farm than in engineering. There is a lot less fire-fighting this way. Preventing problems before they arise makes perfect sense and helps the farm to run a lot more efficiently than it would otherwise, with better performance, improved animal health, lower labour costs and bigger profits.”

The modern, data-led Hollybank Farm dairying model is a highly-successful, award-winning one and David believes it would work equally well for other dairy farmers the length and breadth of the island. “I would encourage others to do the same and not to be afraid to make small changes,” he concludes. “Taking baby steps now can become a big thing in the long term and can make all the difference. Antibiotic reduction is going to be a big issue going forward and people need to be ready for that now.

“Winning the Lakeland Dairies Supreme Champion award proves to us that we are going in the right direction and we are delighted to receive it at such an early stage in the lifetime of the business, just under eight years since we started producing milk.”

First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 11 No 5, October/November 2023