Last month a group of 35 dairy farmers from Fermanagh and West Tyrone benefited from a three-day study tour to South West Scotland. The trip was organised by local dairying development adviser, Mr Alan Warnock and was generously sponsored by the Vaughan Trust. It included visits to four commercial dairy farms and the Scottish Agricultural Colleges Dairy Research Centre at Dumfries.

The first farm visited was jointly owned by brothers Rayner and John McKinley near Ballantrae. Rayner was previously a Department of Agriculture adviser based in Co. Fermanagh before he moved to Scotland in 1981 and was familiar to many of the visiting farmers. This is very much a family farm as both Rayner and John each have a son farming full-time. The home farm comprises 450 acres of which 70 acres are woodland, 20 acres spring barley and the remaining acreage grassland. They also own a 100-acre out farm which is in grassland and is used mainly for grazing young cattle. The main enterprise is a dairy herd of 240 dairy cows which are mainly British Fresian. They are mated to British Friesian sires to produce dairy herd replacements and Limousin and Aberdeen Angus sires to produce suckler herd replacements and store cattle. All the calves from the dairy herd are reared with the store cattle being sold springing or just calved. The farmers were impressed with the conformation and robustness of the cows many of which were bred from Dovea Sem.

Kenneth Campbell farms 520 acres near Castle Douglas. The main enterprises are a dairy herd of 375 Holstein cows and 329 dairy young stock. The dairy cows are managed on a total confinement system and calve all year round. The average milk yield per cow is 8,664 litres with a concentrate usage of three tonnes per cow. This system seemed attractive on the very wet morning of our visit but it did have high costs with the purchased feed costs alone being 8.45 pence per litre. While the milk price over the past 12 months had been 26.35 pence per litre it had fallen to 22 pence per litre. Mr. Campbell said that this current price was just a break even situation for his system of milk production.

Mark Callander farms 1500 acres of which he owns 1100 acres near Castle Douglas. He runs two dairy herds - 700 cows and 200 cows and rears all his replacement heifers. The cows are mainly Ayrshire and Ayrshire cross and calve all year round. They are not managed in a total confinement system but on the day of our visit they were housed due to the very wet weather. The large scale of this operation was reflected by the work-force of seven full-time staff and a new shed 220 feet long for dry cows, calving pens and calf-rearing. Mark was quite optimistic about future prospects for milk production and planned to further expand his dairy enterprise. The fourth commercial dairy farm visited was owned by Raymond Beggs who lives and farms in the Isle of Man. Prior to moving to the Isle of Man, Raymond farmed at Clonkee, Newtownbutler. He purchased this 190-acre farm near Portpatrick and employs full-time dairy men and part-time tractor men to run the farm. Raymond visits the farm on a regular basis and commutes by hiring a light aircraft which flies him from the Isle of Man to a nearby airstrip. The main enterprise is a dairy herd of 220 cows and 200 with 165 calving in the spring and the remainder autumn calving. This system of milk production is based on maximising the input of grazed grass. The grazing area is divided into 10 - 12 acre blocks which provide 3 - 4 grazings and is accessed by a good network hardcore lanes. An average milk yield of 5700 litres per cow with 4.21% butterfat and 3.65% protein is being achieved from a concentrate usage of one tonne per cow and some brewers grains. All the cows are mated to New Zealand Friesian and Jerseys sires and up to 100 heifer calves are reared each year. Usually only 40 heifers are needed for herd replacement and the remaining heifers are sold in calf.

The final stop was to see the research programmes at the Dairy Research Centre at Dumfries where the aim is to develop and test sustainable breeding and management systems for dairy cattle. Particular emphasis is placed on improving health and welfare of the animals. The Acrehead Dairy Unit which was built in the late 1970s was recently refurbished with new cubicles, a new milking parlour and additional slurry storage. The alteration to the cow cubicle area was achieved by removing external walls to increase cubicle bed length by 450mm and replacing with cantilever type cubicles and mattresses. A new 24 x 24 Westfalia milking parlour was installed with improved stock handling facilities. Acrehead is within a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone and an above ground slurrystore was installed to provide additional slurry storage. The dairy herd at Acrehead is milked three times a day and has a milk yield of 8625 litres per cow at 4.10% butterfat and 3.41% protein.

The members of the study tour were able to examine a variety of different systems of milk production, albeit on a larger scale than most dairy units in Fermanagh. They were impressed with the free draining nature of the soil type on the farms visited. Despite the high rainfall the ground was able to dry out quickly and facilitate the resumption of normal farming operations with minimum delay. While the members were envious of the higher milk prices being experienced by Scottish dairy farmers they were mindful how quickly these can fluctuate.