Funding for Cow with Calf RISS project

An innovative ‘cow with calf’ dairy system, which keeps dairy cows and calves together for up to six months, has been given a financial boost from the Scottish Government’s Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund (KTIF).

 

Sixty thousand pounds has been awarded to a researcher from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) to collect data on an ‘ethical model’ of dairy farming. The study will focus on Rainton Farm in Dumfries and Galloway, the only commercial-scale dairy operating this kind of system in the UK, and Mossgiel Farm in Ayrshire, which started trialling it on a smaller scale 18 months ago. 

 

Picture: First meeting of the KTIF project. L-R Geoff Simm, David Finlay, Wilma Finlay, Colleen McCulloch, Gillian Butler, Stuart Martin, Kathryn Ellis, Marie Haskell, Katie Lennox, Bryce Cunningham

The project began in 2018 as a Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group, looking at how the system could be scaled up and made transferrable to other farms.

While usually dairy calves are separated from their mothers at birth, this system sees calves kept with their mothers for a number of months before weaning. It’s been a process of trialling and refining how this can work at Rainton, but farmers David and Wilma Finlay have found that after an adjustment period, cows are calmer, more confident and easier to handle.

"We thought, 'Why not try doing things differently?'"

 Wilma Finlay of Rainton Farm says: “We started diversifying 25 years ago, and as part of that started running tours around the farm. We found the public didn’t know about and were clearly uncomfortable with the separation of cow and calf. We tried to explain the benefit – but then thought why not try doing it differently? That was 12 years ago and it has been a long and difficult journey since then.

 “Over the past year or so with the Rural Innovation Support Service we’ve been working with a small group of people in the industry who are interested in our system and want to find out more about it. We have always wanted to share our system freely with the wider industry, and this funding is the first stage of formally doing that. It’s really good news and we’re looking forward to getting started.”

 

 

Picture: The Finlays sell their cheese made with cow with calf milk direct to the public

 The Finlays are keen to share their system with the wider dairy industry. David Finlay says: “It’s good for the cow and calf, and, particularly for those selling directly to the public, it offers a market opportunity. We’ve had interested farmers, vets, researchers and policy people from as far away as Japan, China and Australia as well as Europe and the States.

 “We’ve spent the last 18 months on social media building momentum. And that’s a great thing – it’s allowed a small-scale rural manufacturer to reach a national population. That gives us the opportunity to get a price for our produce that people are happy to pay – because it’s an artisanal food with a great story.”

 In addition to the animal welfare benefits, compared to an average commercial dairy farm, the Finlays’ cow with calf model can cut greenhouse gas emissions by finishing calves faster, reduce antibiotic use, increase the productive life of cows, and increase the net amount of food in the food system.

Because of the public interest, there has also been growing interest from other farmers considering adopting the same system.

"Someone has to prove whether it can work or not so we’re sticking our necks out!"

 

Bryce Cunningham of Mossgiel Farm, Ayrshire, whose cow with calf dairy herd will also form part of the pilot study, adopted the cow with calf system in May 2018. He says: “I joined the project out of interest, and because I’d like to find a way to keep their cows with their calves while also making a profit.

 

Picture: Bryce is also part of our mob grazing field lab. Pictured at Mossgiel. Credit: Clementine Sandison

 “We started by keeping the calves with their mother for three months, but it was a total disaster! We didn’t have the infrastructure, so we couldn’t control the cows. The calves were getting underneath the fence we use for rotational grazing and the cows were running after them. We didn’t expect their personalities to change but they became very cheeky. For example, one cow got out and ran down the road, then when she saw me jumped over the fence, then back onto the road further down! Like a horse! I’ve never seen a cow do that before.”

 

 It’s taken time to adjust to the new system, but Bryce is beginning to see things working. He says: “Now, once the calves are two weeks old, we put them in a separate paddock overnight and that seems to work well – as long as the cows see them once a day they seem happy. We’ve switched to separating them at four or five months old, and milk the cows once a day so we get the morning milk and the calves get the milk throughout the day. We then keep the milk separate so we can sell it at a premium as cow with calf milk.

"Someone has to prove whether it can work or not so we’re sticking our necks out!"

"The aim is to investigate the model and make it transferrable"

 Dr Marie Haskell of SRUC will lead the year-long pilot study. She says: “The aim of the project is to investigate the model shown by the Finlays at Rainton Farm and by Bryce Cunningham at Mossgiel Farm so that it might facilitate other farmers considering applying this system on their own farms.

 “The project will include economic analyses taking into account the inputs and outputs, such as milk drunk by the calves not entering the tank, but also calf growth rates and cow health. We’ll complete a market analysis to assess possible market strategies, farmer interviews to assess barriers, and an environmental and ethical audit of the overall farm system. There will also be some student projects carried out investigating key aspects of the cow with calf system.”

 Colleen McCulloch of Soil Association Scotland, which facilitated the Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) group that brought the cow with calf project together, says: “David and Wilma Finlay are at the forefront in Europe of turning this high-welfare dairy system into a successful, commercial operation. The KTIF funding will allow Dr Marie Haskell of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) to lead a year’s pilot study involving a number of organisations to benchmark the Finlay’s operation at Rainton Farm and promote the principle of keeping cow with calf to other farmers.”

 The project is looking for more farmers to get involved: if you’re interested please email Marie.Haskell@sruc.ac.uk

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