The potential benefits of an innovative “cow-with-calf” dairy system will be assessed in a new study.
Researchers at Scotland’s Rural College, SRUC, have been awarded £60,400 from the Scottish Government’s Knowledge Transfer and Innovation Fund to study a system where dairy cows and calves are kept together for up to six months.
The study will focus on Rainton Farm in Dumfries – the only commercial-scale dairy operating this kind of system – and Mossgiel Farm in Ayrshire, which started trialling the system on a smaller scale in May 2018.
It follows a Soil Association Scotland-led Rural Innovation Support Service group looking at how the system could be made transferable to other farms.
David and Wilma Finlay from Rainton Farm, which is home to the Ethical Dairy, say the system, which involves keeping calves with their mothers for a number of months before weaning, results in cows being calmer and easier to handle.
“We started diversifying 25 years ago, and as part of that started running tours around the farm,” Ms Finlay said.
“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?”
She added: “That was 12 years ago and it has been a long and difficult journey since then. We have always wanted to share our system freely with the wider industry, and this funding is the first stage of formally doing that.”
Bryce Cunningham from Mossgiel Farm said the system was difficult to implement at first, with calves escaping and cows running after them.
He added: “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.”
Dr Marie Haskell from SRUC, who will lead the year-long study, said: “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.”