Based outside Castlederg, Co. Tyrone, is Grove Dairy Holsteins, a 750-cow dairy farm with an on-site milk processing and packaging business owned and ran by the Mitchell family.

The herd is managed by John Mitchell and is milked by way of 14 Lely robotic milkers. Approximately 27,000L of milk is produced on the farm every day.

Approximately 125,000L of milk/week is processed and packaged on-site and sold in shops all around the north-west. Surplus milk is sold to Lakeland Dairies.

John’s father Jack took on the farm from his grandfather, and in 1978, John’s parents, Jack and Hazel, took the decision to begin processing and bottling milk and the business has grown steadily since then.

John came home farming in the early 2,000s and says his parents gave him a great start. Jack and Hazel both remain very much involved in the running of the business.

The farm recently hosted an open day in association with Lely and Agriland was in attendance to find out more about Grove Dairies.

Speaking to Agriland, John explained that one of the main reasons he decided to host the open day was to fundraise money for the two charities – Parkinson’s UK and Air Ambulance NI.

He said that donations are still coming in but approximately £36,000 has been raised for the two charities so far.

Grove Dairies has transitioned from two 30-30 milking parlours, milking three times a day to an entirely robotic Lely milking system.

John Mitchell (centre) taking questions from farmers at the open day on the Mitchell farm

As well as the robotic milking system, there is also a range of other robotic machinery working on the farm, all of which could be seen in action on the farm open day.

Silage is pushed in to cows with a Lely Juno, and slats and concrete areas for cows are cleaned with the Lely range of robotic scrapers.

As well as this, high-yielding cows are fed additional concentrates through a Lely Cosmix feeder.

Fans help with ventilation and air circulation in the cow sheds and these are taken care of by Wilson Agri. There is also a range of other interesting technology on the farm, including a Förster Technik robotic calf feeder.

Commenting on his cow-type on the farm, John said: “For me, it’s not so much milk, the big thing for me is forage dry matter intake first.

“As long as we can get that around the 12kg dry matter (DM) intake from forage, it’s down to genetics then where the cows want to go with it.

“We generally don’t feed any meal at the feed fence. Some soya hulls are being fed now to preserve fodder supplies.

“Everything is fed through the robots, so if a cow gives it she will be fed accordingly to maintain condition and get her back in calf. We’re able to control what they get concentrate wise.”

Sexed semen is used for breeding with the target of achieving 400-500 heifers and remaining cows are served to Angus. Surplus dairy heifers and beef calves are sold off farm.

Sires are sourced from Cogent, Blondim Sires and Semex and the genomics is taken care of by Cogent.

Dairy farm nutrition

Maize silage has been produced on the farm – which spans over 1,000ac – over the past number of years however, this year John plans to grow no maize.

“We are taking a different approach this year and are trying work more with new and hybrid grasses to see if we get on as well,” he said.

Silage is fed all year round and zero grazing was trialled on the farm in the past but John said with the changeable weather, cow DMIs were too hard to control.

“The aim here, is to get forage intakes into them, because that’s where the profit is – what you grow from your own land.

“If a cow is going to give the milk, you have to look after her that she’s able to maintain herself and that she’s able to keep her reproductive system up to scratch.

“I’m trying to get back into that kind of a balanced cow where you’ve got the size but you’ve got the stature and the width to be able to carry the engine,” he said.

An average of 4t of concentrates is fed/cow/year.

“We try to keep the concentrates fed/L of milk produced under 0.4kg. Currently, 380g of concentrates are being fed for every litre of milk produced,” John added.

Key Nutrition is involved in diet formulation on the farm. Agriland caught up with the farm nutritionist, David Mawhinney from Key Nutrition, who explained some the nutritional aspects of the farm.

David is involved in the formulation of mineral specifications and the blend of the nut specifications made by Clonleagh Co-op.

He said: “Originally, the farm was a traditional system, feeding quite a bit of concentrates at the feed fence, milking three times a day through the two 30-30 parlours and on a feed to yield system through the parlour.

“When he [John] started the transition to robots, like a lot of people, it’s changing the mentality where we have to get the amount of (concentrate) feed down at the feed fence and feed more through the robots to encourage visits through the robot.

“So, there’s a lot of things we tried over the years to encourage more visits to the robots, some were successful, some weren’t.

“Some of the things we trialled, we removed the minerals from the nuts completely. We feed all minerals through the feed fence here. We got an increase in visits with that.

“We feed an essential oil and flavour product through the nuts and we saw an increase of 0.1 to 0.2 visits there. We also feed that essential oil product through the TMR and we got an increase in intakes with it.”

On the day of the farm walk, the TMR on offer for cows at the feed fence was:

  • 19kg of second-cut silage;
  • 15kg of maize silage;
  • 0.5kg straw;
  • 0.5kg soya;
  • 1.5kg soya hulls (temporary measure to conserve fodder);
  • Minerals and essential oils.

The dairy farm nutritionist said: “Generally, it’s just forages, minerals and half a kilo of soya. All the nut feeding is through the robot and the cosmix out-of-parlour feeder.”

Milk production and feeding

Commenting on the milk production figures on the dairy farm, the nutritionist said: “Today, we’re sitting here about just under 39L/cow/day. Fat is just over 4% and about 3.25% protein.

“That’s average across the whole 14 robots at about 185 days in milk and 3.1 visits/day is the average cows are visiting.”

Cows are fed 4kg/day prior to calving of a pre-calver nut that contains minerals. This is fed through a training box which is a Lely machine with no milkers on it.

All animals come through at about five weeks prior to calving and that delivers all of the minerals.

On day one, cows start on 8kg of nuts and go up to 14kg and after 21 days.

“If her milk yield justifies it, she can go up to a maximum of 20kg of nuts,” the nutritionist explained.

He added: “The robot gets priority in terms of the feeding, with up to 4kg feed/visit. That’s a bit higher than most people in Northern Ireland, as the majority would be about 3 or 3.5kg/visit.

“John’s sitting here at about 4kg/visit so obviously if a cow through three times per day that’s her getting a 12kg allocation, and she get the remainder through the Cosmix.

“Our feed efficiency here is quite good. We are just about .38-.39 kg of concentrates/L of milk produced, so that’s reasonably efficient. He’s feeding a lot of meal but if you are getting it at the other end in terms of milk produced, that’s good.”