By Debbie James

Two years after losing 78 of his best and most productive cows to bovine TB, the anguish has never left Pembrokeshire dairy farmer Roger Lewis.

“It felt like our world was falling apart that day,’’ he says, recalling the test that was to rob him of a quarter of his milking herd.

“It is not until you are affected by it personally that you realise the impact it can have on you, your family, your workforce.’’

Pembrokeshire is a high-risk TB area but it wasn’t until the devastating TB breakdown in June 2018 that Roger felt the full force of this insidious disease.

The timing could not have been worse as Roger and his parents, Philip and Sheila, were in the process of installing a 40-point rotary milking parlour.

“Here we were, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a new parlour and we had lost a quarter of the herd,’’ says Roger, deputy county chairman of NFU Cymru in Pembrokeshire.

“As ever, it was the good animals we lost, third, fourth, fifth lactation cows, the most productive ones.’’

The Poyersfield prefix was established in 1993 shortly after the Lewis family bought Poyerston, a 200-acre dairy farm at Milton, near Pembroke.

The herd has always been autumn-calving. “If you are brought up with a particular system it captures your imagination,’’ says Roger.

In April 2020, yield averaged 10,261 litres at 4.24 per cent butterfat and 3.32 per cent protein with milk sold to Haverfordwest-based company Mark Hunter to market under the Totally Welsh brand.

The focus is on producing milk from forage, grazed and ensiled – 4,679 litres are produced from forage.

Grass management has developed over the last 10 years, using best practice gleaned from grass-based dairy farms.

Roger believes too much is made of the Holstein Friesian’s poor performance on grass but he points out: “Fortunately we are not trying to breed these animals at grass, we are just producing milk.’’

“The cow we have going out to graze in March is different from breeds specifically bred for grazing, she is in calf and coming off a great plane of nutrition.

“The first four weeks at grazing are our greatest challenge, where we gradually remove buffer feed.’’

By May, cows will be producing a 30-litre average at 250 days in milk on grass and cake in the parlour.

May is often his most profitable month because feed costs are low and milk production high.

“Our milk buyer wants cows grazing and it is about developing a system that we are happy with but one that must ultimately make money.’’

Milking facilities were first upgraded in 2001 when a 15/30 herringbone parlour was installed at a point when the herd numbered 150 cows.

But, as the herd grew, so did pressure on the facilities.

By 2018 there were 330 milkers in the herd and each milking took four hours.

With sufficient land and infrastructure to support 350 cows, the decision was taken to invest in a 40-point rotary and to grow the herd further.

“At 350 cows we have now reached the point we are comfortable with,’’ says Roger. “We went through the process of last parlour outgrowing the herd and I personally can’t see the numbers increasing.

“It is the efficiency from a stable number of cows that we are now chasing.’’

The herd has recovered from the blow struck by TB thanks to an excess number of dairy replacements that were being reared when the breakdown occurred.

Excess heifers had been retained to tighten the calving block, by front loading the herd with heifers and selling cows calving at the end of the block.

“Our saving grace was that we had 110 heifers, most of which we had planned to bring into the herd in September and some we were going to sell but we brought them all into herd,’’ says Roger.

But he estimates that the breakdown resulted in a 500,000-litre loss of milk. Production has now been restored to 3.5million litres annually.

The herd tested clear in April 2019 and testing has been scaled back to an annual test.

“We can only hope for the best going forward, it is a lottery because the disease is out there, that hasn’t gone,’’ says Roger.