Skip to main content

Slashing carbon footprint by changing feeding and breeding

Switching breed, reducing dietary protein and improving forage quality have helped place a small Cheshire County Council farm in the UK’s top 10% for carbon footprint.

Chasing a low carbon footprint may sound an onerous task, but Cheshire farmers, Stephen and Christine Pickles, say they have done so by simply trying to be efficient.

The rewards for their efforts can be seen in their position as one of the leading farmers in Arla’s ‘Climate Check’ ranking, with a carbon footprint of 0.98 kg CO2-equivalent per litre of milk produced. This compares with an Arla average of 1.14 kg, a UK-national average of around 1.25 kg and a global average of well over 2 kg CO2 eq per litre.

This not only earns the Pickles family an extra 1 cent (Euro) per litre, simply for taking part, but the efficiencies the scheme has encouraged have drastically improved the farm’s bottom line.

The efficiency drive began in earnest when the family moved to Valley Farm in Goostrey, in 2017. They’d felt lucky to be accepted on the 173-acre county council holding, where they’ve been able to rent a further 80 acres, including 50 acres used for maize.

Having climbed up the farming ladder from the position of herd manager, Stephen only began farming in his own right in 2001. First, he and Christine obtained 34 acres which they stocked with 30 cows on their first council holding. Then they secured a 132-acre tenancy with Cheshire County Council in 2003. After 14 years of hard graft – initially with a flying herd and later breeding their own replacements – they struck lucky with Valley Farm, just as their previous tenancy was coming to an end.

Here, they started with their 120 milking Holsteins, and began to look more closely at their efficiency and profitability.

Pickles UK ProCROSS

Switch to autumn calving

“We thought we could improve our profitability if we switched to autumn calving as we’d had some difficult years, particularly in the wet summer and long winter of 2012/13, when forage was short,” says Stephen. “When the cows were year-round calving they were fed a total mixed ration inside at night and grazed by day, which we found tended to make them selective grazers.”

Milk from forage stood at around 1,600 litres at the time of moving, but started improving as the herd transitioned to autumn calving. This involved switching to a TMR in winter only, and fully grazing (plus parlour concentrates) in spring, summer and autumn. “However, we struggled to hold milk solids at an acceptable level for our Arla contract, and at that time, were producing 4.2% fat and 3.3% protein at 9,100 litres,” says Stephen.

Pickles UK ProCROSS


The game-changer came when the family decided to switch their herd’s breed, in a move which would lift their milk solids while slashing costs of production. “I’d read several articles about ProCROSS, a three-way system which uses Holstein, Montbéliarde and VikingRed in a breeding rotation,” he says. “I spoke to Chris Stone from VikingGenetics and on his advice, we started crossing the Holsteins with a Montbéliarde and that cross was bred to a VikingRed, which will then go back to the Holstein.”

Chris Stone explains: “By continually maintaining the three-way cross, the benefits of hybrid vigour – which are known to improve health and fertility in particular – continue indefinitely.

“Equally important is the choice of these three breeds as they complement each other so well,” he says. “The Holstein brings production and udder traits; the Montbéliarde brings fertility, body condition and strength; and the VikingRed’s strengths include calving traits, hoof health and fertility.

“Furthermore, the three breeds are complementary for stature, helping to maintain size uniformity and ease of management in the herd,” he adds. “We could see the potential in them straight away,” says Stephen, who also bought in some ready-made ProCROSS cattle to speed things along.

“The calves are more vigorous too,” adds Christine, who shares the milking with Stephen, undertakes calf rearing, and has so far achieved zero percent mortality in the crossbred calves’ first 24 days.

Pickles UK ProCROSS

Milk solids continue to rise

With 70% of the herd now comprising the full three-way cross, production now stands at 9,350 kg at 4.52% fat and 3.48% protein (12 month rolling average), while solids this autumn have risen to 4.81% fat and 3.51% protein.

“Their performance is improving all the time as more ProCROSS heifers calve down,” says Stephen. Particularly pleasing has been the fact that this performance has been achieved on lower feed intakes and with a reduced protein diet.

“Feed conversion efficiency [FCE] is one of the key drivers of a low carbon footprint, and this is an area where the farm scored well,” says Stephen, remarking that the whole ‘Climate Check’ process is facilitated by consultants, Promar.


Cutting both concentrates and protein

This reflects the cut in concentrate feeding from 3.1 to 2.7 tonnes per cow per year and a reduction in the TMR’s overall protein, down from 17.5% to 16.5%, achieved by cutting the blend in the TMR from 22% to 18% protein. The TMR is fed for maintenance plus 28 litres, with up to 6kg/day of 18% protein cake in the parlour.

“I was keen to see if we could cut the protein of the overall ration, which I knew would reduce our carbon footprint, so we began this in the winter of 2019/20,” says Stephen,

“Since then, we have noticed no drop in yield, health or fertility and if anything, have seen an improvement in milk solids,” he says.

“Good feed conversion efficiency is something ProCROSS cattle are known for,” adds Chris Stone. “Work at the University of Minnesota has demonstrated they produce 8% more milk solids than the Holstein, per kilogram of dry matter intake.”

“We certainly feel they are better feed converters,” confirms Stephen, who says concentrate use has dropped from 0.34 kg/litre to 0.29 kg/litre.

Furthermore, Chris says Danish studies have recently revealed that crossbred herds produce less methane.

“This has a lot to do with their good lifespan and low replacement rates, compared with the purebred cow,” he says.

Pickles UK ProCROSS

The Pickles’ farm corroborates this observation too, where longevity and fertility have driven replacement rate down to 21%, leaving scope for some 30-40 dairy heifers to be sold in future years.

Also scoring well in the carbon audit for fertility he thinks they can improve this further.

“Our 24-month age at first calving is a strong point, but we’re now aiming to reduce this to 23 months,” he says. “It’s hard to believe their age when you see them at less than two years – they are definitely stronger.”


Straws per conception

Semen use has also dropped drastically from 2.8 to 1.5 straws per conception at the same time as sexed semen usage has increased. This is used on all heifers and the top 25% of cows, with the remainder bred to either conventional dairy or beef.

“Any dairy bull calves we have from ProCROSS breeding have a higher value than Holstein calves,” he says. “Dairy males will sell for about £130 at four weeks of age, compared with £80 before, and those by a British Blue sell for around £300.”

General health has also seen a dramatic turn for the better, typified by improvements in lameness.

“We have a lot less lameness and far better foot health – it’s rare to see digital dermatitis now and feet seem much harder,” he says. This is reflected in vet and med costs which have almost halved since 2017 from 1.4 p/litre, compared with 0.73 p/litre today.

Pickles UK ProCROSS

Milk from forage at 4,100 litres

Milk from forage has also noticeably increased and now stands at an impressive 4,100 litres, or 44%. The improvement in forage performance is not only attributed to the cattle themselves but to rotational grazing and switching from three to four cuts of silage, which has increased forage metabolisable energy, protein and utilisation.

Nitrogen use has similarly been identified as efficient, although is improving further as the farm’s slurry tanker, with its inefficient splash plate, is replaced with a contractor’s spreader, with trailing shoe or shallow disc injection.


The bottom line

Financially, the Pickles say they are happy with the impact the focus on carbon footprint has made to their bottom line. Margin over purchased feed is now £2,120 per cow per year which has fed through to profits.

For the future, they plan to continue cutting purchased fertiliser, move away from ploughing, take soya out of the ration completely and add more renewable energy.

“We’re very happy with the outcome,” they say. “Since we started monitoring this two years ago we have realised that the lower the carbon footprint, the more efficient the business.”


Valley Farm facts

  • 160 milkers transitioning from Holstein to ProCROSS
  • County council tenancy of 173 acres plus 80 acres extra
  • Autumn block calving from 1 Sept to early Dec
  • 9,350 kg at 4.52% fat, 3.48% protein (12 months rolling average)
  • Best 10% (2020) for carbon footprint in Arla Climate Check


Targeting carbon footprint

  • Improved feed efficiency from 0.34 to 0.29kg concentrates/litre
  • Reduced crude protein in TMR from 17.5% to 16.5%
  • Increased silage and grass quality to ME of ≥12 MJ/kg DM
  • Reduced age at first calving to 24 months and downwards
  • Improved health and fertility, cutting productivity losses
  • Cut bought-in nitrogen through better slurry management
 Pickles UK ProCROSS

Don't miss out on good stories - subscribe to our e-letter!