Saturday, October 20, 2018

More milk from grass is goal for dairy herd

November 1, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles

James and Lucy Muir are running an efficient system at New Buildings Farm, Stafford. Simon Wragg reports.

Careful management of the last mouthfuls of grazed grass during November will prepare the way for a successful start to next spring’s grazing for James and Lucy Muir’s 450-cow dairy herd at New Buildings Farm, Stafford.

The spring calving herd of New Zealand cross-bred cows will start grazing the 54-paddock milking platform covering 170ha (420ac) from early February. But every mouthful now has to be managed so it doesn’t take a bite out of next year’s opening feed stock for fresh-calved cows and heifers.

“Throughout the year we’ve targeted grazing covers down to 1500kg DM/ha and will look to close up paddocks at 2100kg DM/ha,” explains James. “There will be minimal growth over winter so we need to set up opening covers now. The key thing is to choose the right paddock on the right day to graze.”

Share-farming in partnership with Lucy’s parents, Steve and Lesley Brandon, the business has a bank of historical data to determine the right rotation of paddocks. This includes records of individual area’s grass growth related to weather conditions, soil structure, infrastructure and level of cover.

“The key is to be flexible,” emphasises James. “From early November we split the herd and the area grazed in half from 3.87ha/day to 1.99ha. While half will go out and graze, the remainder stay indoors and have access to silage.”

Grass covers are measured weekly using a height depth plate-meter through to early December. Later readings can be misleading as grass becomes dormant and leans over.

All figure are processed using Agrinet software to produce a weekly chart of  paddocks ranked by the level of grass cover. This is balanced against each area’s physical characteristics – the need to avoid poaching is paramount at this time of year – to determine a grazing order.

During 2017 grass production at New Buildings Farm will peak at around 13t DM/ha (versus 12.7t in 2015 and 13.53t in 2016). This is sufficient to achieve an average milk yield of 6279 litres/cow at 4.61% butterfat and 3.68% protein supported by 850kg concentrate/cow. Milk is sold to Arla on a manufacturing contract.

The challenge during 2017 has been to graze grass efficiently while trying to reduce costs in a structured way, explains Lucy. This came in the wake of 2016 and a period of low milk payments – the 2.7m litre business averaged 19.3ppl – which dented margins.


An improvement to nearer 29ppl during 2017 has been welcome and the extra revenue invested wisely, she explains. “We’ve not gone out and spent unnecessarily on equipment deciding instead to invest in non-farming assets to benefit the business long term.”

Lessons have been learnt. Cutting back bought-in feed in 2016 reduced mineral supplementation with an impact on cow health, reflects James – a former fraud investigator. Today’s focus is on reducing out-goings by utilising more skills in-house. “For example, we now do all post-calving checks ourselves rather than calling in the vet.”

Other out-goings are managed by shopping around for inputs such as feed and fertiliser or buying in bulk, explains Lucy. “We’ve learnt not to take prices on face value.”

Supported by a team of three full-time staff – John Cole, Liam Kettleborough and Nick Harvey – plus two regular part-timers, the aim for 2018 is to improve skills within the business and target a cost of production budgeted at 20ppl.

The business also benefits from being part of a grazing discussion group – The Turf Accountants – where other like-minded producers can help review challenges and benchmark production.


James remains mindful that any success is governed by weather conditions. For example, 2017 got off to a good early start before Hurricane Doris’ aftermath arrived and cows had to be re-housed to avoid poaching pasture.

Once back outdoors grass growth had accelerated ahead of an ability to graze it efficiently leading to 27ha (67ac) being shut up for silage. “While we need about 2000t of silage/year on this system, it’s always cheaper to graze it if possible than conserve it,” he explains.

Looking to the future, Lucy adds: “There’s still uncertainty over how commodity markets will act in 2018 and what may become of Brexit. We also face disruption from the rail expansion of HS2 which will cut through the grazing area.

“But our short-term objective is to remain focused on producing milk efficiently from grazed grass. We would like to expand in the medium term to include a separate 300-cow ring-fenced unit run along similar lines to here but without carrying any young stock.

“Longer term we want to compound investment in both farming and non-farming assets and give our children the opportunity to farm if they wish.”

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