Thursday, November 15, 2018

Team spirit paves way for dairy success

September 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Supplying organic milk to McDonalds restaurants has seen the Lawn Farm Partnership’s 270-cow feature on television and online advertising campaigns promoting British farmers. But the farm’s real stars are its staff, says partner David Dilks, of Lawn Farm, Shottle, Derbyshire.

Winner of the McDonalds 2018 Outstanding Dairy Farmer Award, Mr Dilks has found himself – along with members of his immediate family – caught on camera. “I’m all for promoting British farming but not one for self promotion,” he says, having been nominated by milk buyer Arla.

The business – a partnership with parents Bill and Jean – is at the centre of family life for David’s wife Lucy and children Eleanor, Martha and Joseph. But farm staff play a pivotal role in the success of the business too.

“Our herdsman Barrie Moseley has been with us since 1986 and probably knows Lawn Farm better than I do,” says Mr Dilks.

The 160ha tenanted unit sits within the Chatsworth Estate and converted to organic in 2007. Mr Dilks was formerly involved with the family’s contracting business – AgCon – from which he separated to concentrate on dairy farming.

“Four years ago we had the opportunity to take on 60ha on a neighbouring farm and that opened up the job for us,’ he says.

Track and field

McDonalds – a former sponsor to the Olympic Games – funded a farm improvement grant to help pay for a 1km track linking the two units. “We put artificial grass on top of crushed stone. The cows stampeded down it they liked it so much,” says Mr Dilks of his very own track and field event.

Grazing management is a cornerstone of the organic system and has been tested sorely this season. “Around 70% of our acreage is grassland. I like to keep things simple so we literally graze each field in turn and just go around the farm,” he explains.

Targeting turnout for early April, this year’s first and lighter second cut silage were ensiled as the dry weather set in this summer. “Despite grass growth slowing markedly I’ve resisted the temptation to open the clamps as it’s our winter feed.”

Instead, the farm is using big bale silage to supplement a TMR buffer feed made with maize kernel, arable silage – a mix of spring sown peas and barley – and topped up with lucerne nuts.

“We’re not chasing milk (the herd calves all year around and achieves a typical yield of 7200 litres/cow) but cows are fed to yield through the parlour.”

Other forage crops are grown. “We tend to go for spring crops as there‘s not the access to herbicides under organic rules. Aside from the arable silage we also grow a whole crop mix of peas, barley and oats for use in the ration.

“I’m also looking at growing lucerne in future to make a higher protein forage than some arable mixes we use currently. Lupins could also feature.”

Cultivations and harvesting

While former Reaseheath College students Will Jones and Mick Kelsey help look after day-to-day farm tasks with part-time help from self-employed farmhand Robert Ironmonger, AgCon is used widely for in-field cultivations and harvesting.

“The only machinery we use is a flail topper which goes ahead of the cows every second or third round to keep on top of weeds especially docks,” he explains.

In its own version of a fast food outlet, there are 800 mouths to feed daily – including young-stock and replacements.

“We will take some pressure off this autumn by removing a larger number of cull cows out of the herd and taking beef calves and stores to the farm’s beef unit at Brailsford to graze on stubble turnips through winter.”

Despite a current milk price of 38ppl the pressure to afford supplementary feeds from organic sources still smarts, suggests David. “We’ve been feeding lucerne pellets at £299/t which we’d normally turn to at the end of the year; we’d used an artic load by mid August due to compensate for the slower grass growth.”

Future improvements

Other loads have been secured with an expectation that shorter forage stocks nationwide may drive up feed costs this autumn and winter.

Further attributes of the dairy system also help redress the balance of income and expenses. Lucy explains: “We’ve moved from Holstein to a three-way cross with Fleckvieh and Norwegian Reds. All male calves now have a value as a beef animal unlike plainer dairy-bred black and white bulls.”

The top end of the herd is AI’d to back to Holstein using sexed semen while any cows known to be Johnes positive are put to beef bulls or culled out, explains David.

“We generally leave calves on the dam for 48-72 hours which sees them fly. Those from Johnes animals are reared on stores of colostrum and whole milk from clean cattle.”

There are improvements to be made, he suggests, to the business. Improving dry cow and calf rearing facilities are both on the cards. Transition diets are also under review. “The future isn’t expansion but expanding on what we already do.

“I like the simplicity of the system. It works well. But this farm isn’t just me, it’s a team effort,” he says with true Olympian grace.

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