Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Robust dairy farm is fit for future

January 2, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Staffordshire dairy farm Michael Brown is restructuring his business to deliver a better income. Simon Wragg reports.

Expansion to 400 cows was seen as a way back to profit in 2014 for Staffordshire milk producer Michael Brown. But today numbers have been cut to create a more robust system encompassing paddock grazing and seasonal rather than year-round calving.

First featured in Midland Farmer five years ago, Mr Brown had reacted to low milk prices by taking opportunities to expand Coton Hall Farm, Fauld, near Tutbury. But this came at a price: more management challenges and no lift in income.

“I simply wasn’t making any money so I had to restructure,” he says, emphatically. The mixed unit – part of the Queen’s Duchy of Lancaster estate – was then 344ha (850ac) having taken on 60ha (150ac) and a building next door for replacement heifers and dry cows.

“In restructuring the business I’ve given up a different area of 150ac on which I grew cereals and maize which was under-performing; there’s no money growing wheat using contractors. And a further 50ac (on a short term let) has also been relinquished but, importantly, the farm still isn’t overstocked.”

Paddock grazing

Lying on heavy soils and sloping ground restricts grazing in the shoulders of the season (turnout is normally mid April). There’s also an emphasis on carrying good stocks of conserved forage for both TMR buffer feeding through summer and during winter housing. “Currently, the herd averages 8500 litres/head using 2.6t of concentrate/cow,” he explains.

Working with independent consultant Ian Browne the unit is moving from a field-by-field grazing regime to paddock grazing. Investment in used Astroturf will see track ways improved during spring along with electric fencing.

“The other big change is the shift to seasonal calving. Heifers will calve through July and August and the cows from August to October. This will allow me to make the most of seasonality payments for milk (sold via Arla to Tesco attracting 1.4ppl over standard contracts) through late summer and into winter.

“And on this farm there’s no point turning out a fresh calved cow giving 40 litres a day to pasture and hoping it will maintain yield. The forecast is for most cows to be giving 20 litres plus and therefore better placed to utilise grazing (without impacting on body condition).”

Animal health

Transition has not been straightforward. Mr Brown believes it will be a further 12 months before the shift from year-round calving is complete. “I’m not being too hard on animals which don’t fit the system but some wastage is inevitable.”

Sexed semen has been introduced with several staff trained to undertake AI. Pedometers help identify animals in heat.

Herd health is being improved on several fronts. Fewer cows in the three cubicle houses has eased pressure on group hierarchy. And a shift to sawdust from straw – and more use of lime – is reducing environmental bacteria.

In the 24:48 swing-over parlour an automated teat dip and cluster flush system (ADF) has been retrofitted to assist in combating mastitis. Cows also exit the parlour after morning milking via an auto fill/flush footbath helping tackle lameness.

“As part of the supply group to Tesco we also locomotion and body score the herd quarterly as part of its protocols,” he adds.

Elsewhere, capital has been invested to reduce operating costs. A ‘vacuum on demand’ pump on the milk line will help trim energy costs. “Both this and the ADF upgrade were funded with a 40% RDPE grant.”

Milk silo

Outside – and the most aesthetic change – has seen the installation of a 30,000-litre GEA milk silo allowing the herd to move to every other day collection (EOD). The original 25 year old 10,000-litre bulk tank remains in place to allow milking to continue should a tanker arrive to empty the silo.

“In effect I’m not being charged for a daily collection and there’s a small financial bonus for having the bulk tank in reserve,” explains Mr Brown. These are worth around £600 per calendar month, it is suggested.

Other cost centres have been challenged. Surplus equipment has been sold and capital used to update essential kit such as the unit’s telehandler. “I had put off replacing some equipment as economics dictated.”

The farm relies on a local contractor – Salmons – to undertake silaging and spreading.

“Their son, Paul, has been with me for around 15 years and is in effect my farm manager. He works alongside the other full-time staff – Peter Harvey and Keith Upton. I also have two students on placement and a relief milker.”

Transitional changes are still bedding in but Mr Brown is confident the business is better placed to deliver a decent income from dairying. “I feel I’ve had my eyes opened having farmed a larger acreage but finding it has not put a penny towards profit,” he concludes.

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