Wednesday, February 26, 2020

JR & MC Downes & Son: Supplying the market for high-value dairy products

January 30, 2020 by  
Filed under Profiles

Dairy farmer Tim Downes is capitalising on export opportunities for infant milk and cheese. Simon Wragg reports.

High standards of milk hygiene and herd health are helping Shropshire dairy farmer Tim Downes supply international markets for infant milk and cheese.

While macro economic factors are outside his influence, Mr Downes and his team of 10 staff are managing the factors they can control to capitalise on export opportunities – despite testing times for worldwide trade.

The family-run business manages 500 largely Friesian-bred spring calving dairy cows at two separate locations – Longnor and Webscott. Average milk yield is 5850 litres/cow with all milk sold through the Omsco organic co-operative.

“We’re part of  a group adhering to US Standards within OMSCO ensuring our milk meets stringent standards for export to the US,” explains Tim.

“Milk hygiene is of paramount importance and several protocols have been introduced to herd management to help meet the constant challenge and avoid antibiotic usage.

“We’ve been working with former Nuffield Scholar Aled Rhys Jones and now apply a spray of ‘friendly bacteria’ direct on to straw bedding in the herd’s winter housing to out-compete negative bacteria such as ecoli.”

Herd health

The aim is to ensure liquid milk bactoscans and cell counts remain low as an indication of good hygiene. Other practical steps have been taken in the milking parlour with staff issued with sterile gloves to reduce skin-to-skin transfer of bacteria.

“Selective breeding has also helped improve herd health. We now use sexed semen on the top 150 cows and heifers having recently selected a Norwegian Red polled bull for the heifers. Everything else is put to Aberdeen Angus as we finish around 150 beef animals for Waitrose annually.”

The focus includes feed – particularly the production of high quality self-feed winter forage. “Having been to the US in 2016 and listened to producers experiences on improving soil mineral levels, we’ve begun applying a liquid application of trace minerals to silage and grazing fields.”

Having run control and test strips since 2016, Tim is confident that an increase in both grass growth, yield and quality has been achieved.

“We use a product containing selenium, cobalt and iodine amongst others which is applied using a single wide fan jet on a dedicated 700-litre sprayer at 50 litres/ha. Having monitored growth we’ve seen production increase from around 7t DM/ha in 2016 to around 12t DM/ha in 2019.

“Accepting environmental and climatic factors will have had some influence depending on the season, the improvement in grass growth and quality – seen from both tests of fresh forage and ensiled grass – has been good.”

Soils and livestock

The drive to improve the health of soils as well as livestock is continuing after Tim spoke at this year’s Real Oxford Farming Conference. This compliments earlier work including the provision of avenues of ‘medicinal’ trees from which the dairy herd can selectively graze.

The trees help to counter routine health challenges, says Tim. Walnut trees have also been planted to reduce fly populations. Other feeds have factored in a bid to maintain health in the milking herd, he adds.

Fodder beet – grown to organic standards – has been incorporated into the winter ration for late lactation cows, early lactation milkers and in-calf heifers to good effect. “The aim is to reduce the risk posed by a sharp increase in demand for energy post calving,” Tim explains.

“In 2018, we fed the beet whole which meant cows spent more time at the feed fence and benefited from a slower release of energy to the rumen. We now chop the beet in a root bucket and budget for around 5kg/head/day at 18% DM which hasn’t affected the intake of grass silage.”

Future plans

The business was fortunate to sow winter oats in early autumn destined for whole-crop forage in mid 2020. But as a largely grass-based unit the national shortfall in winter cereal planting in 2019 due to wet conditions concern remains over the availability of straw for the coming year.

Other areas of the business are also providing food for thought. Working with degree student Peter Loxdale of Harper Adams University the business is assessing its carbon footprint.

The use of plastic, generation of waste, energy use and recycling all factor as well as looking at opportunities for energy generation and storage in the future.

“I also sit on RABDF’s Innovation Panel and it’s interesting to see ways in which other producers have simplified and improved day-to-day tasks to make life less complicated.”

And that’s just as well because the immediate post-Brexit era looks complicated.

While sitting on the Shropshire Business Board on behalf of the NFU to encourage trade within the county, Tim cannot help consider the impact of international trade and tariffs on the 456ha farm business and its various land management agreements – long and short term.

“Some products our milk helps make are affected by the so-called Airbus tariffs imposed by the US in October 2019 on some EU goods (in retaliation for EU tariffs). It’s a shot across the boughs,” he reflects with concern.

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