The last year is one many in the industry would sooner forget, but for Phil Asbury, farm manager at Clive Hall Farm in Winsford, Cheshire, monitoring and measuring 2012 / 13 against the previous two years has produced many points to remember.
The 71ha extensive-grazing farm milks 210 Kiwi Friesian, Jersey and Swedish Red cross-bred cattle on a spring block calving system as one of six milking units contract managed by Cheshire-based dairy farm management company Fletcher and Co (Grasslands).
Since March 2010 Clive Hall has been a central point for farmer discussion as one of six monitor farms selected through the RDPE Northwest Livestock Programme that were tasked with improving farm competiveness and sharing ideas with the farming community in the North West.
And despite an unpredictable last 12 months, unit manager Phil has still managed to turn in a better performance than he did the year before the programme started, by taking a structured approach to fertility, youngstock, lameness, milk produced from grazed grass and people management.
“The experience has really opened my eyes to a lot of things as we’ve dug deeper into areas like calf management, lameness and mobility. Fertility has been the over-riding driver of how the farm and cows perform which has been undermined by lameness.”
How the monitor farm process started… and introduction to lean management
A small steering group saw Phil, Grasslands managing director Andrew Fletcher, local farmers and industry representatives, set out to establish the farm’s objectives. The group helped to identify specialists to meet these goals and struck upon the principles of lean management and the work of agricultural economist Dr Kay Carson.
Phil has worked closely with Dr Carson to look at the milk production process on the farm as a whole – addressing animal health with farm vet Bridget Taylor and Ed Hayes from Wright and Morten Vet Group, nutrient management with Promar and travelling further afield for specialist knowledge on grassland with trips to Moorepark in Ireland and speakers organised through DairyCo.
This structured approach to direct decision-making takes the form of a daily diary that Phil completes on his laptop. By inputting data taken from a combination of sources, it has helped point out problems in herd health before they become too serious, identify potential holes in his grazing platform and stay ahead of the curve.
Phil walks the whole farm once a week with a plate meter and measures grass when the cows go in and come out of a paddock. The quality of grass has to be at its best at all times, with cows put in at 2,700 kg DM/ha and taken out at 1,300 on the first round,1,550 later in the year, returning for as long as necessary to ensure they graze down to the required residual as paddocks range in size from 1ha to 7.5ha. The farm is closed up at 2,150kg DM/ha in late November for the three months cows aren’t at grass.
The farm didn’t really have a focussed reseeding policy until three years ago and now annually reseeds 10% of the land each spring. Clive Hall is in an NVZ area and a trailing shoe is used to spread slurry as much as they can. 10,000 concrete sleepers link the fields and electric fencing is widely used to fully utilise grass and access grazing at the shoulders of the year.
He said: “You can’t miss grazing a paddock right down twice in a row as it will hit growth later on in the year. You can’t afford to leave grass behind in the field and let cows go lazy.
“The programme we use plots grass cover across the farm as a curve and as soon as you see a dip approaching you do something to try and flatten the hole out by opening the clamp or increasing corn.”
“If grass goes above 2,700 kg we’ll take it out of rotation and silo it, cutting at 3,500 to 4,000kg, but we have to make sure we don’t jump in with two feet too soon as the grass is far more cost effective grazed than shut up in the clamp.”
The farm reached its target of utilising 12t DM/ha at 12MJ ME in 2011 and saved 0.45ppl on feed and forage costs as a result. In fact April 2011 to April 2012 was a great year. Income rose by 1.88ppl and costs were reduced by 1.12ppl to make a bottom line improvement of 3.00ppl on a million litres milked.
DairyCo’s MilkBench figures for three years saw the farm’s net margin increase from 5.96ppl in 2009/10 to 8.99ppl in 2011/12. Admittedly strong milk prices saw margins rise for everyone but Clive Hall’s increased faster than the top 10% and almost caught up due to improvements made in milk from grazed grass.
Feed budgeting over the last 12 months
2012/13 has been a different story and planned feed budgets of 600kg per head based on the previous good year have been blown apart for a farm so heavily reliant on grass and is closer to 1,000kg, yet despite poor grass growth this spring and an unprecedented wet summer, results suggest they’ve still done better than 2009.
Speaking at the farm’s final monitor farm open day in May, Phil said: “It’s the first time I’ve been able to see 10 days grass in front of me. Milk is now dead level at 24 litres and hopefully we can maintain that now as we’re past peak milk output.
“April last year we were producing 27 litres of milk (per cow per day) off 15 kilos of grass and two kilos of corn. This April we were doing 18 litres off 6kg of silage, 7kg of corn and 3kg of grass!”
The cows are mobility scored once a month and condition scored three times a year. This, along with data on mastitis cases, calf weights and fertility makes for more informed decision making.
Fertility was first addressed in 2009 when the farm had a health plan carried out by SAC Consulting and Wright and Morten Vets who moved the farm to a block calving pattern. The farm now aims to have 90% served in the first 20 days, averaging 10 cows a day.
Cows are PD’d in September and dried off early December, where they are condition scored, vaccinated for BVD, IBR and treated for fluke. All the cattle are given a trace element bolus before going on to a crop of beet where there may be deficiencies. This year silage bales supplemented a poor beet crop but didn’t fully fill the hole.
Cows calve on a straw yard with very few assisted births, very little milk fever and few retained cleansings are seen. Getting cows back in to calf has been helped by setting up a once-a-day milking group for lame, poorer condition and late calving cows.
Phil says condition scoring is an important job that he doesn’t do as he believes he would have too biased an opinion, so this is done by David Heath one of Grasslands’ directors. He also has 10 days of grazing planned at any one time so the herdsman knows which paddocks to use and when.
Data isn’t sexy but monitoring makes business sense
Planning ahead, monitoring results and looking for trends now plays a big part in Phil’s working week. Five years ago there was only one computer in the company but now all Grasslands’ farmers use them to fill in their daily diary.
They’ve needed support and encouragement to do it and time sat in the office hasn’t come naturally, but Phil now spends 20% of his working week on the business rather than solely in the business.
He said: “Data isn’t a sexy subject and it took me 12 months to get my head around it. It wasn’t until the second year when I had something to compare back to that it started to make sense.
“Hans Johr, Nestle’s Corporate Head of Agriculture, visited us last year and seemed interested in what we were doing. He’d been to one of the other six milking units who’ve just started the diary and described them as being at the learning to walk stage, whereas he thought we were now at the learning to read and write stage.
“We’ve opened the door and stepped through in to the big room, now we’ll see where we can go from here. The experience has really opened my eyes to a lot of things as we’ve dug deeper into areas like calf management, lameness and mobility. Fertility has been the over-riding driver of how the farm and cows perform which has been undermined by lameness.”
Mobility and youngstock
Generally 80 to 90% of the herd mobility score at 0-1 with just one or two niggling cows and poor access to a particular paddock causing problems. The cows are foot bathed regularly and a foot trimmer is employed to carry out preventative work.
Attention to youngstock has also been a success. Bridget said: “We’ve seen a big drop off in antibiotic sales at the practice due to better colostrum feeding. Phil has a snatch calf strategy and getting four litres of milk in the first six hours is of the utmost importance.”
The calves are put in pens of five and fed colostrum for the first three feeds. Raw milk not powder is used but not from heifers with unknown Johnes status. Pens are then gradually increased in size to 40 head and are out in the field from mid-March on a milk buggy with as much grass and corn as possible. Calves are then weighed for target weights at three, six and nine weeks and should be double their birth weight at 60 days. The farm aims to have all heifer replacements at 300kg at bulling.
The monitor farm programme has been delivered in Cheshire by Reaseheath College, with Myerscough College and Cumbria Farmer Network facilitating the same meetings on farms in Lancashire and Cumbria respectively.
DairyCo has provided technical support for all the dairy monitor farms in the North West. They now hope to work with Dr Carson to develop Lean Management further with farms across the country.
2009/10 2010/11 2011/12
Average number of cows milked 185 187 201
Number of full dairy grass grazing wks 41 44 37
Dairy Feed (kg fresh weight) 202,300 290,500 167,000
Dairy Forage (kg fresh weight) 750,000 1,274,000 984,000
Total milk produced (litres) 944,236 937,833 1,066,972
Total milk production cost (ppl) 22.25 23.67 22.55
Net Margin (ppl) 5.96 6 8.99
Net Margin (£/ha) 750 810 1,383
Income UP (ppl) - 29.67 31.48
Costs DOWN (ppl) - 23.67 22.55
% empty cows at 200 days post calving
2009 2010 2011 2012 TARGET 10%
18% 11% 9% 13%
YEAR Yield / cow Concentrates / cow (kg) Milk / cow from grass and forage
2009/10 5,104 855 3,481 litres
2010/11 5,015 1,351 2,448 litres
2011/12 5,308 683 4,010 litres
2012/13* 4,800* 1,000* 2,900* litres