Recent milk price rises have given a west Wales farmer the confidence to invest in better genetics, herd expansion and extra silage and slurry storage.
Robert Davies, who farms 130ha in partnership with his wife Francis at Pantmoch, Pont-Sian, Dyfed, plans to push up average herd yield from 7500 to 8500 litres/cow and to increase herd size by 25% to about 250 head.
This will mean installing a new 16.5m litre (300,000g) below-ground slurry store under cubicle house and an enlarged, slatted-floor collecting yard. Work has already started on creating an additional 30m x 40m silage pad.
The year-round calving dairy herd was established with 35 cows only 16 years ago using an allocation of 360,000 litres of SLOM quota. This switch from beef and sheep production occurred when Mr Davies joined his father John, who quit dairying in 1979, in the business.
Originally dry cows were bought in from many sources, the aim being to get robust animals capable of walking up to a mile to graze.
But after Mr Davies and his father, John, erected a huge, 66m x 23m building using a purchased steel frame, the system changed. Now cows are housed day and night from calving to when they are confirmed back in calf.
This means that, with an average calving interval of 380-400 days, there are usually between 80 and 100 cows housed at all times.
Extended housing means that only four 2.5ha (6 acre) fields close to the buildings are now used to block-graze cows outside, with some access to adjoining fields after a second cut of silage.
Keeping cows in has increased the amount of slurry produced and Mr Davies endeavours to spread it regularly to reduce fertiliser use. Silage land gets a dressing of urea at the end of February plus 70-90kg/ha of nitrogen and slurry after each of three cuts.
Every effort is made to conserve good quality silage. The first cut taken during the difficult 2007 season produced 33.3% DM silage with a D-value of 64 and 13.4% protein. The ME was 10.2, compared with 11 in an average year.
About 50kg of bagged nitrogen/ha/month are spread on grazing fields during summer and dirty water is applied post-grazing throughout the season. Regular soil testing shows P and K levels are maintained without using compound fertiliser.
During an open day at the unit, which is now one of the Welsh Dairy Development Centre‘s demonstration farms, Mr Davies told visitors his main objective was to optimise lifetime cow yield by a combination of good genetics and management aimed at improving longevity.
Currently the herd is expanding using home bred heifers sired by bulls selected on milk yield, protein, udder and type. They will be managed to get them to last.
The plan this winter was for higher yielders to produce the first 30 litres of milk from 40.7kg of a TMR containing 30kg of first cut silage, 5kg crimped maize and 1.75kg of maize distillers as well as soya, rapeseed, molasses, straw and minerals.
But poor crimped maize quality recently persuaded Mr Davies to switch to caustic wheat. Before the change, high and medium yielders were expected to produce the first 30 litres of milk from 40.9kg of the TMR costing £1.63/cow/day, with an 18% protein high energy concentrate fed in the parlour.
Rising milk prices and cost savings induced by making better use of slurry have given Robert Davies the confidence to plan expansion.
Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research consultant Chris Duller said the system developed at Pantmoch had created slurry management problems and opportunities.
Keeping up to 100 cows inside for much of the year meant there was a lot more slurry to store and spread.
“There is enormous scope for using dairy cow slurry to cut fertiliser bills, but a farmer needs to know exactly what is being applied,” said Mr Duller.
On average, dairy cow slurry has 6% dry matter, but it is worth having it analysed to make the most of its nutrients.
“Mr Davies is getting it spot-on when it comes to using the fertiliser potential of slurry. But I would like him to go further by using injection or trailing shoe machinery. Injection can cost £30 to £35/ha, or twice as much as using a splash plate machine, but it can cut losses by 25%.”