Smaller-scale dairy producers can control costs just as effectively as those running larger herds, according to DairyCo.

Initial findings from its Milkbench+ benchmarking project, which has so far analysed data from 338 farms across England, Scotland and Wales in the 12 months to February 2011, suggested bigger is not always best in the strive for increased input use efficiency.

Any sized herd could achieve good levels of milk production efficiency, and some of the most efficient were relatively small units, with less than 200 cows, DairyCo’s Peter Thorne told the DairyUKDairyCo conference in Worcester (7 June).

Fitting the system to individual circumstances and maximising milk yield were crucial to success at any level though, and data analysis suggested smaller herds had scope to make big gains from increasing yields. Those with less than 120 cows could save an average of 1.84p/litre by increasing yield by 1,000 litres a cow a year, while a similar yield increase would cut around 0.18p/litre off the typical cost of production for herds over 250 cows, he said.

“It’s ok to stay small, but you need to be realistic about what can be achieved, and it can be quite difficult to make a profit without a bigger scale, especially once you get down to 120 cows or less,” he said. “It will also be difficult to go to an extensive system under 150 cows and really you need 200-plus for extensive grazing to work profitably. You have to be fully committed to the system to make it work.”

Mr Thorne said the highest-yielding herds tended to be those that were housed for most of the season, but even with these systems, the financial losses could be substantial if yield targets were not met. Pursuing yield at excessive cost was a risk for some housed herds, and overfeeding, for example, added 1p/litre to production costs for one unsuccessful group, for 800 litres less milk.

The full Milkbench+ annual report is due to be published in November.

What is Milkbench+?

• Internet-based benchmarking service for dairy farmers

• Focuses on financial efficiency of input use and aims to highlight areas for savings

• Costs covered: overheads, labour, machinery and power, feed and forage, herd health and replacements, plus property, imputed rent and finance

• Farmers can enter their own data online or arrange a visit from DairyCo’s data collection team

• Service is free to levy payers

• Go to or call 024 7647 8708