Maximising production from grass is the aim of most dairy farmers, but when that’s the aim, spring calving is usually the chosen route.

However, for Mark, Hilary Pilkington and son Matthew, of Barby, Daventry, it’s an autumn-calving herd which forms the basis for their specialist dairy enterprise on 220ha (543 acres) of tenanted land.

“We would have opted for spring calving if we could. But having only moved here 18 months ago from Devon, we are fearful this could be a dry farm in summer and relying on grazed grass for milk could be a danger,” explains Mark Pilkington.

“When we came to view the farm it was July 2006 and pastures were burnt up, we couldn’t risk spring calving and then being short of grass just as cows were at their peak yield.”

Since moving to the unit in October 2006, the Pilkingtons have set about making it one they can farm with ease to maximise grass use and forage yields for their organic herd.

Tracks and fences have been installed to enable the herd to be paddock grazed, with reclaimed concrete railway sleepers used as a cost-effective way of installing tracks to give cows access to grass as easily as possible without damaging swards. “The key to making the most of grass is cows being able to get to it, so we knew tracks had to be a priority.”

And while many tenants may be nervous of investing heavily in rented farms, the Pilkingtons are viewing their move to Chapel Farm as a long-term investment in their farming future. “We’ve committed to invest £150,000, largely in infrastructure and are writing that off over the course of the 15-year FBT we’ve got. But our landlords, the Crown Estate, have been supportive and are investing too.”

It was Matthew’s desire to farm which initially spurred the Pilkingtons into looking for another unit, having previously farmed 120 cows on 250 acres on the edge of Dartmoor. “The way we were farming in Devon was holding us back. We had land scattered in blocks and were hauling silage up to 18 miles back to the farmstead.”

But the move hasn’t been without its headaches, explains Matthew Pilkington. “We took on 120 cows which were already here and they were of a more extreme Holstein type and not all have adapted to the new grass-based system. We brought in 120 cows from our herd in Devon and another 60 cows from another Devon herd, so there have been issues with mixing three herds together.

“The original herd here was loose housed, so they’ve had to adapt to cubicle housing and unfortunately TB has emerged in some cows brought up from Devon, so that has been another challenge. However, we’re confident that once we become a closed herd again any disease issues will settle down.”

One of the biggest infrastructure investments, the new parlour, has already been made and cows are happily milking through the 24:48 swingover set-up which became operational in early December last year.

And with the herd organic, as much feed as possible is being grown at home. Red clover is silaged for winter feeding, as is lucerne, chosen for its drought resistance qualities. “Grass leys are being reseeded with ryegrass and white clover mixes, with bigger leaved clover varieties chosen for their competiveness against grass.”

Organic feed costs are shooting through the roof and a check must be kept on bought-in feeds where we can, adds Matthew Pilkington. “When we moved here organic feed was costing £156/t and represented 5.2p a litre of costs, or 19% of the 27p a litre milk price. There is talk of feed costing £400/t next year and that would mean it was 14p a litre, or 42% of the predicted milk price then.

“We aren’t going to get massive milk price rises, so it’s pointless thinking we are. We have to find ways of making this farm pay and be more business-like in our approach to farming.”

It is this business attitude which has been the biggest change since moving, reckons Hilary Pilkington. “We are much more focused on the farm being a business which has to pay its way now than when were in Devon.”

One way the unit is making savings is by avoiding massive machinery investments, explains Mark Pilkington. “All we have is one loader tractor, a forage box, a scraper tractor and a skid steer loader. We’ve avoided machinery which will depreciate quickly where we can.”