A 3p/litre rise needs to come from trading if dairy businesses are to stay sustainable. Increases in feed and fertiliser prices means it is important to balance cost, output and profit, says Edward Lott of Kite Consulting.

Speaking at a farm walk at Abingdon, Oxfordshire, Mr Lott said farmers needed to take control and hold on to more of their milk cheque, preventing it being swallowed up by higher costs.

“Feed costs contribute a third of total cost of production. But as feed and fuel continue rising we can no longer rely on bought-in feeds. Farmers must make the most of grazed grass.

“Grass silage can be variable, so it is important to make as much high quality silage as possible. The aim should be for 28-30% dry matter and 11.5-12MJ/ME/kg.

“Farmers should be cutting grass in early May even if it is light, as the first cut will get back in the second cut. Have faith – when the weather is right, go early and get it clamped. Waiting will only devalue the first cut,” said Mr Lott.

High-quality forage

The key to high-quality forage production was good grazing and slurry management, said Kite Consulting’s Mike Bray.

“Industry seems to have forgotten about re-seeding leys. A re-seed can generate 70-100 days’ extra food and a 40% increase in yield.”

Injectors or trailed shoes could aid nitrogen uptake, said Mr Bray. “Both of these can increase nitrogen uptake by 10-20%. Opening up grass and aerating it can get cows on quicker this is also something to consider with rising prices.

“Silage production is important. Although we want to cut costs, it shouldn’t be forgotten that a batch of bad silage can end up costing more money. A small input of additives at the beginning can help minimise losses and so will pay back.

Lucerne

“Some farmers have reinvented the wheel and started growing lucerne,” said Mr Bray. “Lucerne is a protein crop, good on light, dry soils, with dry matter yields likely to be 14t/ha. Planting legumes such as lucerne and clovers is a long-term investment, increasing protein intake, ration palatability and soil fertility.

“With legumes using the atmospheric nitrogen available, over time it becomes fixed in the soil. Increasing soil fertility could minimise input needed from fertiliser. With NVZs increasingly an issue, it is important to consider the future.”

Host farmers the Christensen family aim to be self-sufficient, making the most of home-grown forage to avoid changing market prices.

The Christensens are in the process of establishing a 21-day rotation system to maximise yield from grass. Their 589 cows were yielding an annual average of 2551 litres a cow from forage, said David Christensen.

“We try to make the most of our land, growing 706 acres of grass, 296 of maize and 25 of winter barley. This means our purchased feed cost is only 5.07p/litre. Average concentrate fed to each cow annually is 2.56t, meaning the margin over purchased feed is £1507 a cow a year or 17.59p/litre each year.

“Only our high yielders are receiving forage buffer, due to the late spring. But we find the taller the sward, the easier it is for the cows to get their dry matter intake.

“Public perception is important to me. There is nothing better than seeing cows at grass. Happy, healthy cows equal profitable cows, so, whatever the feed price, cows must be fed a balanced diet,” he said.

Staff can boost profitability

Small things could have a large effect on profitability, which was why skilled labour was essential, said Mr Christensen.

“My team consists of six skilled employees, who know the system and can be left to do the job. I set the culture and attitude for this business. Keeping the farm clean and tidy boosts the morale and motivation of my staff.

“Communication is key to team success. Allowing employees to contribute to decision making and the farm’s future creates a dedicated workforce.

“Incentives by way of holidays, regular weekends off and quality accommodation help people settle, providing longevity of my employees. A family farm that is family staffed works a lot better,” he said.

Grass management

  • Cut grass early
  • Reseed
  • Soil aeration and injection
  • Consider legumes