21 November 1997

Expected drop still shocks

Like other dairy farmers, the

Lees are having to come

to terms with rock

bottom prices, as

Philip Clarke reports

THE arrival of the November milk cheque this week at Dowrich has confirmed Anthony Lees worst expectations.

At just 21.9p/litre, the payment for October deliveries is 5.6p down on last year, reflecting Milk Marques sharp drop in constituent values, the change in the seasonality scale and a slightly lower butterfat content.

While the price cut has been expected for several months, seeing it in print has still come as a shock to Anthony, as it represents a £4500 drop in monthly income.

This has strengthened his belief that Milk Marque is right to get into processing. Purchasing Aeron Valley Cheese as a first step, should at least give producers some share in the more buoyant manufacturing sector.

"Despite the dairy trades protestations, I also believe farmers supplying other companies direct should be supporting Milk Marque in this," he says. "Unfortunately, it is hard to persuade them to join the co-op – they like theirlittle bonuses too much. Butany improvement in price Milk Marque can achieve should benefit producers across theboard and should be encouraged."

Despite the sharp drop in prices, at least the fall in margins has not been quite so severe. According to latest costings from Axient, margin over purchased feed for October was down a slightly more modest 4.8p at 17.4p/litre. Lower feed cost held the key, calculated at £117/t compared with £144/t a year ago.

Feed use, on the other hand, has actually increased. While Anthony is keen to improve yield from forage, he is even more keen to avoid a repeat of last year when milk output started to slip going into the autumn and never fully recovered until turnout.

"This year, we have tried to stay one step ahead of the cows," explains Anthony. "Supplemen-tary feeding started in August, bringing the cows in three hours before afternoon milking for an extra bite. This was gradually increased during September and October, with average yield holding steady at about 17 litres a day.

"Yes, we have fed more concentrate than this time last year. But we have maintained condition and kept them milking. The investment should pay off, as we go into the winter."

Both high and low yielding herds came in full time a week ago. The high yielders are getting a ration based on 22kg of grass silage, 19kg of maize silage, 10kg of potatoes, 1kg of soya, 2kg of rapemeal and 1.5kg of sugar beet pulp. The low yielders are getting more grass, but less maize and potatoes so they do not get over-fat.

As well as yield, milk constituents are also ticking along satisfactorily, with October butterfat at 4.45% and protein at 3.64%. Protein is particularly pleasing, with the 12-month rolling average of 3.53%, four points up on last years. Anthony believes the inclusion of 1.5kg a day of milled wheat last month – introduced because the maize silage was not ready – helped lift protein.

But in an era of depressed prices, the real emphasis at Dowrich is on maintaining milk quality. Bactoscans have been in Milk Marques A+ band for six months in a row now, averaging 33,000 in September and October and picking up a 0.2p/litre bonus.

But Anthony is concerned that it could breach the 50,000 threshold this month due to problems with the bulk tank washing equipment. The pump from the hot water tank was not functioning properly for several days, leading to colder wash temperatures and some poor Bactoscan results.

The real battle, however, is with somatic cell counts, which continue to stick stubbornly above the 150,000 premium threshold. "Every time we cull out a high cell count cow Sods law says that we replace it with another one," says Anthony.

Milk from known offenders is always diverted from the bulk tank and fed to calves. And this week has seen another five high cell count cows entered for the over-30-month scheme.

"But we would have to sell an awful lot of cows to get down to 150,000 average cell count just by culling," says Anthony. "We would then either have to replace them or lease out the surplus quota. With a maximum £311 available for culls, with replacements costing over £800 a go and with milk quota fetching less than 10p/litre the economics do not stack up."

Provide a good chance

On the plus side, there are more followers than usual due to enter the milking herd and this should provide a good chance to get rid of some of the higher cell count cows and replace them with home-reared heifers of known quality.

As for quota, Anthony is toying with the idea of leasing some as an insurance measure.

Recent analysis by consultant Norman Ford shows that the Dowrich herd is on target to hit its 1.19m litre quota in volume terms. But with average butterfats 14 points above the farms 4.22% base, an upward adjustment of about 2.5% – or 30,000 litres – is almost certain to be triggered.

The choice is whether to match this with leased in quota, or hope the excess is covered by the threshold. "At the moment we are being cautious, watching the cows performance with one eye and the quota market with the other."

Fodder beet comes off at Dowrich. Maximising yield from home-grown fodder is part of the plan to combat lower milk prices.