16 October 1998

Four-0 brings optimism

Birthday celebrations at

Dowrich coincide with a

more optimistic mood. After

all, things certainly cant

get much worse, the Lees

tell Tim Relf

A FORTIETH birthday is traditionally a time to take stock and look forward.

And, as Anthony Lee reached the milestone last week, the first green £ devaluation in nearly three years took place, upping support payments by 1.75% and bringing hopes of an upturn in farming.

At the same time, Milk Marque was investing further in cheesemaking facilities, a lift of the beef export ban looked ever more likely and sterling was weakening.

Octobers milk cheque at Dowrich should show a price increase, after a September figure of 18.22p/litre. That, hopefully, was the "bottom of the trough", says Anthony. The lag effect, however, may mean key margins, which fell to September, show further falls over the coming months

Boosting output is now a key priority with the herd size having fallen to 230 head. "Our costs have not come down in line. You cant employ two-thirds of a man or half a diet feeder."

The plan is to hang on to some of the cows for an extra lactation which might otherwise have been culled. Better this, says Anthony, than sell them on the over-thirty-month-scheme where they make under £300. Thats less than half their value before the BSE crisis broke and such beasts were barred from entering the food chain.

The downside is that older cows can mean higher cell counts. But this is not a foregone conclusion. While August milk followed the "logical" pattern of increasing in the older animals, September data showed the count of fifth-calvers and older, at 383,000, to be lower than of fourth-calvers.

Expansion will be facilitated by the bumper silage crop, with analysis showing an excellent first-cut quality.

Changes, though, have been made in a bid to optimise grass use. While the yield from all forage in the year to September was 3094 litres – compared with 2524 litres in the previous 12 months – the contribution grazed grass made has altered little.

High-yielding animals are now given silage before morning turnout so they eat less wet, lower-quality field grass. The stock is also now put out following the afternoon milking, by which time theyre hungrier and tuck in to the drier, more palatable and productive grass.

Wheat has also been introduced to the diet for its starch. Potatoes usually provide this – but the crop, two-thirds of which has been lifted, has been sent for grading or cold storage. Yields of around 18t/acre – and market prices of over £110/t – have also been encouraging. "A real lifesaver," according to Anthony.

Feeding wheat to the cows reduced milk butterfat levels. Good news, says Anthony, with milk price based on the protein content and quota cost linked to butterfat levels. "We get paid 1.88p per 1% of butterfat. But to lease quota costs, effectively, 2p per 1% of butterfat. So why chase butterfat?"

The farm will be home to more stock after Nov 30, when the calf slaughter scheme is abolished. The plan is to keep the 50 black-and-white bull calves born each year which, up to now, have gone on the scheme at nearly £70 apiece. This policy, though, will be continually reviewed. "Sometimes the first loss can, after all, be the least loss," says Anthony.

"But my gut instinct is to rear them. We can give them home-produced milk which could be over-quota and carry a super-levy charge of about 25p/litre. If we sold the milk, wed only get about 10p/litre for it, after deducting lease quota cost."

The alternative is to offer them on to a flooded market, where they could be worthless. The value of Dowrichs Continental calves will also take a hit, and are expected to fall from the £150/head made for the better ones in the past. "The farmers who block-calve in the spring will be the ones who are really hit." The disappearance of the scheme will, however, be better news for people who fatten cattle. "Theyll see a big drop in the cost of their raw material."

The potential problem with rearing dairy calves, says Anthony, is the uncertainty as to what they will ultimately be worth. The disappearance of the scheme, which has taken more than 500,000 calves this year, could mean a flood of poor-quality beef on the market.

One new arrival has already been seen at Dowrich. Bonny, a sheepdog pup, was Anthonys 40th birthday present from his wife Elizabeth. "A working pet," he calls it. "But at the moment its more playful than professional." &#42

Somatic cell counts (000)

Aug 98 Sept 98

First calvers 126 87

Second calvers 153 103

Third calvers 196 174

Fourth calvers 206 542

Fifth calvers

(and over) 424 383

FARM FACTS

&#8226 A 235ha (580-acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher.

&#8226 Dairy herd of 220 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year.

&#8226 Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows.

&#8226 Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land.

&#8226 Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing.

Silage analysis (first cut)

This year Last year

DM (%) 27.7 22.3

D-value 70.2 61.0

ME (MJ/kgDM) 11.2 9.8

CP (%) 15.8 14.5

Changes in key margins (to September)

1996/97 1997/98 % change

MOPF/cow (£) 1114 982 -12

MOPF/litre (p) 20.77 17.57 -15

MOPF/ha (£) 1885 1646 -13