29 March 2002

High input, high yield

Converting to a high input

feeding system

increased milk yields by

4000 litres in two-and-a-

half years on one family-run

dairy unit in Dorset.

Hannah Velten reports

DILUTING high fixed costs at Northground Dairy, at West Chaldon, meant more bought-in concentrate use, allowing the pedigree herd to reach its milking potential.

Because of past capital investment the unit was carrying fixed costs associated with a high input herd, yet policy was maximising yield from forage with minimum bought-in concentrates.

Kite Consultings Mike Bray says the 200-head high genetic merit herd and the system – a 24-point rotary parlour, a mixer wagon, central feed passage and straw yards – was set up for high production. But cows were producing a herd average of 7000 litres a year.

The ration consisted of equal parts of maize and grass silage, wheat and a 40% protein pellet. "The potential was there for raising yields by increasing the amount and quality of bought-in concentrate," says Mr Bray.

In September 1999, a higher quality protein blend was introduced – including rapeseed meal, soya, palm kernal, dried sugar beet pulp and urea – designed specifically for a maize/grass-based ration. High yielders intakes rose to 25kg dry matter a day; the ration supplying 19% crude protein and 300MJ a day of metabolisable energy.

At that time, Unigate were offering the Growth Plus Scheme, with premiums on extra milk produced, so dairy manager, Nick Cobb, accepted the deal.

"But that winter, the herd was plagued with mastitis and high cell counts because of the high stocking rate in straw yards. We had to start milking three times a day just to keep to scheme targets because of the amount of unsaleable milk being dumped," says Mr Cobb.

It was decided that, throughout 2000, cows prone to mastitis and those with high cell counts would be culled, resulting in a 160-head herd. The calving pattern also changed from July-Christmas to all-year-round. In summer, cows were paddock grazed, they still received the total mixed ration in feeders and milking dropped back to twice a day.

When the herd was rehoused, the lower stocking density and culling regime allowed Mr Cobb to regain control over mastitis. Milking increased back to three times daily. NMR rolling yield averages for Oct 2000-2001 had risen to 11,000 litres a head, with 3.59% fat and 3.27% protein, making Northground Dairy the 19th highest yielding herd in the UK.

These high yields were achieved despite disruption in cow routine during building works at the unit in 2001. An additional shed was put up and straw yards were converted into sand cubicle housing. The accommodation switch to cubicles was due to a number of reasons, says Mr Bray.

"Because of the parlour and other investments, the number of cows milking had to be increased again to spread running costs. We also want to keep high yielders inside during summer to allow them to reach their milking potential."

But housing all year on straw is costly and labour intensive, says Mr Cobb. "During peak arable times, disruptions were caused by baling and hauling straw, and routines such as mucking out yards every three weeks."

Installing sand cubicles required considerably less capital than mattress cubicles. Soft builders sand is bought locally and it makes comfortable beds for cows, provides a sterile environment and requires little maintenance, he adds.

Head herdsman, Paul Crocker, believes cows are happier and much cleaner on sand, including teats and feet. Out of 185 milkers only one fresh calver has mastitis, he adds.

But changing from straw yards to a sand cubicle/slurry system has increased concerns about the impact of Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. "On the farms light soils, straw could have been heaped on fields until use. However, with no soils deeper than 40cm, slurry storage will become an issue," says Mr Bray.

David Cobb, Nicks father and third generation tenant, says the only option is for a slurry lagoon, as pumping sand/slurry into a tower would be too abrasive on machinery.

"To save on storage, we will also have to find a way to separate dairy washings from collecting yard slurry," he adds.

This year will see the herd expand further, to 300 cows, mainly through home-bred replacements and Nick Cobb believes average yields could hit 12,000 litres, without disruptions to cow routine. Quota has already been bought at 18p/litre or forward leased at 2.7p/litre in anticipation. He also hopes to reduce the current calving interval of 389 days.

Three 25t straights bins have been erected to allow the protein blend to be simplified and make the ration more flexible and cheaper, says Mr Bray. &#42

Sand cubicles are making comfortable bedding for the high-yielding herd, cost less than straw yards and have greatly reduced mastitis.

&#8226 Increase concentrate quality.

&#8226 Reach milking potential.

&#8226 Sand cubicles for comfort/reduced labour.

The decision to increase concentrate use, resulting in higher cow yields to dilute fixed costs at Northground Dairy, was taken by (right to left) David Cobb, Mickie Bray, Nick Cobb and Paul Crocker.