2 March 2001

IT CAN PAY TO THINK SMALL WHEN TIMES ARE DIFFICULT

With little spare cash

around this year, producers

should be considering

smaller investments that

can make a difference to

business efficiency, as

Suzie Horne finds out

STAFF and cow flow are two of the most important areas where dairy investment will pay off in 2001.

These may not represent the biggest areas of potential spending, but time invested in planning and relatively small improvements will maintain and improve efficiency, says Ed Morgan, of the Laurence Gould Partnership.

"There is a limited availability of good staff. Many people are getting out of dairying and often their herdsmen and women are taking the opportunity to exit with them, so there is not a big pool of people looking for jobs.

"Improving working conditions has to be a priority. Practical everyday jobs can be made so much easier in many cases with the addition of backing gates, drafting facilities and automatic washdown," he says.

These things are even more important when increasing cow numbers and expecting the same staff to cope with expansion, says Mr Morgan, who is based at the firms Worcester office.

As well as improving working conditions, better cow flow will improve herd efficiency too and cut costs/litre. "Cow flow influences parlour throughput and is a big issue. So often we ask cows to do a 90 degree turn in and out of the parlour, which takes time as well as being bad for their feet."

Many farms will have limited opportunity for major improvements here, but time spent assessing what can be done may offer some solutions, he advises.

Setting aside time to discuss changes with staff, particularly with reference to the hours or shifts they are expected to work, is also important.

"Involve them in the business as much as possible. Plan their working time so that they know well in advance when they are expected to be at work and when their time off will be. Doing it at breakfast each week is no good," says Mr Morgan.

"Look at what you are asking them to do – where is the incentive for them? The biggest danger when increasing cow numbers is that it could just put one thing on top of another for staff.

"Drafting a couple of cows out of a small herd for AI and having to jump out of the pit to do it may not be a problem, but when milking 200 cows these small issues can become big problems.

Drafting gate

"You need good facilities for drafting. A bar in the pit to operate a drafting gate can save a great deal of time and stress."

The ability to invest in more cows is governed not necessarily by the price of the stock, which at present is relatively high, but the farms most limiting resource. This could be land, buildings, quota or staffing.

Breeding policy and the number of heifers being retained should be reviewed when herd expansion is planned. There could be options for freeing up youngstock land by contracting out heifer rearing, or renting land from neighbours who are getting out of dairying, explains Mr Morgan.

Farm assurance is an area in which many producers have had to invest recently. While most farms are now compliant, there may be some with outstanding requirements to fulfil. These are under the threat of bonuses being withheld until this work is done.

For those increasing herd size and needing a larger bulk tank, they should consider whether extra capacity may be needed for further expansion in future and to give them the option to go to every other day collection, suggests Mr Morgan.

Quota could be a good buy now, so keep an eye on the market. However, he acknowledges that many advisers are already doubtful that the UK can hit quota next year. Therefore, some producers are resisting the temptation of current low quota prices in the hope of a further drop once the new milk years production is established.

The biggest investment – a new parlour – should probably only be considered when the options for adapting existing facilities have been explored or exhausted, he advises.

Second-hand parts

"I would question the need for expensive new high tech parlours. Could you extend the pit and bring in second-hand parts from another unit? That would speed up milking times and reduce stress on staff and cows.

"When expanding herds people often just think about a simple multiplication effect. However, it is not always so simple – larger herds require better planning and cow flow systems. Ask yourself whether the current parlour layout could it be improved," he says.

Entrance and exits are crucial. As well as eliminating turns where possible, doorways should be at least two or three cows wide to reduce bottlenecks, says Mr Morgan. Dividing bars approaching the parlour can also help.

The UK would do well to take a leaf from the New Zealand book of dairy design, he says. "There, at least as much thought is given to layout and its implications for cow flow as to planning the building itself and the choice of equipment." &#42

WORTHY INVESTMENTS

&#8226 Easing stress of staff.

&#8226 Time spent planning.

&#8226 Speeding up milking.