11 June 1999

Topping weeds can cut value…

By Marianne Curtis

PARANOIA about grassland weeds may be leading to unnecessary effort and a loss of feeding value through topping pastures, grazing consultant Paul Bird told producers at a Devon and Cornwall dairy business development meeting at Peter Wastenages Tidwell Barton Farm, Exeter.

At the farm, grazing is managed in a 24-hour, 35-40 day rotation with 168 cows and 140 youngstock on 88ha (220 acres). Grass is supplemented with 40ha (100 acres) of forage peas. Land is sandy and susceptible to drought.

Converting to organic milk production, Mr Wastenage is concerned about thistles and controls them by routinely topping pastures following grazing.

"It is dangerous to top in a droughty area, because valuable feed is lost," said Mr Bird.

But defending against drought by lighter grazing is not recommended. It is important to maintain grass quality by grazing tight, even in dry conditions.

Forage peas provide much needed summer feed when the drought sets in. With land IACS registered, there is the additional bonus of £350/ha (£140/acre) for growing peas.

Another dominant legume on the farm is clover. "When we set-stocked we couldnt keep clover on the farm. Since we moved to rotational grazing, it has been rife," said Mr Wastenage.

But Mr Bird believes there is no cause for concern with 40% clover pasture. "Clover will be contributing considerably to these cows 25-litre average."

Controversy reigned over whether concentrates should be fed. "Of the 25 litre average, 23 litres comes from grazing. Feeding concentrates in May and June is a waste of time," said Mr Bird.

But several producers at the meeting argued that feeding concentrates now kept yields up later in the summer, allowing them to take advantage of a higher milk price.

One group member added that it was difficult to achieve good yields in July and August if cow body reserves were depleted because concentrates had been withheld earlier in the grazing season.

Open to criticism in West Country

OPENING up your farm for discussion and criticism from fellow producers may seem daunting, but that is what members of a Devon and Cornwall dairy business development group are doing.

Run by Duchy College lecturer Sharon Byles and grazing consultant Paul Bird, the group meets every month to discuss comparative farm profit, issues affecting dairy businesses and grazing matters.

Work set and completed as part of the group contributes to an NVQ level 4 in farm business management from the college. The course is funded by the European Social Fund.

"We aim to give more confidence to producers, which helps them to run their businesses and to be more in control when challenging other professionals," says Ms Byles.

Niche milk lines are answer

ENSURING a secure position in the milk market means getting involved in processing or producing a niche product, says Devon milk producer and meeting host Peter Wastenage.

And his sentiment was echoed by other group members.

Achieving that security means converting to organic milk production believes Mr Wastenage. He was using less fertiliser each year, so it was just a small step to stop using it altogether. Where to market the milk, however, poses a dilemma.

"Im still deciding whether to continue selling through Milk Marque or switch to the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-op which markets 80% of the UKs organic milk."

Criteria used by group members to select particular milk outlets varied. One herd manager admitted putting finance first, saying that Unigate netted him £20,000/yr more that MM.

Others remained fiercely loyal to co-operatives. Although there was temptation for one Cornish producer to sell to Unigate which had a plant nearby, he was glad to have stayed with MM for logistical reasons when the Unigate plant later closed.

Adding value was the key for producer Tim Wall, who is involved with the Torridge Vale Group, which produces its own clotted cream and has invested considerably in marketing expertise.

Another producer agreed that strong branding was key to gaining bargaining power with supermarkets. Forming a joint venture with a cheese company has enabled him to achieve this and bridge the marketing knowledge gaps.