3 November 2000

SEASONAL SWITCH CUTS COSTS

A seasonal system with low

labour costs/litre but a good

return and lifestyle is the

way ahead at Bicton

College. John Burns reports

BICTON College in Devon is responding to low milk prices by increasing herd size from 115 autumn-calving cows averaging 8000 litres to 170 spring-calvers averaging 5500 litres, and eventually to 250 cows.

Dairy herd manager Robin Boaden explains the reasoning: "It all started with a decision that the dairy unit, and especially the parlour, needed investment to bring it up to scratch.

"We felt the investment envisaged could not be justified for only 115 cows, and in any case a bigger herd would be needed to keep down labour costs per litre. But it was soon obvious that to substantially increase herd size on the same system we would need more housing and silage storage as well as an expensive parlour and a lot of extra milk quota. Likely returns appeared to be too low to justify that level of investment."

Spring calving

So the only way ahead appeared to be a switch to spring calving, making maximum use of grazed forage, and forgetting high yields per cow.

Such a system had appealed to Mr Boaden ever since he spent two years milking in New Zealand, but he had always been wary of trying it at Bicton because of the sandy, drought-prone soil and consequent shortage of summer grazing. However, when the possibility of out-wintering cows was put into the equation the picture changed dramatically.

"We calculated we could access enough grazing for up to 250 cows and if we out-wintered them we wouldnt need to invest in extra accommodation.

"By grazing kale and feeding a much lower level of silage – a maximum of 5t a cow instead of 11t – we would not need extra silage storage, and by going for a lower yield system we would not need so much extra quota. Also the parlour needed for a lower-yield spring calving herd would not need to be so elaborate and costly."

Enjoyable career

Mr Boadens New Zealand experience and his regular participation in a dairy discussion group which focuses on low-cost production systems has brought home to him that milk production need not involve long hours of drudgery for low returns. And he and the college staff felt it was important to show students that milk production could be a worthwhile and enjoyable career.

"This past year it has been clear that young people are shying away from herdsmens jobs. Theyve heard theres no money in milk today and theyve experienced what its like trying to cut costs in the inherently high-cost systems that are the norm today. So were going for a seasonal system with low labour costs per litre but a good return and an attractive lifestyle for those providing the labour."

Bictons safety valve on summer feed for the milkers will be whole-crop cereal silage. If there is enough grazing and silage in stock in July then the cereals will be left for the combine. If not, they will be made into silage.

"Our grazing management will ignore the need to make silage for winter feeding. The cows will be given all they need and only if there is any surplus grass will it be made into silage."

Expensive winter milk

Costings and budgets on the proposed scheme highlighted just how expensive it was to produce winter milk and how correct it was to move to spring calving in response to low milk prices.

The budgets (see table) show the reduction in costs by moving to spring calving, wintering outside, and a lower cost system based on grazed forage. Those who continue to provide the bulk of the nations winter milk cannot avoid most of the costs which Bicton will be saving. And that needs to be taken on board by those who hope to buy winter milk in the next few years and further ahead. &#42

Robin Boaden will be keeping more cows as a key part of reaching to low milk prices.

Old system details:

Slurry scraping costed at 2 hours a day at £10 an hour.

Slurry spreading 14cu metres a day, taking 1 hour at £15/hour.

Mucking out three times, total 24hrs telescopic loader and driver at £15/hour plus 2 FWD tractors and trailers and drivers, total 24 hrs at £12.75/hour.

New system details:

Collecting yard slurry hosed into dirty water system. Extra water and electricity for pumping out estimated at £500.

Slurry from feed area during early December, all of February and to mid-March total one load a day for 60 days. Total 30 hours at £15/hour.

Scraping total 30 hours at £10/hr.

Bicton College dairy herd


Actual at March 1999 Budget at March 2002

Cows 115 170

Av yield (litres) 7,998 5,500

Conc use (kg) 1,284 500

Stocking rate (LU/ha) 2.1 2.5*

*excluding kale and stubble turnips

Wintering costs

Cost grass silage (£) 9458 17,476

(4t/cow at £20.56/t) (5t/cow at £20.56/t)

Cost maize silage (£) 17,079 –

(7t/cow at £17.44/t) (none)

Bedding straw cost (£) 8,625 –

(2.5t/cow at £30/t) (none)

Feed straw (£) – 525

(none) (15t at £35/t)

Slurry scraping and

spreading (£) 3,250 750

Mucking out (£) 972 –

Cost of extra electricity – 500

water washdown and

dirty water spreading (£)

8ha kale and stubble – 4168

turnips (£)

Total cost (£) 36,343 22,919

Cost /cow (£) 316 135

Cost/litre (p) 3.95 2.45