13 November 1998

Set fair & nine months to go

By Jessica Buss

DIFFICULTIES with slow grass growth and weeds this summer have failed to dampen Simon Paddons enthusiasm about converting to organic milk production.

Management successes include; white clover taking well in grazing swards, high production from red clover silage swards, rotational grazing increasing yield from forage, and moving the calving block to begin in January.

Having been in organic conversion for 18 months, Mr Paddon, Cheriton Fitzpaine, Tiverton, Devon, is still convinced organic milk production is right for his business.

Production from red clover swards has been impressive, yielding well above his expectations. Analysis is also good, showing first and second-cut at 19.6% crude protein and third-cut is 14.6% crude protein.

Its possible that a buffer of silage will soon be available to allow an increase in cow numbers, says Mr Paddon. Since organic conversion cow numbers have gradually reduced from 75 to 65 to allow for lower forage yields.

But despite better than expected forage yields, one 2.4ha (6-acre) field has been more difficult to crop. The weed orache swamped out a previous maize crop and did the same to a clover sward drilled under peas this year.

"We arent allowed to spray weeds, so after taking a cut of pea silage the land was fallowed and worked over frequently. Then we drilled a red clover sward in early September, but that was eaten by slugs. We still need to find something that will overcome weeds."

Following an early turnout in spring this year, wet summer weather saw grass growth slow on heavy clay soils. Lack of muck, which was still composting, compounded concerns.

"We couldnt put on nitrogen to grow grass and concentrates were too expensive with a milk price of 14p a litre." Production fell and 100,000 litres of quota have been leased out; more than Mr Paddon expected to lease out. But he believes that it wasnt worth pushing yields with high leasing prices.

"However, next spring it will be different because by July our milk price will be higher, at about 29p a litre, so we can justify buying concentrates to maintain yields in summer."

Although he will have to remain within organic guidelines when fully converted, concentrate use is already low – averaging 560kg a cow for a 5600-litre yield. This has been helped by rotational grazing which has seen yield from forage increase to 4500 litres a cow.

Once organic, he can feed 650kg of permitted non-organic concentrates a cow as well as organic feeds such as wheat. In the longer term, he hopes to increase yields to 6000-6500 litres a cow.

But he already plans to keep feeding simple. In the past, up to three straights have been fed. But he plans delegate concentrate sourcing to Mole Valley Farmers which is producing a blend which includes only permitted feeds, and add organic wheat. That will allow more time to focus on changes still being made and herd husbandry.

There are still many management changes to make before conversion is complete. In the next nine months Mr Paddon has to; dry off cows without antibiotics, try feeding only permitted concentrates to fresh calvers from calving in January, reduce antibiotic use by improving husbandry and test a new calf rearing system to meet organic standards.

"This winter when cows are dried off antibiotic dry cow therapy cannot be used." Cows will be fed on straw to dry them up for a few days, before turning them out to grass, watching for mastitis.

He also wants to reduce antibiotic use in milking cows. He will consider alternative treatments, to save on discarding milk for long periods following antibiotic use and improving husbandry to minimise clinical mastitis.

Cows now block calve in spring and will be dry, giving a break in milking this winter, and allowing management to focus on different tasks at different times of year.

When cows start calving, Mr Paddon will try a new calf rearing system to meet organic guidelines. He has three options; feed with whole milk twice-a-day for nine weeks, suckle them on cows, or take them to his contract rearer with some barren cows to be reared.

Next spring, he will try some cows on whole milk and colostrum, but may keep a proportion on milk replacer for ease of management.

Mr Paddon admits that it has been a sensitive time for the dairy units profitability and is pleased to have free-range broilers which are compatible with organic philosophy to support the farm during conversion.

A new poultry shed is currently being built to increase output by 50%.

Set in a box

ORGANIC CONVERSION

Clover swards successful.

Difficulties with weed control.

Must dry off cows without antibiotics soon.

Calf rearing under review.

PROGRESS REPORT

&#8226 Clover swards successful.

&#8226 Difficulties with weed control.

&#8226 Herd management changes.