6 September 2002

Simple system calls tune

Improved quality of life

without sacrificing returns

is the dream of many dairy

producers. At a recent

open day, south-west correspondent John Burns

discovered how this is

achieved at a unit on the

Devon/Cornwall border

BUYING all replacements, growing fodder crops requiring little attention and careful planning of farm layout make for simple management on one south-west dairy farm.

Brian Colwill insisted maintaining his familys quality of life must be the key factor when making decisions about his farm and his son Paul agreed.

That is why they run a simple system for the 320 dairy cows, currently averaging about 7700 litres, on their 160ha (400-acre) Welsford Farm, near Hartland.

All replacements are bought in as calved heifers, so the only cattle on the farm are cows in milk or dry. Brian has an eye for a good cow. "If she looks as though shell do for our system then shell do," he said. Paul added that they dont worry about pedigrees and registrations.

For a year-round calving herd, cows are in remarkably uniform condition. This is despite them being on a flat rate total mixed ration topped up in the parlour, with daytime grazing of high quality swards for much of the year, said Kite consultant Mike Bray. "This shows cows are of high genetic merit." Not bad for cows bought by eye, the visitors to a recent Kite open day at Welsford Farm concluded.

The Colwills are not unduly worried about the risk of buying in disease. They balance this against the cost and complications of home-rearing replacements, said Paul. "We have never had any major disease problems. The alternative of rearing our own replacements would need extra buildings and require more labour. We buy all year round, so price fluctuations average out."

About 50 heifers are bought each year – a replacement rate of less than 20%, which is impressive according to Kite Consulting managing director John Allen. "Many herds now have replacement rates of about 30%, so this is exceptionally good."

Paul admitted that last year an unusually large number of cows had to be culled because of undetected bull infertility. AI is now used and yields are expected to rise because more precise knowledge of expected calving dates will allow better dry cow management.

Cows are housed in a light, airy shed with sea sand-bedded cubicles of generous proportions. The sand has proved far cheaper than straw and has probably reduced mastitis incidence, believes Brian.

Several feeding systems have been tried at Welsford Farm. The Colwills grow good quality grass and make high quality grass silage, but they still graze as much as they can by day, topping cows up overnight with a mixed ration throughout the grazing period. Silage quantity is carefully controlled so most of it has been eaten by 11pm.

This ensures cows have an appetite when they go out after morning milking, said Paul. "Theyre not bawling hungry, but they dont hang about on the way to grazing." However, this year sward height has been less than ideal for maximum intake during the 9-10 hour daily grazing period.

Access to fields for cows and machinery is along wide, well-metalled tracks. Simplicity has been achieved by careful thought about every detail of buildings, yards and field layout. There is also room to expand without adverse impact on the landscape.

The herd is kept in two permanent groups regardless of calving date. Having two groups avoids cows spending many hours a day standing in the collecting yard, speeds walking to and from fields and avoids excessive sward damage in wet conditions.

Fields are about 10ha (25 acres) each. They are not sub-divided for grazing, nor are they grazed in strict rotation. Cows go wherever grass is longest. Grass quality is maintained by cutting most fields at least once during the year. The 28ha (70-acre) spring grazing area is freshened up by a later cut for round bale silage used for dry cows.

As well as grass silage, rations contain forage maize which is on trial for the second year running. But despite being sown on May 8 in an ideal seed-bed, this years crop is seriously under-developed. That raises doubts about maize on the farm which has a high rainfall and is exposed to Atlantic gales.

Kite consultant Chris Laycock suggested that with wheat at £65/t, maize had to yield well to compete. Paul felt wheat and straw may be cheaper than maize, though it needed more management, tending to complicate a simple system.

A crop which thrives at Welford Farm is fodder beet, said Paul. "Milk protein shoots up from 3.2% to 3.35% within a week of adding beet to the ration."

Current rolling average annual milk production is 7683 litres/cow, but once the effect of last years infertility has been worked out, Kite Consultancy expects production to climb steadily to 9000 litres/cow by next spring.

The Colwills provisional five-year plan is to add another 100 cows to the herd and aim for 9250 litres/cow annual production, says Paul. "If we expand it wont be for the sake of efficiency, it will be for personal achievement and pleasure. But it will mean more investment in housing and possibly the parlour, and we will not make that unless milk prices improve." &#42

SIMPLE DAIRYING

Buy replacements.

Plan farm layout.

Easy forage crops.

&#8226 Buy replacements.

&#8226 Plan farm layout.

&#8226 Easy forage crops.