By Robert Davies
There is only one way to describe dairy herd management on one Vale of Glamorgan farm, and thats ultra simplicity.
Andrew Davies, who manages his familys 300 milkers, hopes the day will never come when UK farmers get the world price for milk. But if it does, he says his unit at The Garn, St Hilary, is well placed to cope.
Just as New Zealander Rex Patterson did in the 1950s, the Davies system is designed to produce reasonable yields from commercial cows using grass, self-feed silage and a small amount of concentrates.
Cow yields are not recorded. The aim is to limit inputs needed to fill the farms 1.4m litre quota and profitability is measured by just one thing, the year-end bottom line.
Until recently all replacements were bought in. Mr Davies read market reports to stay abreast of prices and then bought animals he thought good value for money.
Experience showed it was possible to exploit the hard work put in by producers keen on improving the genetic merit of their herds.
"Because we depend so much on forage, we have not been using the full genetic potential of many of the cows, but moving away from flat rate concentrate use to push for higher yields would complicate the system.
"We prefer to run all cows in milk together on paddocks on each side of a good concrete road and just feed a small amount of a mix of home-grown cereal and protein balancer in the parlour."
Fresh calvers get an extra 2kg/day to stop them milking off their backs too much and to get them back in calf. It has been relatively easy to find good commercial heifers likely to stay fertile despite the rigors of a grazing season which can extend from the end of February to December.
Mr Davies believes regular monthly visits from a first-class contract feet trimmer have also enhanced longevity.
He has now decided to breed some replacements, in the belief that the market price of heifers will rise steeply. He considered that AI was too expensive, so he bought two bulls at a dispersal sale.
The auctioneer described them as bulls for intensive finishing, and he paid only £320 for the two. Later, he discovered they were pedigree animals. But their papers, like those of registered cows bought because the price was right, ended up in the bin. The bulls and a Limousin run with the herd.
Calves are bucket reared on whole milk. Depending on the season they are either housed on dry feed and silage or grazed after weaning. Black-and-white heifers judged unsuitable for bulling simply join beef sired heifers and castrated bull calves in a beef finishing unit on another of the familys four farms.
Mr Davies can understand why some herd managers are keen on detailed recording, improving cow yields and optimising margin/cow or margin/litre. But he, his two brothers and father, Tudor, believe the best way to make money from cows is to keep everything simple.
"There are some good consultants around, who would probably try to get us to change. But we see no point in paying a consultant to advise us how to make more money by spending more. I am a great believer in having a gut feeling about what system is best for them.
"Having a fresh pair of eyes looking at management can be useful, but I sometimes wonder what has happened to traditional farming instinct."
The principle certainly worked well for Tudor Davies, who began work as a farm labourer and built his familys 404ha (1000-acre) business starting from a rented smallholding.
Andrew Davies accepts that milk producers will need to be resilient to survive. Many in his area have already quit and his work as chairman of Glamorgan NFU has shown him that others feel under pressure.
He is convinced the industry must fight to maintain, or even increase, milk consumption and he would like two or three strong, market-oriented regional co-operative marketing groups with processing facilities.
But he does not support co-operation for co-operations sake and was unhappy with Milk Marque philosophy. He estimates by selling to Golden Vales Bridgend creamery, herd income since deregulation has been £250,000 higher than it would have been supporting the co-op. *
Moving away from flat rate concentrate feeding would complicate the simple system in use at The Garn, says Andrew Davies.
• Concentrate parlour fed.
• Long grazing season.
• Calves on whole milk.