26 April 1996

STARTING FROM SCRATCH PAYS

Thinking of starting a dairy unit on a completely new site? Jessica Buss describes how a Dorset company has done just that. Teamwork is the secret of its success

Denhay Farms director Simon Hill cites clear objectives and tight control as essential elements in a successful development plan.

INVESTING in a new dairy unit is a major decision. But when planned carefully it can benefit cow performance and staff morale.

This is the message of Simon Hill, farms director of Denhay Farms, West Dorset. Between November 1993 and September 1994 Denhay Farms invested £540,000 in a new 350-cow unit at a cost of £1540 a cow place.

The greenfield site replaced three worn-out existing units where two of the herdsmen were due to retire.

"The project was financed through the farm overdraft and the aim is to return to a normal cashflow within three years," he says. To date the business is well on target to achieve this.

Mr Hill claims that such an investment must take account of businesses strengths, including the production cycle of the Denhay business (see box below). The new unit allowed them to keep an extra 50 cows and it could be sited away from the cheesehouse – so pleasing customers and satisfying their demand for cheese.

Milk protein has increased by 0.3% to 3.5% already due to new feeding regime offering high starch, mixed forage rations fed along a central feed passage. Easy buffer feeding throughout the summer maintains energy intake.

"It is now possible to produce one kg of cheese from less than nine litres of milk," claims Mr Hill.

Moreover, yields increased by only a moderate 300 litres a cow in the first 12 months in the new unit. Feet trouble caused by the new concrete could have affected milk yields, he reasons. A cubicle design problem also affected cow comfort but 18 months spent moving head rails has solved this.

Mr Hill claims that solid objectives, planning and a strong project manager are essential to any new units success. The project manager must be a good stickler for cost control and communication to ensure plans and budgets are adhered to.

In the early stages the National Rivers Authority (NRA), planning authority and bank attended site meetings. "First of all we asked the NRA to look at the greenfield site," he says. "We also used a consultant to crystallise ideas and put down firm plans."

Builders were chosen at an early stage for these were well known to the company. They helped establish quality standards and draw up plans.

Mr Hill says it is also important to involve the work-force in the planning. "It helps motivation and avoids costly late planning changes," stresses Mr Hill.

"Our team of three herdsmen was central to our success," he says. "It is a skilled and motivated team and they have all attended weekly meetings over the first year to solve inevitable day-to-day problems."

To make efficient use of this skilled work force the aim was for one man to be able to milk the whole herd in under two and a half hours. "We have always found it difficult to find skilled people so wanted to give them enough time to spend with the cows, to keep records and plan breeding policies," he says.

It was decided to install a 24:48 Dairymaster parlour without automatic cluster removers but with automatic feeding and cow identification. This design was chosen because they thought the parlour more advanced than others available at the time, he claims.

"The parlour was installed in four days and milking 150 cows a man hour has been possible from the first days of installation. Mastitis has been minimal and mainly occurred in cows immediately post-calving. Some initial problems with plant cleaning were overcome."

Slurry storage and disposal was a major concern and required substantial investment. It had to take account of the heavy soils on the farm and be acceptable to the NRA. A large 70m by 8m by 3m (233ft by 27ft by 10ft) slatted tank was installed under the building. It is stirred by a propeller and emptied by pump and has justified its expense, says Mr Hill.

"The whole tank can be emptied in two days and with three months storage soil damage has been minimised."

Ventilation needed to be effective because toxic gases can be given off from the under-building slurry storage when it is emptied. Open ridges and spaced roof sheets provide adequate ventilation without allowing rain to come in.n


Denhay herds performance:

HerdHerd size Yield MOC £/cow

Denhay

(new unit)31765921302

Beerlands12761751259

Boarsbarrow12063251316

Meerhay15867231311

Northfield19563261284

Paul Chubb (left), Denhay herdsman, and Bob Cook, team leader, were fully involved in the planning and joined weekly trouble-shooting meetings in the first year. The aim: more time to observe, record and plan.

A clean slate meant Denhay Farm could design a dairy enterprise with plenty of space, light and air. The parlour milks 150 cows a man hour.