Systems go head-to-head
How do conventional and
organic dairy systems
compare? Emma Penny
found out on two very
different Devon farms
HIGH quality stock and feed, coupled with technical excellence are essential factors for both conventional and organic dairying. But for both systems, being prepared to change is also vital, as is financial appraisal before launching into changes, producers concluded after attending a conventional v organic meeting on two farms near Axminster, Devon.
The day, organised by Axient, was designed to draw out similarities and differences between the two systems, says consultant Norman Ford.
"Most producers perception is that theres no link between the two systems, but they have everything in common. Both require the same business and management skills, they just produce to a different set of standards.
"Organic production is just another way to make money supplying a different market.
"Everything that applies to good production on one unit also applies on the other – the two farms arent as different as many producers think."
Both the Turners and Satterleys are taking steps to maintain profitability, says Axients Tim Archer. "The latest price fall will result in an £8000 drop in income on the average dairy farm. To protect profit you must be prepared to change, whether its by increasing production or going organic."
Selling more milk year-on-year is the goal for the Turner family and their 157-cow conventional dairy herd at Manor Farm.
The family aims to increase yields by 500 litres this year to 8500 litres. This policy has been pursued since 1995, when they decided to expand production from 6600 litres a cow, says Leslie Turner.
"We needed to boost profitability. Increasing cow numbers would have meant building, but we could increase cow yields within current constraints."
However, the family did invest in the parlour, going from an 8:16 to a 16:16 direct line with automatic cow identification and weighing – a vital component since cows are fed to yield, says son Andrew.
The new parlour has also increased milking speed, now up to about 75 high yielding cows an hour, he says.
Quota is purchased each year, a policy which will continue as long as it can be paid off before quotas are removed, he adds. About 200,000 litres are also leased each year.
Mr Ford says the Turners herd, which is mostly autumn calving, is particularly successful at winter production. Axient figures show cows are predicted to yield 9000 litres or more during winter, but this falls once cows are turned out to grass when they tend to under-perform.
Andrew reckons that last years poor spring performance was due to grass being low in sugars. While grass is currently an important part of production, and high levels of N – about 310kg/ha (250 units/acre) – are used to support this, he is considering increasing buffer feeding of maize silage.
Mr Ford believes weather and early turnout are contributing factors. "Grass with a lot of N can unbalance diets. Buffer feeding maize might help, but its difficult to balance winter diets and spring grass."
White clover is being introduced at Manor Farm to increase pasture palatability, and will have no effect on the amount of N applied, says Andrew.
The family is keen to overcome the spring drop in production with increased buffer feeding, but think that the 500 litre/cow increase they are pursuing will come from better genetics, he adds.
"We run a herd with average genetics but with above average performance. But we can see the benefits of better genetics in heifers already."
While bulls are selected primarily on type – aiming for 2.5 – PIN value is also important, with a bottom limit of PIN95 £100 set for selection.
Converting to organic production could help sustain profitability for David and Kate Satterley on their 80-cow dairy unit at Lower Bruckland Farm.
It also meets Mr Satterleys motivation to have a sustainable, low cost system with good cow welfare, says Mr Ford. "But profitability is vital – currently, organic systems are four times more profitable than conventional dairying."
The Satterleys started conversion in June last year on 69ha (170 acres), with a further 24ha (60 acres) further away from the farm starting conversion in May.
Mr Satterley believes staggering conversion is important. "A 75%:25% split is better than converting all at once."
Because no bag fertiliser is allowed, pastures have been oversown with clover – and in one field, sheep have been used to spread and tread clover seed. This has worked well, despite there being plenty of grass, which might out-compete clover.
While some pastures appeared to be dominated by clover, Axient consultant Phillip Moore says this is desirable. "Where clover ground cover is 20% by eye theres probably only about 5% dry matter there.
"Clover can fix up to 200kg N/ha – meaning the 40% of dairy farmers currently using less than that could use clover without any risk. Its also more consistent than grass alone."
Mr Satterley has overcome bloat concerns by giving cows limited access to fields with an abundance of clover. "Initially, theyre in and out of a field within an hour."
Hes had no problems feeding clover silage and last year made both red and white clover silages, neither of which required an additive.
Current annual yield at Lower Bruckland is just over 5000 litres, with 3400 litres of that from forage, and 2200 litres from grazed forages.
Mr Ford says the potential yield a cow from forage is just as high under an organic system, although there may be a lower stocking rate. "Its important to match the system to the acres available – you cant buy organic forage as easily as on a conventional system."
Mr Satterley admits that organic production is a steep learning curve. "You also have to rely on good husbandry once converted."
Mr Moore adds that for producers considering converting, some dairies now offer an in conversion price which is slightly higher than the conventional milk price. But he also warns that as the market matures it will become like all others. "A 4.2p/litre price drop takes organic production income back to conventional levels so it is quite sensitive."
But Mr Satterley adds that the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-Operatives new contract with Sainsbury offers a set price of 29.5p/litre for five years.
Accurate prediction of production, and the fact that it is marketed as a different product helped secure the deal, adds Mr Ford. *
• Good management vital.
• Business skills essential.
• Little difference overall?
Area farmed (ha) 156 93
– grass (ha) 142 79
– maize (ha) 14 –
– barley (ha) – 14
Cows 157 75
Other cattle 180 85
Sheep – 80
(m litres) 1.25 0.38
Yield/cow (litres) 7999 5137
Cell count 116 126
Nitrogen use (kg/ha) 222 –
Concentrate/cow (t) 1.98 0.85
MOPF (£/cow) 1220 769
MOPF (p/litre) 15.25 14.97