George Perrott sees a bright future for the organic dairy enterprise at Clinton Devon Farms, which is why he is eager to maximise the health and profitability of the two 250-cow herds.
That goal hasn’t been made easy this year though. A lack of decent summer grazing means that both spring and autumn-calving cows have been on full winter rations since July – 3kg cereals, 8-10kg whole crop, plus grass silage.
“Normally we’d be feeding half to two-thirds of that amount during the summer. There just wasn’t enough grazing available this year,” Mr Perrott says.
Milk yields have been relatively unaffected though, with cows averaging 6500-6750 litres a year. However, protein levels at 3.1% are disappointing, he says.
“We could include a more expensive high-protein feed, but with milk price still at 32.5p/litre and high-protein feed at £600/t, the margin’s just blown away. We’ve decided instead to get some extra protein by just feeding the clover silage. Theoretically, the cows aren’t being worked as hard, so it should be OK.”
Better -than-expected yields from the arable enterprise (see below) have provided a valuable boost to the amount of feed available this autumn. Mr Perrott hoped to get 750t of grain from the 285ha (704 acres) of arable land, which should easily cover the 500-600t needed to feed the cows. “We actually got 900t, so there is even a bit left over that I can sell to a neighbouring farmer.”
Another area that has been the focus of attention recently is the ongoing threat from Johne’s disease, which can potentially have a significant financial impact on herds through lost output and early culling. About 50 of the farm’s 500 cows are affected by the disease, but Mr Perrott hopes to see this reduced in the near future.
He has recently purchased a 110-litre batch milk pasteuriser that will significantly reduce the risk of spreading Johne’s to healthy calves through infected milk or colostrum.
Yield t/ha (t/acre)*
The machine, which heats milk to 60C for 60 minutes, cost about £4500. While Mr Perrott expects the first electricity bill to be pretty high, he is adamant it is money well spent. “It’ll probably end up costing around the same to run as an equivalent-sized immersion heater, but it should virtually remove the risk of spreading infection to healthy calves through the milk. We’re also feeding a more consistent temperature milk to the calves, as well as a better-quality product.”
Use of the pasteuriser accompanies a rigorous system of identifying affected cows and at-risk calves with red ear tags and a branding a “J” on the rear. Any milk from cows with Johne’s is disposed of and affected cows will be taken out of the herd altogether, but some less-affected cows may be put to a Charolais bull.
Mr Perrott has dismissed vaccination against Johne’s, as he feels this masks the presence of the disease among animals and can sometimes lead to false-positive TB results in youngstock.
Management of youngstock has also been changed slightly this year after higher-than usual calf mortality was experienced when spring-born calves were turned out last season. “We tested for everything, but couldn’t really identify the main cause,” says Mr Perrott. “So this year we decided to keep all the spring calves housed through summer, which has been very successful – especially as there wouldn’t have been much grass for them to graze anyway.
“We’ve achieved the growth rates we wanted and much lower mortality, so I’m happy it was the right move.”
Under the stock management system, any cows close to calving are housed next to the dairy and fed 10kg milking cow ration, 1kg dry cow rolls and as much hay and straw as they can eat. Once calved, they go into the main herd after two to three days. The bull calves go straight to Exeter market – and are averaging just £10 a head – while heifer calves are put into batches of five, milk fed in huts and weaned at 12 weeks.
The shepherd helps to rear the calves, as more of his time has been freed up by a reduction in the sheep flock from 1300 to 750 ewes.
Arable yields surprise
Mr Perrott was pleasantly surprised with how well the arable crops yielded this harvest, after dry weather earlier in the year prompted fears that yields could have been down by up to one-third.
Yields across all of the farm’s 217ha (535 acres) of combined crops averaged 3.4t/ha (1.37t/acre) this year, which was just above last year’s 3.3t/ha (1.35t/acre) and slightly below 2008’s 3.4t/ha (1.39t/acre).
Winter wheat after three years of clover averaged 5.2t/ha (2.1t/acre), which was particularly impressive as half the area had been drilled in February.
“I still can’t figure out quite where the yields came from after such a bad growing season. It might be that we’re not trafficking the land as much, or the fact that the soil quality and organic matter is noticeably improving as we’re using more organic manures.”
Whatever the reason, Mr Perrott believes that the wheat-triticale-oats-three years of clover rotation recommended to him by the late Gary Lightfoot, an independent organic consultant, was definitely the right way to go and he has no plans to change it this coming season.
HLS on hold
Plans to join the Higher Level Stewardship scheme have been put on hold after a detailed environmental assessment revealed that the proposed options would be uneconomical. Mr Perrott said the amount of land that needed to be taken out of production far outweighed the potential scheme income.
Joining HLS would also have required the farm to set up a new five-year Organic Entry Level Scheme agreement. “I don’t want to get locked in for another five years,” he says.
Meanwhile, plans to build a new 24,000cu m dirty water storage and handling system are progressing, albeit more slowly than hoped.
“We had to apply for full planning permission and get a geological survey done,” Mr Perrott explains. “We should find out in the next week or so whether permission has been granted – the Parish council seem very keen on it, so fingers crossed. I reckon the system should save about 500 tanker trips a year through the village of Colaton Raleigh,” he adds.
The farm is also looking into setting around 50 acres aside for a solar power scheme. “We’re in talks with three companies at the moment, but it looks quite promising. We’re in the right part of the country and because the panels are 8-10ft off the ground, there’s still potential to graze animals beneath them.”